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Voters to LA Times: We don’t care!

Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez may have put it best. In explaining why his paper’s reports on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s groping of women appeared to have had little or no effect on the outcome of the recall election, he wrote on Wednesday: "First, if the plan was to knock him out, the stories would have run much sooner than they did, when they might have done some damage."

For good measure, Lopez labeled Governor-elect Schwarzenegger (try wrapping your mind around that phrase) "Der Gropenfuhrer," thus neatly conflating Arnold’s problem with women and his alleged youthful enthusiasm for Adolf Hitler.

It’s been quite a week for the LA Times, which last Thursday unleashed a long, front-page story reporting that six women had complained about the pawing and humiliation Schwarzenegger had directed their way at various times over the course of a quarter-century, most recently in 2000. The story pushed other women to come forward as well; by the time the polls opened, on Tuesday morning, the count was up to about 16.

By reporting the allegations as aggressively as it did, the Times made itself the principal story in the final weekend of the recall campaign. On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that some 1000 readers had canceled their subscriptions. The Times’ editor, John Carroll, was quoted as saying, "I told my publisher and my editors this is likely to cause the biggest reaction to the newspaper we’d ever seen."

Indeed. University of Southern California law professor Susan Estrich, who managed Michael Dukakis’s 1988 presidential campaign, blasted the Times on its own op-ed page, writing, "What this story accomplishes is less an attack on Schwarzenegger than a smear on the press." Andrew Sullivan, writing on his eponymous weblog, called the story and follow-ups a "smear campaign orchestrated by the liberal Los Angeles Times" and "an astonishing piece of reporting invective."

Yet, in the end, it didn’t matter much. As the Phoenix went to press, with more than 90 percent of California’s precincts having checked in, the vote to recall Governor Gray Davis stood at 54.5 percent to 45.5 percent; and Schwarzenegger was leading Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante by a margin of 47.9 percent to 32.4 percent. (No immediate word on how porn star Mary Carey and actor Gary Coleman were faring.)

But before anyone thinks that Schwarzenegger’s victory was itself a repudiation of the liberal media, consider Mickey Kaus, the Santa Monica–based blogger for Slate who has been obsessively following the recall. After the polls closed, Kaus confessed that he voted for Schwarzenegger — even though he thinks the Times scored a righteous hit.

Here is what Kaus wrote about the man he’d just voted for: "Everyone knew there were stories like the LAT presented last week. I’ve heard more. He’s not a groper the way Clinton was a groper — Schwarzenegger seems to actually have a cruel streak. He enjoys humiliating others."

Good grief. So why did Kaus vote for this reprobate? Because a) he can’t stand Davis, whom he accuses of trading favors for campaign contributions and of never taking a risky stand; and b) he thinks Schwarzenegger’s negative attributes may actually serve the state well. Wrote Kaus, "Maybe a governor who is manipulative and mean is just the man to subdue the unions, the casino tribes and entrenched, free-spending legislators." In other words, arnold: a bad man for bad times.

It should go without saying that the Los Angeles Times did what it was supposed to do. This was an extraordinarily short campaign, and, according to the Times’ own account, it began reporting longstanding stories about Schwarzenegger’s behavior toward women as soon as he got into the race. Last Thursday’s story contained a number of weird and disturbing details, and voters had a right to know before casting their ballots.

I have not followed the race as closely as, say, Mickey Kaus, but I know the Times’ coverage has come in for some legitimate criticism as well.

Over the weekend, journalist Jill Stewart wrote a column for the Los Angeles Daily News asserting: "Since at least 1997, the Times has been sitting on information that Gov. Gray Davis is an ‘office batterer’ who has attacked female members of his staff, thrown objects at other workers, and launched into red-faced fits, screaming the f-word until staffers cower." She notes that she documented those allegations in a story for the now-defunct New Times Los Angeles.

Now, of course, I have no idea why the Times didn’t report on Davis’s alleged abusive treatment of staff members. Perhaps the paper couldn’t come up with anything that met its standards of proof. But certainly, for those (like Andrew Sullivan) who heard the loud whine of a liberal ax being ground, the lack of a good old-fashioned takedown of Davis only added to the conspiracy theorizing. It didn’t help when the LA Weekly’s Bill Bradley last week reported that word of the Times’ investigation of Schwarzenegger — an internal secret — was leaked to "senior Democratic strategists ... well in advance of the story’s publication."

But that does not take away from the good work that the Times did in pursuing legitimate charges against Schwarzenegger. Would that every news organization showed such courage.

Issue Date: October 10 - 16, 2003
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