LAT editor talks about groping stories

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Los Angeles Times editor John Carroll responds to the paper's critics in an unusual (and somewhat testy) commentary in Sunday's paper. Titled "The Story Behind the Story," Carroll writes that the paper decided on the day Schwarzenegger formally got in the race that it would have to check out the long-standing allegations of his crass treatment of women. Then the race to the wire was on.

We assigned the task of investigating Schwarzenegger's reputation to two veteran reporters: Robert Welkos, who has covered Hollywood for half of his 25 years on the paper, and Gary Cohn, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1998 for investigative reporting at the Baltimore Sun.

They were joined by Carla Hall, a former Washington Post reporter who has covered news and features here for a decade, and many others, most notably Tracy Weber and Megan Garvey.

The undertaking was not easy. How do you find women who say they have been mistreated? How do you persuade them to talk? How do you determine whether they're telling the truth?

He goes into the mundane details of investigative reporting and getting reluctant sources to talk. Carroll says that claims the paper had finished the story and sat on it until closer to the election were lies -- "lulus cranked out by local journalists."

It was also written, for example, that Davis was the puppeteer behind the Times stories. Fact: None of the information in the Times stories came from the Davis camp, as we said in the articles when we published them.

It was written that high Democratic officials were kept apprised of the newspaper's probe, step by step. Fact: No Democratic officials were apprised. Because the paper was interviewing many sources, the existence of the investigation was widely known, but the details were not. The Davis people may have learned that the investigation was underway from Web sites, which mentioned rumors about it repeatedly.

It was written that the paper failed to follow up on reports that Davis had mistreated women in his office. Fact: Virginia Ellis, a recent Pulitzer Prize finalist, and other Times reporters investigated this twice. Their finding both times: The discernible facts didn't support a story...


The electronic revolution has brought us many blessings, but it has also blindsided us with a tidal wave of pornography. In similar fashion, we are now getting a faceful of rotten journalism — journalistic pornography, actually — in which ratings are everything and truth is nothing.

He names no names, but part of that seems a response to local columnist Jill Stewart, who got a lot of national media bounce by claiming in the final hours of the campaign that the Times withheld evidence of mistreatment by Davis. Her evidence to me was weak to non-existent, and her biases glaring -- she hates the Times, and she was mad that her 1997 story got ignored by everybody. Carroll may also be speaking about Mickey Kaus, who speculated several times over a few weeks in Kausfiles (without offering evidence) that Carroll himself was delaying the stories. I remember thinking at the time that some people would think he knew something, even though Kaus might have just been playing his favorite role of, as he says, "controversialist."

Carroll closes by arguing that once the story was done, the paper had the choice whether to run it close to the election, hold the revelations until after Oct. 7, or spike them. Carroll says he has no regrets for the path chosen and says the stories are "solid as Gibraltar."

Are the stories significant? Some think they starkly illuminate the character of a man who has been elected to the highest office in California. Some don't. Our role is to serve citizens of varying views by examining the behavior and the policies of political leaders and publishing our findings.

And when we publish, we do it in a timely fashion. Better, I say, to be surprised by your newspaper in October than to learn in November that your newspaper has betrayed you by withholding the truth.

The only surprise to me here is that Carroll felt he had to publicly respond. I'm glad he did. My position from the start, knowing how the paper works, was that the timing was not suspicious. It was a short campaign, and a difficult story to report and vet. If I were the editor, I'd have run the stories too, without any concern for whether they helped or hurt. (As it is, who knows what effect if any they had on the outcome. I'm pretty confident the reporters could not care less.) Carroll doesn't address any of the more general complaints about Times coverage of Schwarzenegger and the campaign, but this response -- and its tone -- will surely get talked about for a long time.

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