Patterico's Pontifications

3/25/2007

The Real Scandal at the L.A. Times

Filed under: Dog Trainer,General — Patterico @ 8:19 am



On March 17, I noticed that Bud Cummins, one of the fired U.S. Attorneys, had directly contradicted the major premise of an L.A. Times article published about him. It’s now been over a week, and the paper has done nothing to correct the record. It appears clear to me that they aren’t going to tell their readers that the subject of an article has publicly claimed that the central premise of the article was wrong.

If you’re looking for an L.A. Times scandal, you’ve found it. This nonsense about Andres Martinez isn’t a scandal. Hiding the truth from your readers is.

On March 16, the L.A. Times published a story titled Cummins fears corruption investigation led to his firing. The article said that Cummins had looked into allegations relating to potential corruption by Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt. It quoted Cummins as speculating that this investigation may have had something to do with his being fired: “Now I keep asking myself: ‘What about the Blunt deal?'”

In an e-mail to TPM Muckraker, Cummins said that The Times got it wrong (all emphasis mine):

Unfortunately, that isn’t what I said, or at least what I intended to say, and it is not the case.

The context of my conversation with LA Times reporter Richard Serrano was clearly that I do not know of ANY connection between the Missouri investigation (which actually had nothing to do with Governor Blunt) and my termination.

I posted about this on March 17, quoting Cummins’s e-mail. I wrote the Readers’ Representative about this on March 18. On March 19, the Readers’ Representative acknowledged receiving the e-mail, and said that she would review the issue with editors and let me know what the thinking is.

It’s now March 25 — eight days from when I first posted about this, and a full week from when I first wrote the paper about it. No correction has issued. The paper has made no reference to Cummins’s denial of the central premise of the story. As far as the readers of the Los Angeles Times know, Bud Cummins thinks his firing may be related to a political investigation. Times readers have no idea that Cummins has explicitly said that he knows of no such connection.

Even if the paper stands by its quotation of Cummins, it owes readers the information that Cummins 1) denies that he said what the Times article attributed to him; and 2) says that, even if that’s somehow what he said, he doesn’t believe that it’s true.

The paper’s failure to communicate this information to readers is scandalous and inexcusable.

Which leads me to John Podhoretz. He has a wonderful post about the recent Andres Martinez non-scandal, in which Martinez, the former L.A. Times editorial page editor, gave a one-time guest editor spot to a client of his girlfriend’s P.R. firm. Like me, Podhoretz thinks this is a non-scandal, and contrasts it with the real scandal of putting out a horrible newspaper. Here’s Podhoretz:

When serious people criticize the media, they talk about serious things: Is the news being skewed? Is the public getting an incomplete picture due to biased coverage? Does the follow-the-leader approach of the mainstream media turn minor stories into major scandals? And so on.

This is exactly the point I have been making for days about the Martinez non-scandal. For example, in this post, I noted that, unlike the Martinez non-scandal, the paper’s handling of the U.S. Attorney scandal creates a real appearance of impropriety — because it shows that the paper doesn’t care about portraying the facts in a fair light. Podhoretz puts it well:

The problem with the L.A. Times is that it is a dull, characterless, mindlessly liberal piece of junk whose managers don’t know the difference between a real scandal — the scandal that is putting out a newspaper as bad as the Times in the second largest city in the country — and a fake one.

Which is par for the course when the newspaper industry decides to police itself.

Sing it, brother! And Mark Steyn piles on:

The “appearance of a conflict of interest” in the Times scandal is supposedly this: Brian Grazer, Mister Bigshot Hollywood Producer, was invited to guest-edit a section, but it turns out he uses a PR firm which employs a gal who dates an editor at the Times. How this can raise any “integrity” issues is beyond me. If the obscure Times functionary is trying to figure out a way to get to Grazer, using a personal contact who has an in is exactly what journalists are meant to do. Or is the “conflict of interest” supposed to be the other way round? That Brian Grazer, one of the most powerful men in the most powerful industry in town, had been panting all his life for the opportunity to guest-edit four pages of sludge in the local fishwrap but had no way of bringing himself to the attention of a minor Times functionary except through his PR lady’s pillow talk? If the paper truly believes that, it certainly explains a lot.

. . . .

Read this story about the LA “scandal”, as reported by no less than three New York Times reporters in their own inert house style. Doesn’t everyone quoted on every side of the story sound like a sanctimonious pill you’d hate to get stuck in an elevator with?

So what’s going on here, if so many people agree with me that this alleged “scandal” really isn’t one? I believe that a cabal of left-wingers blew up this nonscandal as a way to embarrass Martinez. I articulated my theory here, and provided further support for it here.

The real scandal at the L.A. Times has nothing to do with Andres Martinez — and everything to do with the paper hiding the truth from its readers.

25 Responses to “The Real Scandal at the L.A. Times”

  1. Remember that Martinez quit, he wasn’t fired. So the “cabal” was only asking that the appearance of a conflict not lead to publication. The Times decision that may have been an over-reaction was to spike the Current section due out today Sunday.
    Martinez’s publisher decided not to print it. Maybe Hiller the publisher didn’t know the depth of feeling associated with Staples and the lingering stain and he had to be reminded by those who lived through it.

    And as to going after Martinez–I doubt that the “lefties” in the newsroom would go after Martinez hoping that Hiller would replace him with someone more “liberal.” If nothing else, the newsies are realists. Hiller, with his many associations with the inner GOP circle (he served in the Reagan Justice Dept.) is not going to go left for his editorial page editor and he is not signing lefty editorials, either.

    peter warren (f7c0b3)

  2. The cabal was looking to embarrass Martinez and put him in an untenable position.

    The Staples Center scandal was far more meaningful than this.

    Patterico (04465c)

  3. Isn’t this oddly similar to the whole Larry Summers/Harvard fiasco from last year? A group of lefty underlings who want to make a power play take what is at best a minor transgression (and in fact, is arguably not a problem at all) and blow it all out of proportion as a way of letting the Man in Charge know that they can make his life miserable if they want. Even though Martinez may not have been in the same executive level as Summers, doesn’t this seem to be the same modus operandi leading to the same result?

    JVW (63f266)

  4. I’d say the resignation of Martinez and the Cummins controversy happening back-to-back is just happenstance. Even if the first hadn’t happened the liberal vanguard in the Times’ newsroom would still be trying ti push the op-ed page towards the New York Times’ fantasyland view of the world, and even if the latter hadn’t happened, the Times would have struggled mightily to avoid running a correction.

    Too many veteran reporters at the bigger dailies suffer from a “messiah complex” in that they truly believe their job is not just to report the news but to change the world with their reporting — hence Martinez’s claim that reporters at the Times were pitching ideas to the editorial department (yes, young reporters also get into the business to “change the world”, but hardly any are presumptuious enough to think changing the world starts with them altering the op-ed page by telling their to tie their editorials into your story’s slant). The fact that L.A. is a single-paper city also contributes to the newsroom’s hubris; the veteran reporters are stuck in the mindset that they are the lone source of news for the people who matter in the Southland, and that they can affect policy by directing the agenda. It’s also why reporters (and some columnists) at the paper loathe websites like this one, since they’re basically doing the job of reporting the Times’ errors in the same way opposing papers in other large cities keep each other somewhat in line (in New York, the Times may not listen or care to the snipes from the Post, News, Sun or Internet bloggers, but their foul-ups are reported by the other dailies, and if the Times keeps hemmeoraging cash they way they have as of late, that attitude can’t last very much longer).

    John (4aae5a)

  5. Recall that Martinez never said the reporters were pitching what he should say and the stance he should take in editorial–he said one emailed the publisher and another emailed him asking that the editorial pages should write about stuff in the news pages–not ignore it.

    peter warren (f7c0b3)

  6. I’d say the resignation of Martinez and the Cummins controversy happening back-to-back is just happenstance.

    I’m not trying to say they’re tied together. I’m contrasting them: one (the Cummins issue) is a real scandal, and one (the resignation) resulted from something that really is not.

    Patterico (04465c)

  7. Recall that Martinez never said the reporters were pitching what he should say and the stance he should take in editorial–he said one emailed the publisher and another emailed him asking that the editorial pages should write about stuff in the news pages–not ignore it.

    That’s not quite so. He said that part of the resentment was “ideological.”

    Patterico (04465c)

  8. It’s possible that Cummins regrets being so frank and is now trying to backtrack. There is a certain ambivalence in “that isn’t what I said or at least intended to say…”

    You indicate that Cummins took his complaints about the quote to “TPM Muckraker.” Do you know whether he has contacted the LAT reporter or anyone else at the paper to complain about the quote or retract it?

    Tim McGarry (8a3057)

  9. as to John’s comment that “too many veteran reporters” have a messiah complex.
    I can agree with that as ONE would be too many, but why do I doubt that he knows or has spent any substantial time in conversation with any veteran reporters.

    peter warren (f7c0b3)

  10. Patterico–you are usually pretty good on this stuff, but even you know you are reaching here.
    Resentment isnt advocacy.
    Recall that Martinez was very careful in how he described the so-called interference; one was a case of a content editor emailing the publisher and suggesting the editorial pages might want to write about a major investigative series, and the other was a much lower level (lower than Martinez) non-content editor calling Martinez to suggest coverage coordination between news and editorial.
    He obviously ignored her and felt he had the power to do so.
    That people in the newsroom resented him for ideological reasons isn’t action; rather it could be likened to someone lusting in his heart or wanting to steal. Thoughts aren’t actions and your taking Martinez’s carefully constructed email and moving beyond the facts won’t change the facts of what he said.

    peter warren (f7c0b3)

  11. It’s now March 25 — eight days from when I first posted about this, and a full week from when I first wrote the paper about it. No correction has issued.

    They’re too busy sending make-up floral arrangements to Grazer.

    Patricia (824fa1)

  12. Peter —

    Trust me, I’ve been to enough journalism events to know there are newsroom folks who are supremely confident in knowing what they know is the absolute final word on the subject.

    I’m not saying there aren’t a lot of good reporters out there, but there are a lot of others who would best be suited for an advocacy journalism outlet than for working at a paper like the Times that has no competition in a large major city (and in their defense as far as reporting ability, it seems that their passion for advocacy jornalism is in large part what drives them to being as committed to the stories as they are).

    That’s fine if you’re writing for LA Weekly, or the Nation, or on the right, for a publication like National Review. And obviuosly, if you’re covering a story in such a way that it’s pointed towards your own political views, you’re going to treat it like a day at the beach. The problem is you’re not always right, there are other sides to a story, and even if covering those other sides feels like a day at the dentist instead of a day at the beach, you’ve got to cover that other side and include it in your reporting.

    As for interfering with the op-ed page, you can hope that your beliefs and the angle of your story meshes with the editorial page’s feelings, but when you start trying to create some sort of synergy between what the editorial page says and the way the newsroom handles a story, you’re in dangerous territory (and the reverse would be true if the editorial department started handing out assignments in the newsroom).

    Al Gore’s absolutism in saying that the argument on Global Warming is over and anyone who disagrees in morally flawed was offensive if for no other reason than the belief that we’ve come to “the end of science” on the subject and there’s nothing more that can be proved, let alone investigated. Absolutism about your beliefs by reporters is just as bad and ends up creating the “messiah complex” type of stories that don’t just attempt to report the news, but try to lead the paper’s readers in the reporters’ direction under the belief that any other position is morally wrong.

    John (4aae5a)

  13. but when you start trying to create some sort of synergy between what the editorial page says and the way the newsroom handles a story…

    That is a far cry from telling the editorial writers what to say or assigning them pieces to write. As far as I can tell, no one involved has alleged this in this controversy. this is your claim without support except for your charge that what reporters say at “events” jibes with how they handle stories.

    The good professionals don’t do that. But I think we agree that there may be some outliers in the Times and other newsrooms. That is why blogs serve a useful niche. Too bad the blogs can’t afford to do reporting, for the most part.

    peter warren (f7c0b3)

  14. That is a far cry from telling the editorial writers what to say or assigning them pieces to write. As far as I can tell, no one involved has alleged this in this controversy.

    Including me. So don’t pretend I did. If you think I did, find me a quote.

    I think they tried to influence what the op-ed page did. It seems to be the most logical interpretation of Martinez’s statement:

    Some of the resentment of the opinion page’s newfound independence is ideological . . .

    I noted that statement earlier, peter warren, and you have ignored it, as if I didn’t say it. Instead, you put words in my mouth that I never said.

    To repeat: Martinez said “Some of the resentment of the opinion page’s newfound independence is ideological . . .” What does that mean?

    Patterico (04465c)

  15. Do you know whether he has contacted the LAT reporter or anyone else at the paper to complain about the quote or retract it?

    No, but I know I took the issue to the paper.

    Do you think the paper is off the hook because Cummins complained to another source, and a third party notified the paper????

    Patterico (04465c)

  16. Also, Tim: regardless of who told them, shouldn’t LAT readers get the full picture, in your view?

    Patterico (04465c)

  17. The real scandal at the LA Times that nobody dares to look at? Try this one. John Handly, who is the night janitor’s assistant and who is responsible for the purchase of toilet tissue and paper toilet seat covers, was rumored to be sleeping with Donna D’Angelo who just happens to be the cousin of Frank Fisher, the same Frank Fisher who sells the toilet supplies to the Times. Fisher allowed himself to be convinced by Handly to change products so that the lowest quailtiy tissue, the stuff meant for the employees, would be installed in the executive rest rooms instead. This plot was done in order to cause the higher ups at the Times to dirty their fingers while swiping. That is how the accusations of “brown handing” started, the accusations which have caused several resignations at the Tribune offices in Chicago. Why people like you, who pretend to cover important stories, have failed to comment on this is another more than questionable set of facts.

    Duke (4ba8d4)

  18. Patrick, I’m not sure how much news value Cummins ambivalent afterthoughts have. It kind of reminds me of that old children’s game where if you say something with your fingers crossed, it doesn’t count.

    Tim McGarry (c558bc)

  19. Have you read his e-mail? He was not ambivalent on 1) his continued belief that the Admnistration had acted wrongly; and 2) the fact that he had absolutely no suspicion of a connection between the case he investigated and his firing.

    If you describe his e-mail as “ambivalent” on these issues, that leads me to suspect you haven’t read it.

    The link to it is in the post, should you wish to.

    Patterico (04465c)

  20. OK,now I’ve read the entire e-mail, not just the portion you quoted in your post. He’s clearly ambivalent about whether or not he was misquoted. Not once, but twice, he allows that he may have said what the reporter attributes to him.

    I don’t believe any correction is warranted.

    I wasn’t there and can’t know what actually passed between Cummins and the reporter. However, in the course of my work, I’ve seen a lot of people try to wriggle out of things they’ve said to reporters. I once worked with an executive who told a roomful of company higher-ups that he’d been misquoted. Of course, I’d arranged the interview for him and was in the room with him as it proceeded and he wasn’t misquoted at all. He just very fervently wished he hadn’t said it. After we left the meeting, I pulled him aside and suggested we quietly drop the matter. I made it clear that we would not be complaining to the reporter. That was the end of it.

    More often, of course, what I’ve seen is the kind of hemming and hawing Cummins exhibits.

    If Cummins really believes he was misquoted, he should take it up with the paper. It doesn’t appear likely that he will. I think I have an idea why.

    Tim McGarry (798820)

  21. Interesting theory, Tim. One small problem with it: why did he bother to e-mail TPM Muckraker, then?

    You described his e-mail as “ambivalent afterthoughts.” I encourage anyone who even considers giving credence to your argument to do that which you apparently did only after questioning my post: read Cummins’s actual e-mail. I agree that he is less certain on the issue of whether the specific quote he gave is accurate than he is in his absolutely confident assertion that he didn’t mean what Serrano claims he meant, and that this was clear from the context of the conversation. This assertion of his is made more credible by his continuing criticism of the Administration, showing that he is not simply showing remorse over antagonizing them. Serrano’s position is, in my view, made less credible by his other distortions of the controversy, which I have documented in recent days.

    You are showing support for gotcha journalism practiced by a reporter with a demonstrated track record of distorting this issue. (Before you take issue with me on this, do me a favor and read my posts; in other words, try doing your homework *before* you tell me I’m wrong. It will appear more credible, even if it really isn’t.)

    My bottom line: readers deserve the whole picture. Your bottom line appears to be that the reporter always gets the benefit of the doubt, and that if Serrano played “gotcha” accurately (something that is not proved, and which I doubt), then the fact that Cummins disputes the whole premise of the article is irrelevant and can be safely hidden from the public’s view.

    I couldn’t invent a better example of the guild mentality if I tried.

    Patterico (38f677)

  22. Patrick, my point is simply that Cummins admits he may have been quoted correctly. If so, no correction is warranted.

    Tim McGarry (798820)

  23. Tim,

    Hypo for you.

    PATTERICO: So, what do you think of your employer, Tim?

    TIM MCGARRY: My employer is great. But based on a game I play with him, I’m going to answer your question a different way. My employer is full of shit. Now, of course, when I say that, I’m just kidding. Seriously, my employer is one of the greatest guys I’ve ever known. I say he’s full of shit because he and I have this inside joke we play where, whenever someone on the outside asks us what we think of each other, we have agreed that we will say the other is full of shit. Of course, we always agree we will clarify that we don’t really mean it, as I am clarifying now.

    PATTERICO: “Full of shit.” Gotcha. Thanks for your time.

    PATTERICO later writes an article that says:

    “Tim McGarry, asked what he thought of his employer, replied that his employer was ‘full of shit.'”

    TIM MCGARRY tells a third party:

    Unfortunately, that isn’t what I said, or at least what I intended to say, and it is not the case.

    The context of my conversation with Patterico was clearly that my employer was NOT full of shit.

    Tough noogies, Tim McGarry! Context doesn’t matter to me. What you really meant doesn’t matter to me. I accurately quoted you, so fuck off.

    You comfortable with that, my friend?

    Patterico (04465c)

  24. Actually, I try to be careful about making jokes in an interview situation, precisely because they can be misconstrued.

    Nothing I’ve read indicates that Cummins thought he was joking or that he was speaking ironically. He says after the fact that the reporter misunderstood the context of his remark. I hear that a lot. I don’t take the position that the benefit of the doubt always goes to the reporter, but long experience has made me skeptical about “out of context” claims.

    If Cummins were my client, I would suggest a letter to the editor to set the record straight. Such letters are frequently printed.

    My last comment tonight, Patrick. Time to read to my daughter before she goes to bed. We may yet take a leaf from that fine post you and Lauren did a while back and work up some book reviews for my blog.

    Good night.

    Tim McGarry (798820)

  25. He says after the fact that the reporter misunderstood the context of his remark.

    He also says he thinks he didn’t even say it.

    We’re beating a dead horse and I’ll take you up on your implicit invitation to let it go, and let readers judge the issue on the basis of what we’ve said already. The only thing I would reiterate is this: folks, read his actual e-mail.

    I love that you read to your daughter before you go to bed. Although we have had our disagreements, I can tell that you’re a good man.

    Patterico (04465c)


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