The news that Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver have split could not help but bring back memories of the reporting 7 1/2 years ago in this newspaper about Schwarzenegger’s aggressive, loutish behavior toward women.
No reason has been stated for the breakup between the former governor and California’s former first lady. And maybe no cause will ever be revealed, though the stature of the two media-political heavyweights guarantees that there will be plenty of reporting and speculation.
The news about the hyper-public and hyper-media-savvy couple couldn’t help but conjure up memories of those stories from the heat of one of California’s hottest political seasons. The Times took a flogging like none before or since, which made me wonder about the fury of the criticism.
The standards for judging whether a politician’s extramarital activities become news have become more fluid in the Internet age. Many news websites tend to publish any rumor that’s “out there” — under the theory that a morsel that’s part of the online conversation must be addressed.
However, at more traditional news outlets, including the Los Angeles Times, journalists have been schooled that an individual’s private behavior only becomes news as it reflects on their public life — for instance, how they behave in business, academia, politics. The justification for the media to dive in is usually not hard to discern — when the public has been lied to; when government employees have been drawn into the mess; when a cover-up has been constructed; or when hypocrisy has been exposed.
The ranks of public figures who seem to think their personal lapses will remain invisible knows no partisan or ideological bounds. Bill Clinton has an affair with a White House intern, then misleads anyone within lying range. Newt Gingrich poses as family-values man (while, not incidentally, vilifying Clinton during the impeachment debate) while carrying on his own affair. John Edwards, also portraying himself as the consummate family man, cheats on his cancer-ridden wife with a campaign videographer. Nevada Sen. John Ensign admits to an affair with an aide, the wife of another employee who is his close friend.
Politicians’ affairs follow a fairly predictable cycle: the rumor, followed by the first credible news report, followed by the subject’s denial and indignation, followed by a tacit admission and attack on the accuser’s motives.
That’s essentially how things developed in October 2003, when the Los Angeles Times broke the story about Schwarzenegger’s history of touching and groping women when he was Hollywood’s star of stars. The initial Times report told the story of six women who said that the star had touched them in a suggestive or aggressive manner without their consent.
That story prompted others to come forward. Eventually, a total of 16 women, 11 of them giving their names, described physical humiliations suffered at the hands of the man who was running to replace Gray Davis as governor in the recall election.
The initial front page story and subsequent follow-ups seemed inherently newsworthy — describing a public figure wielding his abundant power to abuse subordinates. Many Times readers were happy to see these secrets revealed.
But a lot of others reacted with a fury. Some accused the paper of a politically motivated attack, meant to hurt Schwarzenegger and prop up the struggling Davis. They complained with particular vehemence about the timing of the story, published five days before the recall vote. At least 10,000 subscribers cancelled the paper, according to executives who were with the paper at the time.
Those of us working here saw colleagues assigned to the story doggedly trying to confirm details and to get uneasy women to go on the record with their complaints. That proved to be no easy task, since many of them still worked in the entertainment industry and worried that the deeply connected Schwarzenegger could hurt their careers.
I can only imagine what the recriminations would have been like if the paper had decided to hold back the information. How would the majority have received news that the biggest media outlet covering the campaign decided its audience was too sensitive for the allegations?
When I reached John Carroll, the Times editor at the time of the recall coverage, he said he had “never regretted for a minute” going ahead with the story.
“It was pertinent and it was truthful,” Carroll said Tuesday from Kentucky, where he is working on a book. “These were serious allegations of mistreatment that we were obligated to look into.”
Dean Baquet, who was the paper’s managing editor at the time and is now Washington Bureau chief for the New York Times, said: “I didn’t even understand the argument that it was not newsworthy. It didn’t make sense.
“It was such over-the-top behavior and by a person who ultimately was in charge of enforcing gender discrimination law in the state,” added Baquet. “It was so evident this was something the voters should know before they cast their vote for governor.”
Carroll recalled that talk radio and cable television hosts amplified the complaints against the paper and pumped up a bogus report that The Times intentionally held the story to do maximum damage.
The front-running Schwarzenegger would contest some details of the stories. He would blame the Davis campaign. But he could never knock down the essence of The Times stories. He admitted he had “behaved badly” and offered a kind of blanket apology to any women who had been offended.
The furor did not prevent Schwarzenegger from being elected in 2003. And reelected. At least a few voters in the recall said, if anything, they supported him to rebuke The Times for its reporting on the sexual harassment allegations.
On closer examination, the reaction to the Schwarzenegger groping stories seems to be not of kind but of degree. A state facing outsize problems, looked to an outsize character to fix them. Anyone or anything that appeared to stand in his way (like this newspaper) could be cast as an outsize villain.
The truth was, the story and its central figure may have presented a glossy and attractive narrative. But the final cut fit right into a drearily familiar mold.