ILLEGAL PARKING MAKES HEADLINES
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
LOS ANGELES, Aug. 14, 2005 -- Two daily newspapers here devoted dozens of column inches to a story about an illegally-parked car yesterday. This silliness was in response to an Internet posting which alleged, without actual proof, misconduct by a public official. The overall issue is how the mainstream media sometimes are manipulated by bloggers of questionable capabilities and ethics.
The uncontested core of the story is that a city-owned Honda supplied to Councilwoman Janice Hahn was parked in a handicapped-only parking space on Thursday morning in the Watts district of Los Angeles. One blog offered up a set of photographs of the car in the clearly identifiable handicapped zone. However, no evidence has been put forth showing that Hahn herself was driving, or was even in the car when it was parked.
The story was broken by a blog with the title, "Mayor Sam's Sister City," at http://mayorsam.blogspot.com, which refers to the late Sam Yorty, who was Mayor of Los Angeles from 1961 until 1973. The running joke is that the blog is written by Mayor Sam and a few of his friends from beyond the grave.
The anonymous author (or authors) goes by the name of former mayors Sam Yorty and Frank Shaw (the most cirrupt in its history), along with former police chief William Parker. All the referenced people are long since deceased. Naturally, the blog is devoted to Los Angeles politics and government.
The story in question appeared Friday and was headlined "Janice Hahn Hates Handicapped People." It was posted under the putative authorship of "Chief Parker."
It begins, "Mayor's Frank, Sam and I were out enjoying this great city earlier today when to our surprise we see Councilwoman Janice Hahn, which was great, considering we were in her district. And then we saw the most abusive action - her city car was parked in a handicapped space.
"Mayor Frank immediately turned to me and asked 'When did Janice get hurt?', to which I replied, 'I have no idea.'
"Well, the truth is she wasn't - she was abusing her power as a councilwoman and parked in a handicapped space."
The author adds melodramatically, "Let this be a lesson to folks that disagree or do things that upset me, I am watching you. And more likely than not, I already know your deep dark secrets."
We readers are probably not meant to take this fanciful dialogue seriously, but rather to understand it as a fictionalized account. Perhaps the blogger has inferred something on the basis of a digital photo that was sent to him anonymously. We really don't know for sure about any of this though, because Mayor Sam's keeps the identities of its participants secret. Perhaps the bloggers were witness to something. The journalistic problems begin to emerge as we consider such questions.
Other local Internet sites picked up the story. The blogger who goes by the name Boi from Troy wrote:
City Councilwoman Janice Hahn - who like George Bush believes the best way to solve a crisis is to create one - has decided to add parking for the handicapped to the list of amenities, such as solid waste disposal, that she wishes to take away from residents of the City of Los Angeles.
A blog called "Drink This" wrote, "Is LA Councilwoman Janice Hahn handicapped, or does her government position make her feel she is above following official policies and procedures of the D.O.T. and entitled to [hate] disrespect the handicapped?" (The word "hate" is posted in strikethrough text in the original.)
It was quite the piling-on, but the nastiness isn't justified by the data. To summarize the evidence, thin as it is, a car supplied by the city to Councilwoman Janice Hahn was ostensibly photographed as it sat in a parking space reserved for cars with handicapped placards. Nobody is shown in or near the car in the photographs, nor is the time or place specified.
Nevertheless, the Los Angeles Times and the Daily Breeze ran articles about the incident on Saturday, Aug. 13. Reporters David Zahniser of the Breeze and Steve Hymon of the Times each got responses from the councilwoman about the claims.
The background of this story is that Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Councilwoman Hahn appeared at a press conference in Watts on Thursday, the 40th anniversary of the 1965 Watts riot.
In the newspaper articles by Hymon and Zahniser, Councilwoman Hahn said that she was dropped off at the location of Thursday's press conference by one of her staff, and that the staffer took the car away and parked it in the handicapped zone. She apologized for the incident and told Hymon that the person responsible had been "severely reprimanded." Both newspaper stories quote Hahn as expressing her embarrassment that her car and staff were involved.
In a city of nearly four million people, which endures many hundreds of murders and a hundreds thousand felonies each year, two major newspapers devoted hundreds of words to a case of illegal parking. True, it involved a city car, but there was no evidence or testimony linking Janice Hahn to the action other than that she says that she rode in the car on the way to a public event.
Mayor Sam's Website not only took note of the newspaper stories, but posted both of them within hours of their appearance. Faced with Janice Hahn's statements that she was not directly involved in parking the car, the Website's authors offer no rebuttal; we may surmise that they have none. Yet the anonymous Web authors continued to crow about the now-debunked "scoop."
Here is how Mayor Sam's Saturday posting was introduced: "Since Chief Parker likes to enjoy his Friday evenings and he more than earned his keep yesterday with his excellent scoop on Councilwoman Hahn's parking habits , I thought I'd post a few stories from this morning so that you don't have to wait until noon when he gets up."
Note that the blog's author refers directly to "Councilwoman Hahn's parking habits," in spite of the fact that the newspaper articles contain denials that she was involved. Note further that the Mayor Sam's blogger offers no further evidence to bolster a rapidly deteriorating argument.
This is not journalism in any traditional sense. In repeating an accusation in the presence of directly contradictory statements, it fails the tests of logic, evidence and ethical behavior.
The story should have died right there.
Yet somehow, this story achieved the status of scandal, at least locally. By Saturday afternoon, the newspaper stories were a matter of eager public discussion in Janice's Hahn's home port of San Pedro.
That the whole affair was based on little substance suggests that the underlying force driving public interest was the propensity of some people to believe ill of Janice Hahn.
The latter point is neither surprising nor new. Janice Hahn is unabashedly and unapologetically liberal and has been the target of local right-wing radio hosts, newspaper editorialists and letter writers. It must have been unbearably tempting to go with a photo of an empty car and try to raise the story to scandalous proportions.
My question concerns the newspaper coverage. Why the Breeze considered this story so hot that it ran on page A3 is not entirely clear. One explanation may be that local radio stations were carrying it. This would have raised the stakes considerably, inspiring legitimate news venues such as the Breeze to evaluate the claims and put the findings into print.
It is sobering to think that the cause of this fuss was nothing more than a photo on a blog that was substantially overinterpreted, and that out of this came the media overplay.
The sloppiness of the blogs' coverage is notable. One blogger referred to above managed to get the location wrong, mentioning San Pedro rather than Watts. Few newspaper reporters would make this kind of elementary error. After all, doesn't every beginning journalism student learn about the basic elements, "Who, what, when, where, why?"
The bloggers didn't just miss the "where" part. The whole basis of the story depends on "who," and that wasn't determined until Janice Hahn herself gave an explanation. And that didn't happen until responsible print reporters made the effort to ask her.
We might take note that in the whole litany of "who, what, when, where, why," there is not even one element that is entirely satisfied by any of the blog postings. The print reporters, of course, got every one, because that is what they do.
We should also take note that the original story was not handled by Mayor Sam's according to traditional journalistic ethics. Even the most minimal effort would require that the authors attempt to contact Janice Hahn's office for an explanation.
Of course, this would not be consistent with maintaining one's "secret identity" as an anonymous blogger.
This further suggests that there is a contradiction between anonymous blogging and journalistic ethics.
This seems to be the basic lesson of the illegal parking story: Some bloggers violate the traditions of mainstream journalism and don't get called on it. Rather, they sometimes break stories because they have lower standards of proof compared to those of more traditional media.
The problem for today is that the story that got broken is really not a story. In lowering the evidentiary requirements so much, some non-stories get elevated to stories, particularly when the authors have axes to grind.
In this case, the original target has not been legitimately skewered, and no new evidence has been forthcoming. We are left to wonder how the mainstream media were manipulated so effectively into taking up this story.
Not all of the bloggers who covered this story were so inept. Some (such as LAobserved) took note of the story but gave the distilled essence without the wild speculation. Once again, the lesson comes through that some bloggers maintain journalistic standards while others have apparently never heard of them.
Taken as a whole, the universe of bloggers continues to include gossip mongering amateurs just as much as it includes legitimate journalists.