This time, there was no “gotcha” moment, no kill-the-messenger pushback. Asked for comment about a child born out of wedlock, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s camp simply gave up the goods.
It was quick, clean, surgical.
Schwarzenegger wasn’t given a way out, the reporter who broke the story tells Howard Kurtz on Sunday’s “Reliable Sources” on CNN. There was nothing to confirm or deny.
“It was true,” says Los Angeles Times political reporter Mark Barabak. “They knew it was true, we knew it was true; they knew that we knew it was true. So it was pretty straightforward at that point.”
Barabak does not say precisely how the paper got the story. He credits old-fashioned “shoe leather” for chasing the lead down.
“People came forward and were forthcoming in a way that they weren’t previously. And it’s hard to ascribe motives to people, but they gave us the information, it was solid.”
With the name of the mother came the child’s birth certificate and a file detailing the mother’s divorce from her husband. The Times knocked on the door of Schwarzenegger’s former housekeeper. She denied the former governor was the father of her son.
Despite the denial, the Times knew it had solid, irrefutable information. “Absolutely, unequivocally we knew it. We knew it to be — as sure as I’m sitting here talking to you, we knew it to be true,” Barabak says, describing the story as “dead-on factual.”
He adds that the paper would not have sent reporters to knock on the woman’s door if it hadn’t been sure of the facts.
Schwarzenegger’s quick admission was surprising, perhaps, considering the history of the newspaper, the former governor and allegations of his misbehavior involving women.
In 2003, as Schwarzenegger ran for governor in a hastily-called election following the recall of Gov. Gray Davis, the Times published a story in which six women said he’d groped them sexually without their consent. The first story appeared five days before the election; by the time the polls opened, 16 women had come forward.
On October 1, the day before the story broke, Schwarzenegger’s political handlers begged then-editor John Carroll over the phone to hold off publication. Carroll said he gave them the rest of the day, then another 15 minutes.
Within hours of the story breaking, Schwarzenegger sheepishly conceded that at times he had “behaved badly.”
His wife, Maria Shriver, stood by him.
The paper immediately felt an intense public backlash.
“We had 10,000 subscriptions canceled,” Carroll said. “The people who were answering the phones became convinced that the people who were calling and canceling the subscriptions weren’t actually reading the story.”
A rumor campaign targeted the “liberal” Times, alleging the newspaper deliberately held the stories until just before the election to hurt Schwarzenegger at the polls.
Carroll pointed out that after Schwarzenegger announced his candidacy, reporters had just 62 days before the election to track the women down and persuade them to go on the record. None of the women had filed lawsuits or police reports,
A weekly newspaper reported — “fraudulently,” Carroll said — that the Times held the story for months, only to drop it on the eve of the election. TV commentator Bill O’Reilly fanned the flames, Carroll added, accusing the paper of “picking on conservatives.”
“That told me we were at a new point in journalism in which falsehood had legs it never had before,” he said.
He added that the outside pressure came through conservative cable news shows and talk radio. “I expected to be held accountable for the things we did, but not for the things we didn’t do,” Carroll said.
Schwarzenegger won the gubernatorial election handily. A CNN exit poll showed him capturing 43 percent of the female vote. No one knew he had a child out of wedlock, and he managed to keep the secret through his second campaign and seven years in office.
He didn’t tell Shriver of the child until he left office earlier this year.
“I’m sure his staff didn’t know a thing,” said Howard Bragman, a veteran Hollywood publicist.
Schwarzenegger’s behavior toward women was hardly a secret, even when the Times began its 2003 investigation. It had been the subject of a 2001 article in Premiere, an entertainment magazine.
Schwarzenegger’s political advisers even tested the waters before the recall, asking focus groups what they thought about infidelity and his chauvinistic treatment of women, said Joe Mathews, author of “The People’s Machine,” a book about Schwarzenegger’s life in politics.
The focus groups were held in conservative suburbs — the San Fernando Valley near Los Angeles, and Sunnyvale, in the heart of the Silicon Valley.
“Nobody cared,” Mathews said, describing the reaction as, “What do you expect? He’s a big, famous guy. People sort of knew. It was baked into their expectations of what he would be. There were no moral objections in those rooms, and there were as many women as men in there.”
Mathews, who covered the Schwarzenegger administration for the Times, said the governor never pretended to be a saint, which may have defused any outrage.
“He never promised to be good or faithful in his personal dealings,” Mathews said. “No one has the right to say he betrayed the public on this. He didn’t run on family values. He didn’t do holier than thou.”
He also was the master of the sound bite, the quip and the staged event, said Jerry Roberts, longtime political editor for the San Francisco Chronicle who now runs the political website Calbuzz.com with Phil Trounstine, formerly of the San Jose Mercury-News.
He recalls Schwarzenegger’s administration as “very controlled, very corporate.” Everyone toed the company line, he added, and veteran reporters who knew about the inner workings of Sacramento’s politics had trouble gaining access to the governor.
“I never succeeded in getting an interview with him,” Roberts said. “He was always surrounded by an entourage, always had a lot of black SUVs, like, ‘Make way for the king!’ But he didn’t really engage people, and the legislators got furious with him. They were just props in ‘The Arnold Show.’ ”
Roberts said that in the wake of a crippling recession and huge budget deficit, Schwarzenegger had a tarnished reputation. The recent disclosures about his personal life add to that perception, he said.
“As a practical matter, it doesn’t have a lot of effect, but among California voters and people in politics, (the latest scandal) was just a huge ‘F-you’ from him.”
In the past, anyone who revealed Schwarzenegger’s secrets quickly learned it came with a heavy price.
“If you talked about it, you were cut off,” said Bragman, the publicist. And that was just the beginning.
A Schwarzenegger pushback also came with threats of lawsuits, along with boycotts and personal attack campaigns.
John Connolly knows this better than anyone. He wrote Premiere’s 2001 “Arnold the Barbarian” piece, the first to document the star’s behavior with women.
Connolly said he faced down three waves of lawyers before publication; one served him with a 17-page cease and desist letter.
After publication, Schwarzenegger’s publicity machine rounded up some of the actor’s female co-stars — Jamie Lee Curtis, Rita Wilson, Linda Hamilton and Kelly Preston — to rebut the allegations and discredit the magazine.
A private investigator looked into Connolly’s background, the writer said. Hollywood movie studios threatened to boycott the magazine and cut off movie ads, his editor was fired and Connolly’s story assignments at Premiere dried up.
Carroll, the Los Angeles Times editor, said he didn’t experience any personal attacks or bullying lawyers: “I didn’t have any terrible confrontations with anybody.”
Joel Sappell, an editor on the 2003 story, recalled his surprise when criticism quickly shifted from Schwarzengger’s actions to the story’s timing. “The attack on the paper wasn’t for writing the story, but for not writing it sooner,” he said.
Carroll, now living in Kentucky and writing a book, was asked last week if he felt vindicated by the Times’ latest Schwarzenegger story.
“I’m not at all surprised,” he said. “It’s in keeping with what we reported. I don’t feel vindicated because I never felt the need for vindication. I’m glad we did it. The people who need some reputation adjustment are the people who didn’t report it.”
On “Reliable Sources,” as the Schwarzenegger story comes full circle, Barabak invites the 10,000 people who canceled their Times subscriptions to come back: “We’ll have it on your door Tuesday or so, so call on up.”