Antonio Villaraigosa City Government Los Angeles Times Los Angeles Writers Media

A Toast to Dave

Nice suit, David: The mayor ducks out of Saturday’s press club dinner at the Biltmore with aide Janelle Erickson.

David Zahniser, one of Los Angeles’ best journalists, gave notice Thursday and is headed to the L.A. Times to cover Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and local politics. For the past 18 months, he’s covered City Hall for the L.A. Weekly and written “The Z Files,” his column taking Antonio and others to task for occasional bouts of duplicity or otherwise putting their own interests ahead of the public.

He’s had a wonderful run of stories in the Weekly and played a major role in efforts over the past several years to turn up the heat on political leaders of all stripes. Last October, David stunned L.A.’s power elite with a cover story that raised questions about the final hours of Miguel Contreras, whose death in 2005 was blamed on a heart attack. In fact, the labor boss collapsed and lost consciousness while visiting a South L.A. botanica, which would be closed down six months later during a prostitution raid. In one of the story’s more intense moments, David recreated the scene in the emergency room, where Contreras’ allies bullied doctors and coroner’s officials into not ordering an autopsy that would have made the circumstances surrounding his death a matter of public record. Without David’s own investigation, which relied on the scant public record and interviews with dozens of named – and high-placed unnamed sources—this dark tale of civic manipulation and deception would have remained known only to a circle of the dead leader’s cronies. The story made a strong case that the coroner’s office shirked its duty to all of us by mishandling the death investigation of one of the most powerful men in Los Angeles history. (Disclosure: I edited the story.) The L.A. Times and Daily News wrote follow-ups the next day.

What makes David so valuable is his depth, commitment and intense desire to be first with a story–all attributes that describe a good reporter, but to the millionth degree in his case. He chases down leads on weekends, to every part of the city. If someone won’t return a phone call, expect to see David paying a special home visit. He’s jabbering on the phone – constantly, unless he’s in a city meeting, attending a press conference, grabbing coffee with a source, or writing. This guy is no 9-to-fiver with weekends off. In a typical week, David will make at least 100 telephone calls. His best sources can expect several calls daily. No one works harder for a story tip, nor does anyone enjoy the pursuit of a story more than David, whose engaging, informed tone tames even the most reluctant sources. His insights and productivity earned him recognition as the best city hall reporter in a Los Angeles Magazine profile by RJ Smith last November.
David not only breaks news, but his on-the-spot study of Los Angeles gives him a profound understanding of the various forces at play, political and otherwise, and he is often first to analyze a trend. Last month, in a 12,000-word cover package, “What’s So Smart about Smart Growth?” he examined the planning disasters, the unflagging congestion and the phony claims by developers and politicians that call into question the promise of the so-called smart growth movement in Los Angeles. Another cover story, “Welcome to Gentrification City,” showed David the urbanist and sociologist at work. He produced a rich treatise documenting the good that can come from communities in upheaval. (Disclosure: I edited this story.)
For all of his accomplishments and reporting triumphs, David is not a pretentious, arrogant member of the Fourth Estate. He’s a guy who will come to the office the day one of his blockbuster investigative pieces goes to press and confess he was up all night with the dry heaves worrying about every damn word. He’s compassionate, generous and sometimes overly modest.

Consider his remarks last year when he accepted a Journalist of the Year award from the Society of Professional Journalists. As David spoke, it sounded like he would have been just as happy if the prize had gone to one of the hard-working, vastly under-paid, unsung writers at one of L.A.’s lesser known papers. He urged reporters in the audience to be brave and ask the toughest question at press conferences, the one he dubbed “The Bastard Question” because of the way you’re made to feel after asking it. Then, ignoring his colleagues from the larger papers, TV and radio stations, David went on to praise reporters from L.A.’s ethnic and smaller presses, for doing the grunt work and often being first with stories picked up by the larger media. It was a moving moment. The recognition he gave those unheralded voices revealed the good fellow and impeccable character behind all of his kick-ass clips.

But enough of the past. Get back to work on your next big story, David.

20 Comments

  • Ouch. The LA Times? I’m not trying to be cynical, but with his credentials seems like he’d make it to the top of their ‘hit’ list pretty quickly. Still. Wish him the best of luck and will watch for his byline. That’s quite a send up you’ve given him. My guess is he lives up to it. I’m looking forward to reading him. Thanks for the heads up.

  • Zahniser’s piece on Contreras was one of the principal reason cited by Herold Meyerson for leaving the paper and his departure (plus the elimination of the election endorsements) were a principal reason in my no longer reading the paper.

  • RLoC, I’m confused. If I understand you correctly, Zahniser’s piece on Contreras is, indirectly at least, a reason you no longer read the LA Weekly? Why is that? What about this piece is either offensive/unethical/fraudulent to you? It reads like pretty straight-up reporting by someone who was going to dig until they hit bedrock. Isn’t that what we want from the press and/or expect of a free press? What am I missing?

  • The mayor ducks out of Saturday’s press club dinner….

    Was he ducking, running, evading, slinking, or just plain leaving normally?

    It’s the use of unsupported negative words like above that reinforces the liberal stereotype of the media, which it is when you learn that 9 out of 10 people in the media contribute to the Democrats.

    It’s too bad that reporters have forgotten how to report and, instead, insert their own biases. Is David Zahniser any different?

  • RLoC, a final thought? After sifting (and, thinking) through Harold Meyerson’s farewell letter and Alan’s response, isn’t it possible that Harold’s close relationship with Contreras affected how he felt about Contreras’ death presented the way it was? I like Harold Meyerson, and catch him whenever I can at the WaPo. And, it sounds like Contreras was a real positive force in LA. But, good people can be venal without being any less good. The undercurrents surrounding his death do seem newsworthy to me. I value transparency (guilty, guilty, guilty). That transparency sometimes clips good folks doesn’t make those folks any less good. It requires me to separate my feeling for the person from the person’s circumstances. In this case I think Harold Meyerson let his loyalty to person shroud all. But, that’s okay, too. Meyerson gets to be human right along with the rest of us. [And, on this she shuts up. Amen.]

  • Checking in from my bucolic writers’ hidey hole in Vermont just to say…love or hate the Contraras article, I think if you read deeper into David Z.’s work—his columns, and his other LA Weekly cover stories—you’ll find an exceptionally talented LA journalist whose analysis is unusually analytically nuanced, extremely smart and truly full of heart.

    The Times is damned lucky to get him.

  • Ha!!

    Zahniser writes his conclusion first and then looks for facts to prop it up.

    Plus is it known widely that he still hangs out with the Old Hahn Crew.

    He comes biased, jaded and not at all neutral.

  • Just to put it more succinctly, David Z is one of the best journalists working in LA right now–IMHO. (And Listener, I think you’ve got it right about Harold in this instance, that perhaps his personal feelings got in the way. We all understand how that can happen.)

    Okay, back to book writing.

  • Listener, Meyerson and his supervision of the political coverage was a big reason for me buying the WEEKLY. Yes, I said BUY since I live on the other side of the Orange Curtin and down here the LA paper is a dollar. The OC paper is free. I just decided that I could no longer justify the expense since my favorite part was gone.

    Celeste, I’m sure Zahniser is a fine journalist so I’m not aiming this at him. Over the years the WEEKLY has had many good local reporters, Mark Haefele, Erin Aubry Kaplin, and some one who used to go around calling herself “Rosedog” somewhere else.

  • Poor Antonio! Great news about a great reporter.

    RLC: U sound like one of those FOX viewers that depend on a media source to repeat only what they want to hear.

    David’s story on Contreras was an important and quite newsworthy one. In the previous three years, by my count, Harold had written some 26 stories that favorably mentioned Contreras — a tad excessive, no? My understanding is that while Harold did, indeed, hate David Z’s piece, his separation from the paper was much more complex.

    Thanks Al, for providing David the praise he richly deserves.

  • Sorry, hit the enter too soon. I know the reasons were complex but I got the distinct impression that the Contreras piece was the last straw and I’ve heard him call the NEW TIMES people jerks. Is tweny six an excessive number? Maybe. How about numerous piece on some guy named Chavez? Excessive?

  • […] WitnessLA.com writes “David Zahniser, one of Los Angeles’ best journalists, gave notice Thursday and is headed to the L.A. Times to cover Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and local politics. For the past 18 months, he’s covered City Hall for the L.A. Weekly and written “The Z Files,” his column taking Antonio and others to task for occasional bouts of duplicity or otherwise putting their own interests ahead of the public.” […]

  • Steve Nopez says Zahniser still hangs with the old Hahn crew, who are sworn enemies of Antonio who defeated Hahn, so that means he’ll be seeking dirt from Janice Hahn (who’s only too happy to give it, has dished dirt on other CM colleagues and is quoted in the Daily News as holier-than-thou woman of the people, to put others less inclined to blabbering down); and he’ll seek dirt from anyone who lost power since Hahn. So is that why the Times hired him, explicitly to dish and dig dirt on Antonio and his allies? He does not sound objective. Not to mention, the “alternative” attitude of the Weekly has always been, to take down “the man” regardless of who’s right or wrong, and defend “the little guy,” that underground mentality the paper inherited, even though it’s not underground anymore.
    — When does his first story come out? Let’s see…

Leave a Comment