Schwarzenegger child: How Gawker named wrong 'baby mama'
The story of Arnold Schwarzenegger and the household worker who bore his child more than a decade ago has created something like the Fog of War, I suggested the other day. When fact, fiction and journalistic standards blur, you’ve gotten lost in what might be called the Fog of Celebrity.
In a week in which TV stations and other news outlets tripped over themselves to chase the story, frequently looking a bit foolish, the gossip website Gawker stood out. The website helped expand the noxious cloud with a story that combined extra-thin reporting and mistaken assumptions, leading to the misidentification (though with great bravado) of Schwarzenegger’s supposed mistress and "love child."
Reporter John Cook made the faulty identification in a post that also included photos of the purported mistress and supposed out-of-wedlock child. The basic problem (though there were many others) was that the individuals named by Gawker bore no meaningful resemblance, literal or figurative, to the illicit partner and child Schwarzenegger acknowledged Monday to the Los Angeles Times.
I emailed Cook Thursday about his foul-up and he told me Gawker would pull down the post and issue a “statement.” The statement followed, actually under a heading called “CORRECTIONS.” It was headlined “Arnold Schwarzenegger's Love Child: A Retraction.”
“I'll just say I whiffed and I'm obviously quite embarrassed about it and wish we hadn't published the story the way we did,” Cook said in his email to me. He went on to acknowledge that he had relied on an almost eight-year-old story in Britain’s Daily Mail, which identified a woman who purportedly had a child with the one-time movie star.
The woman denied it back then, as Schwarzenegger attempted to replace Gray Davis in the recall election for governor of California. She said she had taken a paternity test that proved the child was her husband's.
Reporter Cook used what he called “circumstantial evidence—as well as common sense” to reach the conclusion that the long-ago Daily Mail report was about the same woman who became the center of this week’s furor. That “common sense” included assuming that the flight attendant Cook identified as the other woman was one and the same as the mistress described in The Times as a “longtime member” of Schwarzenegger's “household staff.”
Cook said via his email that he thought a “personal stewardess ... conceivably fits under the rubric ‘household staff’ in the same way a chauffeur would.” I don’t recall seeing in those aerial photos over Brentwood that—despite its massive size—the Governator’s mansion includes a landing strip. But I digress.
The shoddy reporting didn’t end there. Cook's story claimed that The Times' report said the love child had "the same distinctive name as one of Schwarzenegger’s film characters.” It added, parenthetically: “That detail has apparently been scrubbed from the current version online.”
Only problem: None of that was in The Times' story. Ever. Times lead reporter Mark Z. Barabak purposefully never named the mistress or child, in a bid to protect their privacy. In a follow-up email, I asked Gawker’s Cook to explain how he conjured up that one. But he said his bosses had told him not to get in a back-and-forth and to let his original response to me stand.
It appears Cook was unsure about the juicy Schwarzenegger-named-his-illegitimate-child-for-a-film-character angle even before he posted it. In an email to Barabak, before the posting, Cook wrote: “Am I crazy, or did an early version of your Schwarzenegger story say that the child shared a distinctive name with a character that Schwarzenegger once played in a movie? Did you report that? Was it taken out? Or did I see it somewhere else?”
Cook did post an UPDATE acknowledging that he got that one wrong.
The woman Gawker pointed to in its reporting was investigated by a number of news organizations, including The Times, back in 2003. The paper reported back then how Schwarzenegger had groped and humiliated more than a dozen women during the time he was one of the most powerful figures in Hollywood. But The Times ran nothing about the case of the flight attendant because the paper couldn't corroborate that she had an affair, or child, with Schwarzenegger. (Cook said The Times "sat" on the story. Again, wrong.)
Gawker has gained a large following for its scorched-earth pop culture missives, heavy on snark and contempt for many figures in the public eye. I will not deny that the site can be a fun read, though not exactly the place to look for balance or fairness.
I asked Gawker Editor-in-Chief Remy Stern how the error came about. Stern said the reporter is one of “the very best.” He called the Schwarzenegger story an anomaly.
“I discussed the story with John and reviewed the piece before it was published,” Stern wrote in an email, “so ultimately I bear responsibility for the error. The punishment for John and me is a little wounded pride this weekend.”
Gawker celebrated Cook last year when he made a brief exit for a job at Yahoo! The site praised his “posts [that] were compelling and thoughtful,” adding: “He's an almost too-smart guy who isn't willing to go for the shallow dive on anything.”
Photo: Maria Shriver appeared with Oprah Winfrey as the talk show doyenne recorded her farewell special. Shriver recently separated from husband Arnold Schwarzenegger after learning he fathered a child with a woman who worked for many years in the couple's Brentwood home. Credit: Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press