SUDDENLY Tuesday's election is more than a recall. It has also become a referendum on the Los Angeles Times.

In an astonishing story from page A34 of Sunday's Times, Readers Angry at The Times for Schwarzenegger Stories, the paper struggles to report the damage done to its reputation over the past three days while at the same time offering a lengthy apologia from editor John Carroll. Andrew Sullivan has described the Times as a "Smear Machine," columnist and former Times reporter Jill Stewart labeled their recent stories on Schwarzenegger as "hit pieces" and the Times' recent actions as "journalistic malpractice," and Susan Estrich used space on Friday's op-ed page to berate the paper for doing damage to women with legitimate charges of abuse. On my radio program Friday, Morton Kondracke expressed surprise and disapproval of Carroll's decisions in the run-up to Tuesday's campaign (Carroll used to be Kondracke's White House colleague).

What surprises me is these people's surprise. The Times has been an ally of Gray Davis for five years and an undeclared combatant in the recall wars. That the paper doubled-down with Gray behind and fading is no shock. The transparency of their cheerleading has been evident in their lineup of in-house recall columnists, all four of whom have been outspoken critics of Arnold from the day he announced his campaign. And the paper's news coverage has been as unbalanced as its commentary.

THE PUBLIC has come to grips with the Times as an organ of the Democratic party, an incredible waste of its near-monopoly status in Southern California.

What is different about the paper's naked and increasingly wild coverage of anti-Arnold charges is the reaction among even long-suffering Times watchers. A thousand readers actually cancelled subscriptions after Thursday's report on Arnold (that's the number released by the Times; who knows what the real total is). The outrage and anger of readers can be heard on any talk-radio station. So loud is the din that the Times was obliged to cover it.

Yet the Times has its story, and is sticking to it, even to the extent of retailing on the front page every new allegation as they turn up. Davis may be hurt if the paper gives moderates a reason strike back at institutionalized bias on Tuesday, and Arnold might be buoyed if disgusted Republicans switch from McClintock to the Terminator as a way of voting against the Times.

Consider the verdict that will be rendered by a win for recall: Except for the absentees, few if any voters will approach the polls ignorant of the Times' allegations.

It seems likely that a solid majority will reject the Times as untrustworthy. The paper may console itself that the electorate doesn't care about the charges, but that would be more self-delusion.

California doesn't trust its major newspaper. Not in the least. Now that's a story worth covering.

Hugh Hewitt is the host of The Hugh Hewitt Show, a nationally syndicated radio talkshow, and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard. His new book, In, But Not Of, has just been published by Thomas Nelson.

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