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Readers Angry at The Times for Schwarzenegger Stories

Times Staff Writers

Kathy McIver is a Democrat from La Habra and a longtime subscriber to The Times. Today’s paper, she says, will be the last that will be delivered to her door.

Like many readers, McIver is angry. She is angry about The Times’ coverage of the California recall campaign, and especially angry about the stories that the newspaper has run in recent days detailing allegations that Arnold Schwarzenegger touched women inappropriately.

“I was disappointed that The Times was being used to be the messenger,” she said in an interview Saturday, “and that they would do that type of investigation and not balance it out by having something negative about [Gov. Gray] Davis because, as we all know, he’s done some negative things.”

Since publishing an article Thursday that described allegations by six women that Schwarzenegger groped them or made inappropriate comments, The Times has come under attack on talk-radio stations and television, and has been the target of vociferous complaints by the Schwarzenegger campaign.

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Schwarzenegger complained Saturday that The Times was taking part in an effort “to derail my campaign, and I think that it’s part of the puke campaign that Davis launched now.”

But the greatest volume of outrage has come from readers, who have flooded the paper with calls, e-mails and letters.

“To me this is a fairness issue,” said Debbie Mahoney, a 52-year-old Northern California resident who said she has read the paper periodically for the last five years. She said The Times has demonstrated “true bias” in its coverage of Schwarzenegger.

“You don’t even call him by his name,” she said. “Whenever I see coverage of Schwarzenegger, I see ‘actor.’ He’s not running as an actor. He’s running as a businessman.”

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As of Saturday evening, about 1,000 readers had canceled their subscriptions to protest the handling of the Schwarzenegger story. In addition, the newspaper had received as many as 400 phone calls critical of its coverage -- many angry, some profane.

About 800 people had written to praise the newspaper’s coverage, many apparently motivated by a liberal Web site that urged readers to register their support.

Jamie Gold, who has served as The Times’ readers’ representative since August 2001 and is responsible for responding to complaints, said she was aware of few events that have ever triggered such anger by the newspaper’s readers.

Most of the criticism revolves around a belief that the newspaper has intentionally targeted Schwarzenegger as part of a partisan agenda, and a concern that the stories about him were published too close to Tuesday’s election to allow his campaign to respond.

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The Times has laid “this stuff out like stink bombs at the last moment to ruin the momentum he’s got,” said Bill Agee, a 64-year-old Capistrano Beach resident.

He identified himself as a political moderate who is registered as an independent. He said he canceled his 20-year subscription to the paper last year. “I just got tired of the slant, to be honest with you,” he said.

Agee, who works as a photographer, said the revelations have not swayed him from his plans to vote for Schwarzenegger on Tuesday.

But they “absolutely didn’t make it easier to vote for him,” he said. “On the other hand, I have been around for awhile, and I know how people are. Everybody has a couple of incidents in their lives they wish they could take back.”

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Some readers said they had decided to vote for Schwarzenegger as a reaction to The Times stories.

“You’ve pushed me over to hold my nose and vote for him,” said Kenneth Sesley, a pastor in Lake Elsinore. “Because I just don’t think it was fair. And that’s the backlash. A lot of Californians don’t think it was fair.”

Lewis Garrigus, 55, a retired financial analyst who described himself as a longtime Times reader, was among those saying he would cancel his subscription.

“It’s not just me saying the L.A. Times is prejudiced,” said Garrigus, who lives in the Orange County town of Stanton. “It’s everyone. I finally got absolutely sick of it. There is never anything positive about Schwarzenegger on the front page of the paper.”

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Garrigus said that he hasn’t voted in 20 years, but plans to vote Tuesday -- because he is so upset by The Times’ coverage. “I swear, I can’t stand it anymore,” he said. “There are never two sides of something on the front page. Who does your editor think he’s kidding?”

Editor John Carroll responded that he believed The Times has provided balanced coverage, and that it has published critical stories about several candidates in the recall race.

“Early in the campaign, we reported that Arianna Huffington had paid no state income taxes, which was devastating to her campaign,” he said. “In the case of Davis, we did, three or four weeks ago, a huge front-page story on our biggest circulation day, Sunday, on the case against him. It was the most comprehensive account of all of his shortcomings that I’ve read in any publication.”

Carroll said the newspaper has also written numerous other stories that were critical of the governor, “about his fund-raising, his use of attack advertising, his links with special interests -- I can’t count the stories we’ve done on that.” He also pointed to stories about Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, focusing on his acceptance of campaign funds from Indian casino interests and his legal problems with an investment property.

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He defended the timing of the Schwarzenegger stories, and noted that the short schedule of the recall campaign made the task more difficult than it might otherwise have been.

“We didn’t have a story until the day we ran it,” Carroll said. “We were working for seven weeks, seeking women, trying to persuade the women we found to talk with us.... Investigative reporting of this sort takes a lot of time.”

Some readers have responded to allegations made on television by a former Times staffer, Jill Stewart, that the newspaper had finished the Schwarzenegger story two weeks before it was published, and that reporters were unhappy that the story had been held up.

Carla Hall, one of the principal reporters who worked on the story, said that was not true. She said the story wasn’t finished until the day before it appeared in the newspaper.

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“We knew the election was coming up,” she said. “We were working intensely to get it done as quickly as possible and as accurately as possible.... Nothing makes me angrier than people who say we held the story.”

Numerous readers have asked where Hall and the other reporters who worked on the story found the women who were interviewed. A common theme is that the Davis campaign played a role.

“I just think it’s a recurring pattern that the Democrats use the press with last-minute smear tactics in tight races or when the race is going against them, and I can quote history on this,” said Robert Rosenquist, 50, an ophthalmologist in Yucaipa.

Carroll said the reporters had, for the most part, made “cold calls” to people in the film industry after hearing that Schwarzenegger had a reputation for mistreating women. For instance, he said, they had called women listed in the credits of movies starring Schwarzenegger.

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“None of these women came to us; none of these women was suggested to us by anyone connected to any of the campaigns as far as we know,” he said.

If the articles have reduced Schwarzenegger’s popularity, it was not evident on the campaign trail Saturday, where crowds expressed anger at The Times, and the news media in general, and heartfelt support for the candidate.

“Nothing is going to change my mind,” said Cathy Dassah Nygren, 46, who was among the thousands of people crowding the Alameda County Fairgrounds to see Schwarzenegger late Saturday afternoon. “He’s got a lot of strength, he loves children,” she said. “We need a powerhouse who’s going to make a difference.”

Before a Schwarzenegger rally in Modesto, a warmup speaker, Rob Johnson, a radio host on local station KFIV-AM, said jokingly:

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“You notice the media is right back behind you there. How about a nice wave to the media. Hi, media. Except for the guy.... Who’s the guy with the L.A. Times? Find him and beat him up, would you?”

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Times staff writers Daren Briscoe, Peter Nicholas and Carol Pogash contributed to this report.


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