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.