The Women  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   December/January 2004

The Women   

A behind-the-scenes, step-by-step look at how the Los Angeles Times put together its controversial, last- minute story about allegations that Arnold Schwarzenegger had groped women without their consent.

By Rachel Smolkin
     

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One week before a recall election that could topple California's governor, the fate of a potentially explosive Los Angeles Times story about the leading contender to replace him remained unsettled. Editor John S. Carroll and Managing Editor Dean Baquet took home rough versions of the piece around 7 p.m. on Tuesday, September 30. At that point, it didn't even have a lead.

It described claims by six women that Arnold Schwarzenegger, movie star and Republican candidate for governor, had groped them without their consent. The reporters, sacrificing nights and weekends for a story all agreed might never coalesce, had persisted despite phone calls not returned and tips that led nowhere. They searched for people they couldn't find. They visited women's homes and were greeted with fear and sometimes anger. They coaxed reluctant women to allow their stories and names to appear in print, only to watch near-agreements unravel.

Through it all, the pressure of an election loomed. If a story emerged, Carroll wanted it in the paper before October 7, when voters would decide whether to retain Gov. Gray Davis or recall him and choose a new governor. Only within the final days before publication did a critical mass of information emerge.

"We were prepared to go home Tuesday and decide they didn't have a story," Baquet recalls. He read the draft in his living room, then called Carroll at home. I think they have it, but I think the story's going to need some work, Baquet told him.

Carroll read it around 6 a.m. the next day. He, too, thought his reporters had a story. But it was in "rough shape," and he was concerned about the amount of work needed to ready it for publication.

That day and into the night, the reporters elicited additional details from women they had interviewed and awaited a response from Schwarzenegger's campaign. Editors reworked the story, adding a lead and then changing it, revising language throughout the text. Carroll emphasized the need to be up-front with readers to avoid accusations of hyping the story or the number of women involved. We lay it all out, he said, exactly what we have.

The page-one story was published Thursday, October 2. It unleashed a torrent of criticism on television and radio talk shows about the paper's timing and political motivations--the Times vehemently editorialized against the recall and against Schwarzenegger's candidacy. The article sparked denunciations from Schwarzenegger and his supporters and barely suppressed glee from his detractors. It provoked about 10,000 readers to cancel subscriptions, even as many prominent journalists and media critics defended the story. Other women then claimed similar experiences, and the Times published their accounts. By Election Day, 16 women had alleged that Schwarzenegger had touched them inappropriately.

This article describes the reporting and editing decisions on those stories as recounted by the people most closely involved in their preparation. AJR conducted extensive interviews with more than a dozen reporters, editors and other staff members at the Times, including Carroll and Baquet, the three principal reporters and their direct editor on the investigation.

California's future governor was not the sole focus of the Times' scrutiny during the compressed election cycle. Investigative reporters tracked each of the major candidates. On Sunday, August 31, the Times published a 4,964-word, front-page article laying out the case for recalling Davis. It published a page-one story on August 14 documenting candidate Arianna Huffington's failure to pay state income taxes. (Huffington, a TV commentator and columnist, later withdrew from the race.) It published stories about gubernatorial candidate and Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante's acceptance of campaign money from Indian tribes with casinos, about his use of millions of dollars from an old campaign fund and about his questionable tax write-offs on a government-subsidized rental property.

As Schwarzenegger toyed with a possible candidacy through the latter half of summer, senior editors discussed possible angles to pursue if he entered the race. They had heard rumors about his behavior toward women, and some had read a March 2001 article in Premiere magazine called "Arnold the Barbarian," which used some firsthand accounts of alleged groping incidents but also relied on secondhand, uncorroborated information.

Shortly after Schwarzenegger announced his candidacy on August 6, the Times began to explore his behavior toward women as part of a broader search for clues about the political novice's management style and character. The first of the Schwarzenegger background pieces, which ran on page 40 on August 10, examined the candidate's "unusually wide range" of business interests. Another, published August 19 on page one, scrutinized the "mixed" results of his national youth foundation, "a rare test of Schwarzenegger's management philosophy and skills." A front-page, September 29 story explored his bodybuilding past, including his use of steroids.

The metro desk spearheaded coverage of the recall. But Joel Sappell, the senior entertainment editor in the business section, oversaw the investigative pieces about Schwarzenegger. "He was in entertainment, so there was a good sourcing base we already had here," explains Sappell, 50, who in his 21 years at the Times has been an investigative reporter, city editor and metro projects editor. Sappell, who won a George Polk Award for his articles on intelligence-gathering abuses by the Los Angeles Police Department, helped oversee coverage of the '92 Rodney King riots and the '94 Northridge earthquake, both of which earned the Times Pulitzers for spot news coverage.

Initially, two reporters set to work investigating Schwarzenegger's conduct toward women. Gary Cohn, who works for Sappell as an investigative reporter, had joined the Times July 28, just over a week before the actor announced his candidacy. Cohn was among the reporters examining Schwarzenegger's business interests and received his first Times byline on the August 10 story. A former Baltimore Sun reporter, Cohn shared the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting for a series he cowrote on the international shipbreaking industry, which exposed dangers to workers and the environment when discarded ships were dismantled (see Free Press, June 1998). Cohn, 51, taught journalism for two years at the University of Alaska Anchorage in a program that offers a break for midcareer journalists. But he missed reporting, yearned for a fresh challenge and wanted to reunite with Carroll, for whom he had worked at two previous jobs. Before taking over the Times, Carroll was editor of Kentucky's Lexington Herald-Leader, where Cohn started his newspaper career, and then became editor of the Baltimore Sun.

The second reporter was Robert W. Welkos, who has covered Hollywood for half his 25 years at the Times. Welkos works for the Times' entertainment section, called Calendar, which covers creative aspects of film and television; entertainment writers in the business section generally track industry financial stories. A former metro reporter and assistant city editor, Welkos, 55, co-wrote an investigative series about the Church of Scientology with Sappell in 1990. Even before Schwarzenegger announced his candidacy, senior editors had hoped to team Cohn and Welkos on a story. This one seemed a natural for that partnership.

As the duo began searching for women who had encountered Schwarzenegger in the workplace, various reporters combed Hollywood sources for suggestions. On August 12, Cohn, Welkos and business reporter Claudia Eller interviewed a movie industry source who suggested several leads. Cohn and Welkos used databases to retrieve cast-and-crew lists from movies featuring Schwarzenegger. Welkos' familiarity with movie sets helped them winnow their cold calls. "I don't think you'd necessarily call a sound engineer working post-production on a movie," Welkos explains. "You try to talk to somebody who's on the set when Arnold's on the set." But targeting calls didn't make them more pleasant, and Welkos says "plenty of people" hung up on him.

The enormity of their task, particularly given the time constraints, quickly became apparent. Schwarzenegger's campaign lasted 62 days--a year's less time than normal to cover a governor's race. The team sought help from Carla Hall, a general assignment reporter who has covered news and features at the Times for a decade. Hall, 47, spent 12 years as a Washington Post reporter, moved to Los Angeles as a script consultant for a show about Washington journalists, covered the city for the Post as a contract writer and then joined the Times' metro staff. Before joining the Schwarzenegger investigation, she had profiled the actor's wife, NBC journalist Maria Shriver, in a September 8 story.

Hall says her strength as a reporter lies in persuading people to talk about themselves--an assessment her editors and colleagues share. "We knew it was out there," Hall says of the sexual misconduct stories. "We weren't creating it. We had heard stories about what he'd done secondhand, thirdhand--sometimes we'd heard them firsthand. But it was a matter of convincing people to talk to us."

She already had heard one firsthand account of an incident involving Schwarzenegger. In early August, she was chatting with her hairdresser, a friend she has known for years, and casually mentioned that Schwarzenegger was running for governor. The hairdresser then related an incident that she said occurred in the late 1980s, when she was a waitress in West Los Angeles. She said that one Sunday as she was pouring coffee at Schwarzenegger's table, he said "a little louder than a whisper... 'I want you to go in the bathroom, stick your finger in your [vagina], and bring it out to me.' " Hall realized the woman had told her the same story long ago.

After asking her editor, Miriam Pawel, the assistant managing editor for state and local news, whether anyone was examining allegations about Schwarzenegger's behavior, Hall called the hairdresser back and formally interviewed her, asking detailed questions about her account. The woman allowed the Times to include her story but did not want her name used. Hall wrote a memo describing the interview. One week later, she joined Cohn and Welkos in their investigation.

From the outset, the reporters worked to persuade women to go on the record. They checked the women's stories by interviewing someone they confided in at or near the time of the alleged incident, long before Schwarzenegger announced his candidacy for governor. If the reporters could not find a corroborator, they did not publish that account. (Although Hall had heard the hairdresser's story long ago, she found another corroborator to interview.) They used databases to search for criminal records, lawsuits or relevant business partnerships involving the women they interviewed. In meetings with Carroll and other senior editors, they discussed how many women were needed to build a credible story. "We needed a number that would establish a pattern, particularly in a case where not everybody was on the record," Cohn says.

The negotiations over names were tenuous and time-consuming. Some women they interviewed still work in Hollywood and feared the consequences for themselves and their families. Nor were they eager to share humiliating memories with readers. "Those reporters bled over trying to get people to talk to them," Sappell says. "Every small break was like a major breakthrough."

One woman told Hall that movie sets are very insulated, and "you don't go to the press about anything. There's this intense loyalty and intense respect about who the star is, and it kind of transcends the right to be personally indignant and publicly indignant over someone hurting you or scaring you or harassing you," Hall says. "What happens on the set stays on the set. There's an incredible fear that if you break that rule, even if you complain about somebody you have every right to complain about, you won't work again."

Ultimately, of the six women who recounted incidents in the October 2 story, only two were identified by name. One, British television host Anna Richardson, had previously shared her account in the Premiere article and with the British press, but Cohn reinterviewed her for the Times story. A third woman, the hairdresser and former waitress, disclosed her name in an October 3 follow-up story after Schwarzenegger apologized for his behavior. (Although her story was included in the initial article, the Times did not count her as one of the six women because she related an incident involving vulgar language rather than groping.)

At times, even setting up an initial meeting took weeks. In mid-August, Cohn got a tip from a Hollywood source about a woman who might have a story. He and Welkos knocked on her door, but she wasn't home. One evening Cohn returned by himself. The woman answered the door. Cohn said he was a reporter for the Los Angeles Times and was looking into how Arnold Schwarzenegger treated women on movie sets and in the workplace.

"The woman did not open the door completely, but halfway, and asked me for some identification," Cohn recalls. "She was fearful of talking and said she would think about it. I said, 'Can I call you?' And she said 'No, I'll call you.' " When the woman did not call, Cohn called her twice. Both times she promised to think about talking to him.

Cohn then tried an old-fashioned reporting technique he had learned years ago from William K. Marimow, now editor of the Baltimore Sun and himself a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter. Cohn wrote the woman a letter. "I'm the L.A. Times reporter who stopped by your house earlier this month, and I'm writing to see if we can have an off-the-record cup of coffee at your convenience," the letter said. "Or, if you prefer, I could meet with you and some of your colleagues--again, you would set the conditions. I can assure you that I have a lot of experience as an investigative reporter--and more importantly, at protecting the confidentiality of people who have come forward in the public interest."

A few days later, Cohn called the woman; she still wanted more time to think it over. But the next time he called, she agreed to meet. Cohn visited her house by himself on September 4, and stayed for about an hour. "After sitting down with her at her house and looking her in the eye, I felt that she was telling the truth," he says. But the woman, who works in Hollywood, remained reluctant to let Cohn tell her story. Scared, she wanted more time to decide.

Over the next few weeks, Cohn called two or three more times. Finally he arranged a second meeting on September 25 at the woman's home. This time Hall joined Cohn for the interview, which lasted about two hours. "I think having a woman there made her much more comfortable," Cohn says. "But maybe it was because people are just comfortable talking to Carla." At that point, the woman agreed to let the reporters use her story but not her name.

At times, the reporters nearly persuaded someone to use her name, only to watch her decide against it. In late September, Cohn learned of a former professional beach volleyball player who had told a friend that Schwarzenegger touched her breast on a Santa Monica street in 1980. Cohn interviewed the woman in person on the afternoon of September 29, continued reporting September 30 and nailed down additional details on October 1. The volleyball player was weighing whether she would allow the paper to use her name. Sappell and Cohn agreed that Sappell should call her and discuss her concerns. "We had a long talk about all the reasons she was worried. I did my best to reassure her she wouldn't be the only one on-the-record," Sappell says. "She was gutsy but had some big reservations about how people would view her, whether it might damage her husband's business." She ultimately decided not to allow her name to be used.

Once, even finding a woman's name was an exercise in frustration. Hall received a tip that a documentary filmmaker had organized a panel discussion sometime in the last two or three years at the University of Southern California about women in Hollywood and that one of the panelists had talked about rebuffing a sexual advance from Schwarzenegger. The woman had shared her story at a public forum, so the reporters hoped they could more easily persuade her to use her name--if they could learn it themselves.

The panel organizer offered no guidance, telling Hall that she had spoken to the panelist, who didn't want to talk. Two days later, Hall visited the organizer's house, which angered the organizer and yielded no additional information.

But Hall and other reporters continued their search. Sappell assigned Meg James, a business reporter, to call faculty at the university and sift through every press release about every symposium over the last several years. If the reporters could learn the panel title or date, or locate a flyer, program, even an audiotape, then they might be able to find the panelists' names or names of others who had attended or heard about the event. But the information eluded them.

The weekend before the story was published Hall stared at a list of names and biographies from a Midwestern film festival that she found through a Google search. One woman's biography mentioned a past collaboration with the documentary filmmaker as well as a credit on "Predator," a Schwarzenegger film. Hall had a hunch that the woman, Tamee Smith, was the unknown panelist and asked researcher John L. Jackson to help track her down. But the phone numbers he came up with were wrong. On Wednesday, October 1, Jackson unearthed another number, but Hall had no more time to search.

As Sappell's team labored, Carroll monitored its progress closely, even when he was away from the office. Sappell recalls talking to Carroll on a cell phone that kept breaking up as the editor boarded a raft September 20 at a wedding and rafting trip on the Snake River near Jackson Hole, Wyoming. On September 21, Carroll flew to New Orleans for three days to join Baquet at a meeting with Times national correspondents. They called Sappell from Carroll's hotel room, again seeking updates.

"My way of doing business is always that I get very deeply involved with a few stories," Carroll says. "Daily journalism is such a hit-and-miss business. If you're a perfectionist, it will drive you crazy because you're moving so much copy that you never get a great story." Because of the deadline pressure surrounding the investigation, he also worked more directly with reporters than usual. "I knew it would be controversial, and the reputation of the paper would be challenged on it," Carroll says. "I feel it would be irresponsible of me not to be deeply involved on a story like this."

Toward the end of September, Carroll decided that if the story seemed solid, they should target Thursday, October 2--five days before the election--as the publication deadline. "I thought if we couldn't get it in the Thursday paper, we'd have to think long and hard, but I'd probably put it in the Friday paper," Carroll says. "Sometimes I listen to my instincts as much as I listen to my brain, and my instincts tell me I'd be extremely unhappy" if he didn't publish information he considered solid. Carroll later wrote in an October 12 commentary that publishing after the election would have prompted "anger among citizens who expect the newspaper to treat them like adults and give them all the information it has before they cast their votes." Not publishing at all, he wrote, "could be justified only if the story were untrue or insignificant."

Baquet worried about the appearance of running the story too close to the election, but the former New York Times national editor says newspapers can get into trouble when they decide not to publish a story for reasons other than quality of journalism or endangering a life. "Sometimes people don't understand that to not publish is a big decision for a newspaper and almost a political act," Baquet says. "That's not an act of journalism. You're letting your decision-making get clouded by things that have nothing to do with what a newspaper is supposed to do." When he read the rough version on September 30 and saw a pattern of similar incidents, it was "absolutely unimaginable to me that any reputable newspaper would not publish that story, even so close to the election."


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