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The Story Behind the Story

How The Times decided to publish the accounts of 16 women who said they had been sexually mistreated and humiliated by Arnold Schwarzenegger.

October 12, 2003|John S. Carroll

The volcanic passions of the recall are largely spent, though we'll no doubt be feeling their effects for many years. Today, on this Sunday of relative calm, I'd like to tell you how the Los Angeles Times decided to publish the stories of 16 women who said they had been sexually mistreated and humiliated by Arnold Schwarzenegger.

I'll also tell you why we published the first of those articles a mere five days before voters went to the polls, a decision that has prompted an outpouring of campaign denunciations, talk-show rants and blistering e-mails.

Critics have accused the newspaper of malice toward Republicans and of collaboration with Gray Davis and the Democrats. It has been suggested that we cynically concealed the completed story for weeks before detonating it as a last-minute bomb. Some used the term "October surprise."

I'll begin this accounting with a bit of background: One of our goals is to do more investigative reporting. At the risk of offending still more readers, I'll say that if you're put off by investigative reporting, this probably won't be the right newspaper for you in the years to come.

Investigative skills were needed when Schwarzenegger announced for governor on Aug. 6. For years, he'd had a reputation in Hollywood as a man who treated women crassly. The gossip about him reached a peak after Premiere magazine published an article in March 2001 titled "Arnold the Barbarian."

Because Schwarzenegger had a chance of becoming our next governor, we decided on the day he entered the race to see whether this reputation was warranted. The examination was part of a broader look at all the leading candidates, covering their life histories, their stands on the issues, their personalities and their characters.

We assigned the task of investigating Schwarzenegger's reputation to two veteran reporters: Robert Welkos, who has covered Hollywood for half of his 25 years on the paper, and Gary Cohn, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1998 for investigative reporting at the Baltimore Sun.

They were joined by Carla Hall, a former Washington Post reporter who has covered news and features here for a decade, and many others, most notably Tracy Weber and Megan Garvey.

The undertaking was not easy. How do you find women who say they have been mistreated? How do you persuade them to talk? How do you determine whether they're telling the truth?

The reporters started by asking the paper's many Hollywood sources for names of possible victims. The names of other people who might have knowledge of Schwarzenegger's behavior were gleaned from the credits of his films.

Then the reporters began trying to find the women.

It is hard to overstate the amount of wasted time such work entails. People move from one town to another. Their last names change.

When strangers show up at their doors, they are suspicious.

When the subject of the story is mentioned, they say they're afraid of losing their jobs. They contemplate sharing their private humiliation with millions of readers, and their stomachs ache.

They say they'll think things over and call back. They don't.

Friends counsel them not to get involved.

When a woman finally does agree to tell her story, it must be verified.

Do details change from one interview to another? What do databases show about her background? Does she have a criminal record? Has she been sued?

Can she prove that she actually was employed where she says she was?

And where was Schwarzenegger at the time?

Will she allow her name to be used? If not, how about her occupation? Such discussions drag on and on.

When it's clear that her story holds together, the search for corroborating witnesses begins. This, again, requires database searches, phone calls, home visits and discussions over how much the paper can publish without putting a job at risk.

When all the reporting is done, her story still needs to be written. And then it must be integrated into a larger story including other women.

It was a daunting feat to get all this accomplished during the 62 days of Schwarzenegger's campaign, a year less time than we'd have to cover a normal gubernatorial race.

A critic has claimed that The Times actually finished the Schwarzenegger story long before the election.

"They had the story done two weeks ago," this critic said on national television. "And they should have published it when it was ready to go...."

The statement was, as the old editor's saying goes, "a good story, if true."

From our files, here is what really happened: On Sept. 15, a federal court ordered the election postponed. (The order was later reversed.) The next day at 1:35 p.m., I sent the following e-mail to the reporters working on the story:

"Yesterday, when we discussed your stories, I was concerned about the brief time frame we have for getting them reported and into the paper. The subsequent decision to postpone the election shouldn't be seen as a reason to slow down.

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