The American Journalism Review steps back and reconstructs how the L.A. Times says it reported and edited the paper's controversial pre-election story that alleged groping of women by Arnold Schwarzenegger. The piece by AJR contributing writer Rachel Smolkin carries extensive quotes fom editor John Carroll, managing editor Dean Baquet, investigative editor Joel Sappell and lead reporters Gary Cohn, Robert Welkos and Carla Hall.
The AJR piece describes the reporting process and group editing sessions, joined by Carroll, that led to the story getting into the paper on the Thursday before the election. As of Tuesday night, the story lacked a lede and its fate was uncertain. Top editors took over polishing what the reporters had written, and the writers finally saw a final version late in the day on Wednesday. Editing continued into the night. To prevent leaks, the story's summary was not included on the day's news budget.
For those engrossed by the ins and outs of the groping stories, this is the most behind-the-scenes account yet.
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.
The whole thing is available on the AJR site, from the December/January issue.