So he’s facing round after round of staff cuts and worsening morale and the challenge of reinventing the newspaper in the Internet age and then BANG — the Times’ shoddy journalistic practices blow up in his face.
First, there was the Chuck Philips fiasco. Philips is a reporter who has been repeatedly accused of carrying the water for the such questionable characters as Suge Knight in the rap music scene wars that led to the murders of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls among others,
Yet, the Times apparently did nothing to investigate allegations Philips breached industry ethical standards. I say apparently because when Philips earlier this year wrote a story accusing Sean “Puffy” Combs of complicity in a criminal attack on Shakur, only one senior editor vetted it for content and it went up online and ultimately into the paper.
It didn’t take long before the blogosphere exposed several fatal problems: The story was based on falsified documents and anonymous sources, and was so badly reported that the Times had to run a front-page retraction. It now faces enormous costs to settle the matter.
And now accusations that are potentially even more serious have surfaced that grow out of the Anthony Pellicano case, the Hollywood private eye who ran roughshod over the law and common decency in numerous cases involving celebrity clients.
The probe of Pellicano began after then Times reporter Anita Busch was threatened to scare her off a story. With Pellicano’s conviction last week, Busch went public with her experiences in an interview with blogger Patrick Frey at Patterico.com. She called for an investigation into Pellicano’s relationships with Philips, Editorial Page Editor Jim Newton, Newton’s wife Karlene Goller who is the Times’ in-house lawyer and other journalists.
In a series of posts in recent days at Patterico.com, Frey, a Los Angeles County prosecutor, has questioned Philips’ relationship with Pellicano and why he wrote stories challenging the government’s case against him; why after Pellicano was indicted for the threat against Busch, Goller suggested the private eye be hired to investigate the threat against Busch, and why Newton kept a gift of a paperweight from Pellicano on his desk long after he was suspected in the Busch threat.
Busch herself issued a new statement Sunday suggesting that Pellicano’s long-term ties to journalists at the Times influenced how the paper reacted when she was threatened and how it covered elements of the story.
“I suggest that the paper hire a panel of outside ethicists, journalists and experts to investigate,” Busch said. “Pellicano and his clients used and abused the media to destroy their targets. Other victims know well of what I speak. Other journalists know, too. And journalists are the ones who must shine a light on this.”
Questions about how current and former Times reporters and editors work in tandem with each other have been raised often enough before.
In one particular case I know about through my friendship with Doug Dowie, one of three former Fleishman-Hillard public relations executives convicted of mail fraud involving the Department of Water and Power, the story that led to the investigation was done by the Times and relied heavily on anonymous sources who had worked at the Times and at Fleishman-Hillard.
The sources included journalists with inter-connected relationships with each other and with Newton and Goller and the reporters on the story Ralph Frammolino and Ted Rohrlich. Surely the credibility of those sources faced little scrutiny because of those relationships.
It was the use of anonymous sources that also was a big part of the problem with Philips’ attack on Combs. An edict went out when the story blew up about limiting the use of anonymous sources, one that has had to be repeated yet again since then.
In the full name of disclosure, I also am a close friend of author Randall Sullivan who has challenged Philips’ reporting on the rap music scene wars for years.
Beyond that, I have many times in private and often enough in public accused the Times of criminal neglect of the city, of failing in what I believe to be the sacred mission of a newspaper, of every journalist, which is to be the public’s watchdog and stand for the greater good of the community.
For all those reasons I am writing about the problems facing the Times as it tries to restore its journalistic credibility. And because I’m the former editor of the Times’ largest competitor in the L.A. market I’m wondering if the Times will continue to try to minimize the problem by ignoring it or whether Stanton will actually dig into the paper’s reporting and editing processes and how the relationships among the stuff and their sources and former colleagues affect the truth and accuracy of their coverage.
It seems to me Stanton faces a daunting challenge. He so far has not taken action as far as we know against Philips or the person who edited his piece. While Newton has scoffed at any suggestion of impropriety in an email to Patterico.com, Stanton has yet to publicly acknowledge any problem in the Busch-Pellicano case.
I think he is making a mistake by not seizing on this moment to make the L.A. Times the kind of paper the city needs so badly, has needed for so long — one that articulates a vision for a greater L.A., that exposes how the narrow power structure works against the interests of the majority of the people, that stands up for the values of ordinary people.
For most of the first 100 years of its existence, the Times was the mouthpiece for a small band of greedy right-wing extremists that included its owner, the Chandler family. For the last 40 years, it has been the voice of L.A.’s new establishment of liberal elitists. That’s why I say that a newspaper with its reach and dominance bears a great deal of the responsibility for the state of the city.
Stanton needs to deal quickly and severely with those he knows have committed serious ethical and journalistic violations. And Busch is right, he needs to bring in tough outsiders with extensive newsroom experience to examine how the Times editorial staff really operates to look after itself and to pander to sources.
That’s what has been exposed in recent events. The city needs the Times to become an L.A. paper as new owner Sam Zell has said, instead of the Global Times or New York Times West. And it needs the Times to become a real newspaper that respects and serves the whole community.