A FREE AND UNAGGRESSIVE PRESS
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif.
LOS ANGELES -- A few days before the city's primary election, the Los Angeles Times ran a devastating expose of the corruption endemic to our system, then buried most of it in the back pages. It is a record of terrific reporting but simultaneously represents a failure of nerve on the part of the paper as a whole.
From a different perspective, it is the story of how campaign finance disclosure laws have not turned out to be as successful as their proponents may have hoped they would.
The March 4, 2005 edition contains the story of interest, beginning below the fold on page B1, "Campaigns Largely Funded by Those With City Contracts." Written by Patrick McGreevy, it begins:
The top contenders in the race for Los Angeles mayor, who will spend about $10 million before Tuesday, have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from developers, attorneys and labor unions, many of whom have city contracts or other business with the city.
The story goes on to explore the donor pools behind each of the mayoral candidacies. (The details have been made available on the www.latimes.com web site.) If you happen to care about creating a government that is accountable to the public rather than to businesses that make money off of city contracts, it makes for unpleasant reading.
What do we learn?
Each of the three leading candidates has a law firm for a sugar daddy. McGreevy writes of Hahn, "The contributions include $17,900 from attorneys with Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, which has received about $1 million in the last few years representing the city's interests." Of Hertzberg, we learn, "The Sherman Oaks attorney received $237,848 from law firms and attorneys, including $26,527 from Mayer, Brown, Rowe and Maw, and 35 of its attorneys. Hertzberg works for Mayer, Brown, and the firm has a contract with the city to provide outside legal help." Of frontrunner Antonio Villaraigosa, we learn, "Villaraigosa raised $133,600 from law firms and attorneys, including O'Melveny & Myers, which has received more than $2 million from city contracts in the last few years."
McGreevy's article goes on to name real estate developers, contractors, port-associated shipping lines, trash haulers, a billboard operator and numerous unions, all dependent on city money or favorable terms.
So now, thanks to the Los Angeles Times, we know who the new owners of the city government are going to be. Perhaps that is too cynical a take on the process, but if O'Melveny & Myers have ever dropped a couple of hundred smackers in my shoe, it has slipped my memory. And, I must confess, billboard companies are not beating down my door to hand me checks.
Then again, I don't vote on city contracts that bestow hundreds of thousands of dollars or lucrative favors on the lucky recipients.
Isn't this what the "pay to play" scandal is all about? The only difference here is that the payment part is further removed from the play part. Or to put it a little more technically, the direct quid pro quo establishing a specific vote for a specific payoff - a crime under our laws - is not directly demonstrable. But it is understood by the wink and the nod that constitutes the reality of our political system that city contractors are expected to toss a little something in the campaign pot. We all understand that these payments are viewed by donors and lawmakers alike as the price to play the game, even if technically, they are not felonies.
If you care about honest government, it is still an outrage.
We therefore have to offer thanks to the Times, Patrick McGreevy and to Times researcher Maloy Moore for analyzing the campaign donation listings and reporting on the findings.
The problem I have is that the Times did not trumpet them loudly enough. It did not run front page headlines in bold type announcing that our city government has been sold to private interests. Sure, this is nothing new, but it's something that needs to be said again and again, as long as it remains true.
What's missing is attitude. Attitude in the sense of the chip on the shoulder, the crusading spirit to right wrongs, attitude in the sense of the slogan spoken by that fictional reporter who stood for "truth, justice, and the American way." It's not necessarily anger or vindictiveness, but it means at the very least the determination to communicate the truth about what is wrong and to make sure that the whole community gets the message.
It's curious that in an era when the anti-journalism of talk radio gets huge ratings, and cable television faux news channels are a growth industry, the daily newspapers continue to wilt and to shrink. In an era of sensationalism, they concentrate on weight-loss stories. They don't get it.
It's not that the Times fails to publish the facts. McGreevy's article is an example of the best that journalism has to offer. The question is why there is no crusading spirit in print journalism that would be appropriate to the magnitude of the story.
The cynics will reply that the big-city daily newspapers are just parts of corporate multimedia conglomerates. They will argue that the last thing the corporate media would ever want to do would be to arouse the public against institutional power and corruption. Perhaps this is the case, but we can hope that it is not.
A more sunny outlook still requires us to ask why we don't see good old fashioned crusading journalism like they show in the movies. It is a tradition that goes back to the pamphleteers of the revolutionary era.
The only problem is that the crusading "journalists" of the present are, more often than not, the internet pretenders of the "blog-sphere," the right wingers on talk radio and the screamers on the cable tv shows.
Perhaps the publishers of the big-city dailies are trying to maintain a certain gravitas. They understand that the foundation underlying their existence as newspapers is their credibility. Once lost, it is hard to regain. Perhaps they see sensationalism as a blow to their hard-won reputation for seriousness and truthfulness. Perhaps they equate a shrill tone with yellow journalism. Once you go this far down the road, it is easy to view stylistic flourishes as journalistic irresponsibility.
The logic for this view, if it is indeed what newspaper publishers think, is weak. Credibility is based on getting your facts right. It is not a service to credibility to underplay the importance of your findings. It is possible to raise the tone far enough to get attention without going completely over the top. The Times should be running these stories on the front page above the fold. Then it should take editorial positions consistent with the view that this is not an acceptable way to run a local government. It should do these things repeatedly until the system changes.
The problem is not just a failure of journalism. Reformers had high hopes for mandatory reporting requirements. It was hoped that making campaign finance reports public would serve to diminish the worst excesses, and that the public would insist on cleaner government once it had the information available to it.
This is clearly not the case. The fact that any person and any newspaper can get the campaign donor reports (in this case, you can pull them up simply by going to http://ethics.lacity.org) has not resulted in the popular revolt that was anticipated.
This may be part of the problem. Perhaps the newspapers don't treat the campaign donor information as the big scoop for the simple reason that it is easily obtainable public information. McGreevy didn't need to arrange clandestine meetings in the back of a parking garage with somebody named Deep Throat - he just took names and numbers off the internet or out of a filing cabinet at City Hall, and then asked his researcher to add up the money from each law firm.
In other words, perhaps the news media don't treat campaign donation stories as importantly as they should because these stories are not the result of "investigative journalism" in the more traditional cloak-and-dagger sense.
The easy rejoinder is that most of us won't do the serious work that the Times did on this story. A story like this won't be researched and published unless a serious news organization allocates the manpower and the column inches.
So far, the Times has taken us halfway. A truly public-minded editor would keep the story in front of the public and take it to the next level. I hope to see, some day, the city's newspapers making the connection between each contribution and all the favors large and small that the mayor and the City Council bestow upon its donor. When that era comes to pass, we will know whether or not the public is as apathetic as the cynics take it to be.