With its bracing expose of former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's "lust child," the financially-stricken L.A. Times has once again proven that it can still break important stories in its backyard.
Weeks after it won a Pulitzer for its reporting on financial misconduct in the city of Bell, the paper delivered another major scoop, forcing the former muscleman to disclose the secret that broke up his 25-year marriage to Maria Shriver.
The paper is keeping a tight lid on the details of how it unearthed the story of Schwarzenegger's out of wedlock child with a housekeeper.
But TheWrap has learned about the chain of events that led to a first story of the couple's split on May 9 and the subsequent one about the child.
It started when the paper received a tip about a love child and checked out his birth certificate, available at the L.A. Department of Public Health.
The document did not list Schwarzenegger as the father. The mother was listed as Mildred Patricia Pena, and not with her actual last name, which is Baena. The father was listed as Rogelio Baena, Mildred's husband who she divorced shortly after the birth of the child.
Using the names, veteran political reporter Mark Z. Barabak and court reporter Victoria Kim were able to search on the Internet and find a photo of the child. According to an individual close to the paper, he “looked a lot like Arnold.”
It was that strong resemblance that gave the Times reporters the confidence to continue to pursue the story. (TheWrap has seen photos of the child, and he bears a striking resemblance to Schwarzenegger.)
A spokesperson for the Times would not comment about the paper’s editorial process when contacted by TheWrap, nor would the reporters, who deferred requests to the Times spokesperson.
“State secret,” the spokesperson said.
"We received a tip," Robin Abcarian told the "Today" show on Thursday. "We began working that tip."
"We began investigating that and using, I have to say, good old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting we were able to confirm that there was, in fact, a child with a former household staffer," Abcarian continued. "We brought the information to Schwarzenegger and he confirmed it to us."
Abcarian said that Barabak received the initial tip, though it's not exactly clear when.
What is clear, however, is that the Times’ dogged reporting on Schwarzenegger before and during his term as governor likely led to the paper being the recipient of the explosive tip, rather than, say, TMZ.
The L.A. Times took a barrage of criticism for publishing investigative stories about Schwarzenegger's alleged groping and harrassment of women during his run for governor in 2003.
"I think they're on a bit of a roll," Kevin Roderick, publisher of LA Observed and a former reporter and editor at the Times, told TheWrap. "They've reached a level of stability there and it's paid off in a lot of good stories and they've been breaking a lot more stuff."
Roderick added: "It's a much smaller place, and they don't have the reach and depth of staff that they did in their heyday, but when they pick their spots, they can excel."
Yet even in its diminished state, the Times has maintained its status as the region's outlet of record. This gave the paper the upper hand when it came to out-manuvering the likes of TMZ and Gawker.
"One sees here again the value of having a well-resourced, robust, professional reporting team that can drill down and break important stories," Marc Cooper, professor of journalism at the University of Southern California, said in an interview with TheWrap.
Part of what gave the Times an advantage ultimately, might have been the built-in institutional knowledge that the paper has about the way to take on and report out ambitious stories. But it wasn't just that ability that allowed them to smoke Schwarzenegger out before TMZ broke the news; it was also likely the paper's reputation for being a more objective platform than digital scandal sheets, says USC Professor of Journalism Gabriel Kahn.
"What is surprising is that they were able to get this level of confirmation, this kind of admission, ahead of these other sites," Kahn told TheWrap. "That's very hard to do."
Even before Tuesday's big break, the Times has shown a willingness to deploy its full resources to report about Schwarzenegger's issues with women. In 2003, during his campaign for governor, the Times dispatched a team of reporters to investigate rumors that Schwarzenegger had assaulted and molested numerous women on film sets.
Tracy Weber was one of those reporters. Immersed in an investigative project about poor care at the King/Drew hospital, she got called into the Schwarzenegger story.
"Digging into The Terminator’s salacious backstory seemed a tawdry detour," Weber, who is now at ProPublica, wrote in a blog post on Tuesday.
"With the election days away," Weber "went crisscrossing Southern California in search of women groped by the Republican candidate for governor." As women began to reluctantly come forward, the reporter "came to believe in the importance of the story."
Schwarzenegger denied the charges, but admitted, “I have done things that were not right, which I thought then was playful." Shriver stood by him.
The paper was castigated for publishing this account so close to the election; thousands of readers cancelled their subscriptions, Weber recalled Tuesday. To many, this week's scoop vindicates the work the Times did then — not that reporters at the paper think that way.
"Vindication is the wrong word," Abcarian said. "We felt at the time we published those allegations, in 2003, they were verified. There was no question to us that he was a serial secxual groper. Vindication is not what we're in it for because we always believed at the time they were true stories."
TMZ, for its part, was clearly stung by the Times’ coup. In its initial report on Scwarzenegger’s out-of-wedlock-spawn, the site wrote that they had "heard about the baby 5 days ago, but everyone in the Schwarzenegger camp was denying it."
TMZ has tried compensate by flooding its site with pictures of Schwarzenegger dancing with the mother of his child and shots of her dressed as a pirate. It declined comment for this article.
Clearly, the Los Angeles Times has won this round. But with creditor JPMorgan Chase preparing to take over parent Tribune Media Group as it emerges from bankruptcy, it's not clear how long it will continue to take a leading role on tough stories. Word is, the new owners want to make the paper more commercial.
And that's never a good sign when it comes to dogged investigations.
[Shriver, Schwarzenegger image via Babble.com]