JOURNALISM AT ITS BEST AND WORST
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
LOS ANGELES, Jan. 16, 2006 -- To understand what is best and what is worst in today's newspaper journalism, one has only to consider this week's Los Angeles Times. There was reporting of importance and there was editorializing that seems to have missed the point intentionally.
Let's talk about some reporting first. The Friday, Jan. 13 edition of the Times carried an article about Democratic gubernatorial hopeful and current state Controller Steve Westly. Headlined "Westly's War Chest: $24 Million," the article appears on the first page of part B and jumps to page B8. For those not familiar with California politics, our current governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, is perceived to be vulnerable as he comes up for reelection in November. The two Democrats given the best chance of winning in the primary election are Westly and state Treasurer Phil Angelides.
Authors Michael Finnegan and Dan Morain have done an excellent job in sketching out the financial particulars that are developing in this campaign. Without doing justice to the article in its entirety, let me summarize a few particulars. Steve Westly made a fortune as one of the founders of EBay. Not a small fortune either. Westly's earnings, as reported in this article, are more like a quarter of a billion dollars, as in billion with a capital B: "He has released tax returns showing more than $225 million in adjusted gross income over the last decade." Westly has now contributed $20 million of his own money to his campaign.
Here's where it gets interesting. Down near the end of the article on page B-8, we read the following: "Overall, Westly has tapped a wide array of donors. Many come from his home base of the Silicon valley; some do business with the controller's office and others would have issues before the next governor." Skipping ahead a few paragraphs, right near the end we read, "In at least one case, Westly took money from individuals who work for a company that does business with the controller's office. Employees of Affiliated Computer Services Inc. gave $2,550 to the candidate. ACS is one of two companies authorized by the controller to review the books of the financial services companies seeking money that should be turned over to the state as unclaimed property." Westly's deputy chief of staff Yusef K. Robb is cited: "Robb said there was no link between state business and the donation ..."
Sure there isn't.
To Westly, this may be chump change, but to the donors it is a sort of ritual, an understanding if you will, that you support candidates who do you financial favors.
The article also mentions that Westly reported total campaign holdings of $24.1 million as of the beginning of 2006. Doing a little math ($24.1 million minus $20 million), it is clear that Westly has already raised enough money from outside sources to run an entire governor's campaign in most states. As we read in the Times article, at least some of that money comes from donors who have a direct financial interest in having the ear of the controller and/or governor. Those of us without terminal naivety can reasonably infer that the money was given with this purpose in mind.
The authors mention the opponent: "Angelides, one of California's most seasoned campaign fundraisers, reported $14.4 million in the bank at the end of June."
For what it intends, this is excellent reporting. It is of course based on financial disclosure forms filed by the candidates, with a few pro forma followup questions to an aide, but it gets the job done. In our modern campaign environment of required donation filings, there is plenty of information to mine, and the Times reporters have shoveled assiduously.
In a few short paragraphs, our intrepid scribes have revealed that our campaign finance system is corrupt to the core, with candidates taking real cash money from companies that need favors. If the money were going into the candidate's pocket instead of into a campaign fund, it would be considered bribery and could lead to criminal charges.
As an aside, even campaign donations can be criminal under the wrong circumstances. If it could be demonstrated that any such gifts were part of some quid pro quo, it would also be a crime. It is only because such donations are hard to connect with what they buy, that we don't see criminal complaints filed more often.
So this one little article ostensibly reporting on the developing horse race for the Democratic nomination manages to insert, ever so deftly, its cautionary tale. Of course, under the prevailing rules that are known as "objective" journalism, the reporters are not allowed to finish the story. The fact that Steve Westly, like every other successful candidate, manages to squeeze money out of people and companies that require his governmental help is mentioned, but the tone is muted and the ugly facts are buried near the bottom of a back page.
The astute reader can figure it out if he is so predisposed, but the story is left uncompleted as far as the casual reader is concerned. Under the prevailing rules and traditions, it would not be considered acceptable for the story to include language such as the following: "Once again, fund raising disclosures have revealed this sorry story, that candidates sell their souls to wealthy interests who have business before the state government, and there is nothing in all our thousands of laws to stop them."
When you mention this problem to news people, they respond that it's the sort of thing that belongs in the editorial section. There is a strong counter argument to be made, but for the purposes of this discussion, let's accept it as a rhetorical point and continue. So now, let's see how the editorial section covered a scandal.
The Tuesday, Jan. 10 edition of the Times ran a lead editorial titled "Dreier's dilemma."
It begins, "GOP leaders in Congress must have had quite a weekend devising a crash program to corral the scandal spreading from lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The announcement Sunday that House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert would give the job to Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas) had a slapdash feel, with Dreier hastily flying back to Washington from California. He takes charge of a legislative effort low on specifics but intended, in Dreier's words, to "deal with this issue and get it behind us as quickly as possible."
This reads like the intro to a stand-up routine. The part about "get it behind us" is reminiscent of the now all-but-forgotten pleas that we get President Bill Clinton's issues behind us and "move on." You would think that the Times editors would have the wit to respond to this obvious attempt at minimizing something that is getting to be quite huge. After all, the developing story has been referred to in other venues as the biggest Washington scandal since Teapot Dome.
What little wit there is has been inserted well down inn the next paragraph, where the anonymous author(s) write, "And Abramoff buddy Tom DeLay of Texas said he would not, after all, seek to regain his post as House majority leader once he has dealt with that pesky Texas criminal indictment." At least we got that sarcastic "pesky."
Here's where the Times starts to come off the track: The next paragraph begins, "Dreier is really in a pickle. There is no fast way to get rid of the scandal, and no stomach in the House leadership for legislation that would close the profitable revolving door between legislative offices and the lobbying industry." After explaining the "K Street Project" (the House Republicans' now-decade-long move to force lobbying firms to hire Republicans, get rid of Democrats, and donate vast sums of money to the Republicans while limiting donations to Democrats), the Times squeaks, mouse-like, "The project is one reason the lobbying scandal isn't very partisan."
Now it becomes completely derailed: "If Dreier and Hastert were serious, they would take as a starting point a bill by U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) to open the lobbying industry's doings to public scrutiny and to choke off the flow of favors (which in other cultures would be known as bribes). The bill isn't perfect, but it has teeth and has already been introduced in the Senate."
Apparently the Times' editors are blissfully unaware of history. They ignore the well established fact that the Republicans, rather than undertaking the reforms they had promised upon taking power in 1995, turned government into the vastly more corrupt, bullying, cynical abuse of power and influence that it has remained. No, there is nothing wrong with considering regulation of the lobbying industry, but history suggests that honest people have dealt with it more honestly in the past without McCain's proposed legislation. And anyway, that is not really the issue of the moment. It is crime in government.
The Times editorial doesn't even skirt the issue. It evades and avoids it completely.
Let's see how the Times concludes its "see no evil" editorial in two cynical paragraphs. Read 'em and weep:
"Abramoff's golf trips have helped put influence-peddling in a context that every voter can understand. But compared to the entanglements of campaign funding, they are puny. And as a practical matter, House members like Dreier have to get themselves reelected every two years.
"If the main aim of the party in power is to stay in power, it can't choke off the flow of lobbyists' millions. That's why Dreier's call to "get this behind us" sounds more like a yearning for damage control than an awakening of conscience."
Besides the obvious evasion - pretending that the Abramoff scandal is unrelated to campaign funding - the Times is taking the position at least implicitly that keeping this Republican government in power is a worthy goal.
A more honest approach would be to point out the obvious - that the House Republican leadership is fatally flawed, corrupt to its core, damaging to the country, historically boastful of its ethical lapses, and most assuredly, worthy of being thrown out of office.
Instead, we get this mish-mash of an editorial that evades the essential point.
As we have discussed previously, there is something fundamentally unsatisfying about this style of editorializing - the anonymity that is so lacking in voice, courage or vigor, the subtly inserted Republican Party solidarity, and most particularly, the failure to tell the story completely and fairly.
What makes this approach particularly egregious is that the "news" side of the paper depends on the editorial side to complete the equation, to write that corruption in fundraising is routine, that it should not be considered acceptable, and that we need to do something about the problem.
The Times has lots of pages to fill and spends millions filling them. It's curious that they don't have room for those few sentences.