Yesterday I linked to Kevin Grant’s Neon Tommy story about new LA Weekly editor-in-chief, Drex Heikes and his plans to bring the paper back to strength and relevance.
Last night, as I reread Kevin’s piece I got to thinking about what has become so bothersome about the existing LA Weekly in the last few years.
Certainly, it still has Jonathan Gold’s wonderful reviews, and Christine Pelisek is still doing truly fine crime reporting. (Although, Christine, is it really necessary to refer to some of LA’s less affluent neighborhoods as the city’s “badlands?” A small point, admittedly, but that and the use of diseases to describe certain elements in LA’s population could go, trust me.)
And the new guy, Dennis Romero, seem to be doing a lively job his daily news blogging. I miss Steve Mikulan’s intelligent take on things, but okay, we’ve got Dennis now. And he’s got his good qualities too.
He had, for example, a nicely grumpy take this week on the city council’s inability to regulate marijuana dispensaries after two years, contrasted with their quick passage of a regulation banning cat declawing. (I’m personally against cat declawing too, but really. Priorities, people.)
But here’s the problem. Too often I catch the Weekly writing things that are either cringe-makingly slanted, or demonstrably untrue. One example of the former was the Weekly’s hit piece on Bill Bratton that ran last spring..
Then more recently, Romero wrote a small news feature on the new chief of police, Charlie Beck, that was littered with unsupported insinuations and outright falsehoods.
POLICE CHIEFS AND POODLES
The piece led with the suggestion that Beck was being trotted around like the mayor’s “poodle” to the four regional meet-and-greets that he and Villaraigosa did in South Los Angeles, Van Nuys, El Sereno, and the Westside. Student reporters from my USC class went to two of the four events and found them jammed with community members, and described Beck as very responsive to the questions and comments of residents who seemed thriller to have a chance to check out the new (nearly) chief.
But, sure, yeah, Antonio had his own political reasons for trotting out the likable Beck in advance of Beck’s confirmation by the City Council. And, okay, if one wishes to write a snarky story to point that out, why not?
IT WAS MIDWAY THROUGH THE SAME STORY THAT ROMERO WENT OFF THE RAILS.
After the snark about Beck being the mayor’s fancy dog (which is reasonably preposterous, but whatever) Romero went a lot farther.
He wrote that Beck was a forced choice who was jammed down the collective throat of an unhappy police commission by the mayor (along with Bill Bratton) who was determined to have Charlie Beck and no one but Charlie Beck as his chief.
….a backroom process that was so rapid and, perhaps, so prejudiced toward the man backed by Bratton that few outsiders applied for what is the brass ring of the police world.
Romero quotes blogger and former LA Daily News editor, Ron Kaye, as saying: “….it was always a done deal. There wasn’t any real process or search that was conducted.” (On his own blog Kaye goes further and quotes anonymous sources as saying that Beck wasn’t even on the list of the commission’s original three finalists at all, and that the commission had to rejigger the list of three to add Beck so as not to anger the mayor.)
Romero followed up with how…”…it is widely known now that the Police Commission was irritated when Villaraigosa undercut it by publicly announcing during the summer that a chief would be chosen by the fall, making it all but impossible politically for the Police Commission to launch a serious nationwide search that takes months…
In that the position of chief of police has a strong affect on the city’s health and well being, if the mayor had completely compromised the selection process that would be in important thing on which to report.
If it happened to be true.
Since I’d followed the selection process closely, some might say….um…obsessively, and Romero and Kaye’s reporting didn’t jibe with anything I heard, I figured I’d simply do a bit of fact checking.
Although, I had plenty of inside sources, I had not talked to anybody on the police commission.
I called Alan Skobin, one of the five police commissioners who were given the task of narrowing the 13 semi-finalist candidates given them by the city’s personnel chief (whose team had winnowed the field from the original 24 applicants).
In other words, Skobin was one of those five-some of folks whom Romero and the Weekly said had been force-fed Beck, and who were “widely known” to be damned unhappy that their search process was amputated, and who may not have wanted Beck on their list of three finalists at all.
I noted that Romero had briefly quoted Skobin, meaning he too had spoken to him. So maybe Skobin knew the inside dirt that I had somehow missed.
THE COMMISSIONER SPEAKS
Skobin and I spoke for about a half hour during which time we chatted in dept about all of the Weekly’s points—about the pressure, the truncated search time, and so on.
Skobin—an attorney and the Vice President of Galpin Motors—is a very bright, mild-mannered man, but he was clearly exasperated about what the Weekly had inferred.
“That’s absolutely not true,” he said—and he had told the Weekly as much as well.
“I was there. I was one of the five people in the room for every discussion! We didn’t have any pressure from the mayor. He kept his hands completely off and let us do our job. In fact I even thanked him for it.” Skobin paused to look for the right words. “Honestly, Celeste, we felt good at the end because we felt the process really worked. I know my fellow commissioners. And I really feel that everyone had an open mind. There was an incredibly diverse pool of very credible, capable candidates. And we worked to make sure that everyone had an even playing field.”
Skobin said a lot more and in greater detail. But that’s the bottom line of it.
About the accusation that there wasn’t a proper search, Skobin laughed. “Look,” he said, Bill Bratton was the highest profile police chief in the nation. When he resigned it was national news. “We paid for a small search and certainly had ads in all the proper places.” But what serious candidate wouldn’t know the job was open, Skobin said. “We didn’t feel in was necessary to spend $100 thousand more of the tax payers’ money to pay some executive search company. Why would we? Everyone knew this job was open.”
Moreover, according to Skobin, although there was there was the general belief that, unlike when Bratton was selected, the time was likely ripe for a homegrown candidate, the process still welcomed all comers.
The Weekly, however, insisted otherwise. As further proof that the fix was in, Romero wrote ominously that “….such big-gun names as San Francisco Police Chief George Gascon and Miami Police Chief John Timoney did not turn up as finalists. The process was seen by some as a mayoral ramrod down the public’s throat of Bratton’s favorite soldier.”
Let’s see. Hmmmm. Maybe it’s a mayoral a conspiracy. Or…..maybe Gascon and Timoney weren’t on the list of finalists because they didn’t apply for the job?
I knew the answer to the question from my own sources, but I asked Skobin anyway.
“Timoney didn’t apply to my knowledge. We certainly never saw him.”
George Gascon is the LAPD’s former Assistant Chief who had since taken over as chief of police in Mesa, Arizona and then had been sworn in as San Francisco’s new chief on the day that Bratton formally announced his resignation.
Skobin laughed again. “I know George didn’t apply because he announced as much publicly. It was in all the papers.”
Right. A fact that I knew because I know Gascon. But also information which Romero or his editor Jill Stewart could have acquired with a 30-second with Google search.
But really, why let facts get in the way when you’ve got a mayor to slam.
EVERYONE IS NOT ENTITLED TO HIS OWN FACTS
For the record, yes, Bratton made it known that Beck was his preference, plus Connie Rice and Jeff Carr (the mayor’s former gang guy, now chief of staff) were actively and forcefully lobbying for Charlie Beck who was also their pick to click.
But by every single credible insider account, the mayor liked Beck a lot, but was dithering right up until the last minute BECAUSE HE DIDN’T LIKE BEING PRESSURED.
“I know for a fact he was still deciding up until the last minute,” said Skobin.
I do too.
And so to counter those sources and to bolster their assertions the Weekly had…..?
No one. Not a soul on the record. Or off the record for that matter.
Evidently Romero was able to intuit that these things were “widely known”.….. by “many”…. and also by “some City Hall critics.”
Okay, to be fair, the Weekly also had Ron Kaye—editor turned pundit, who on his own blog had the purported conspiracy so muddled that he couldn’t even get the number of semi-finalists sent to the police commission right, and gleefully reported as valid every crackpot rumor he could get his hands on, no matter how easily dispelled.
SO WHY SHOULD WE CARE ABOUT THIS?
Why does this matter? After all the LA Weekly is perfectly free to opine however much it wants about Antonio Villaraigosa and any other public figure.
It is a newspaper’s job—it is its sacred task, if you will—to hold public figures accountable.
(And Villaraigosa assuredly has a list of things that require some accounting. [see above post])
A news outlet is not, however, free to manufacture its own facts in order to do so.
If a paper shaves the dice on the truth when it is convenient—even if the untruths are the inside-baseballish sort of things most people would not catch, and even fewer would care all that much about—then we cannot trust what that paper says on anything.
And that, my dear friends, matters very much.
A FRIENDLY NOTE TO DREX HEIKES:
Drex, I know your work well and I don’t think for a minute that you would willingly co-sign on this kind of shoddy, deliberately mendacious behavior. But it has happened more than a few times at the paper whose helm you are now commanding, and this time it happened under your watch.
So it is you who needs to fix it. We are counting on you.
The LA Weekly once mattered.
It would be nice if it mattered again.