The Garofalo Blackout

Why hasn't the Times picked up its own reporters' stories on HB scandal?

During the past nine months, a serious corruption scandal has been playing out near the shores of Surf City. Detailed allegations of conflicts of interest, cronyism, secret financial transactions and highly questionable deals between businessmen and city officials emerge on something like a weekly basis in Huntington Beach. At the center of the political firestorm is Mayor Dave Garofalo, a Republican who—until recently—was being groomed by powerful business interests to eventually replace the equally vacuous Jim Silva on the county's Board of Supervisors. Garofalo has largely chosen to ignore the troubling brouhaha, insisting on the rare occasions when he does speak that he has done absolutely nothing wrong.

Nevertheless, the stories swirling around Garofalo are noteworthy enough that residents have appealed to California's attorney general's office and the state Fair Political Practices Commission, as well as Orange County's district attorney and grand jury. The scandal—first broken by Weekly reporters Dave Wielenga and Anthony Pignataro—has also prompted stories in The Orange County Register.

But if you rely on the Orange County edition of the Los Angeles Times—a paper whose current advertising slogan is ironically "Connecting us to the times"—you are largely ignorant of the times, er, scandal. Except for a miniscule 300-word brief buried on Page 3 of the December 3, 1999, business section, the Times has not published a single story detailing the case against Garofalo. (The Dec. 3 article by business reporter Edmund Sanders used quotes from only Garofalo and his political buddies. Not surprisingly, they dismissed the validity of the scandal; Sanders called it a "flap.")

Could the odd news blackout merely be the result of bruised journalist egos? Perhaps. Management at the Times OC (and, to be fair, at the Register) has always been reluctant to admit publicly when another news outlet scoops them. That point holds doubly true when it comes to the Weekly, the only publication that offers independent critical review of the county's dailies. To take but one example among many, it was the Weekly that first reported in February that an Orange County Superior Court judge officially required AIDS patients to publicly declare that medical status before entering his courtroom ("Juvenile Justice," Feb. 18). Three days after the Weekly broke the story, the Register published an identical story—and boldly took statewide credit for uncovering it. Times editors—with notable exceptions, a pompous crew who view themselves as the county's premier media minds—didn't even bother to report the story. Numerous reporters at both local dailies have confirmed that some editors would rather ignore a great story than even tacitly credit the Weekly. But explaining the Times' Garofalo blackout may not be so simple. The Huntington Beach Independent, which is owned by the Times, has not shied away from the story. On at least three occasions since last year, Independent reporter Eron Ben-Yehuda has helped break new details of Garofalo's alleged conflicts of interest. As recently as May 18, Ben-Yehuda revealed that the mayor voted for a controversial downtown Huntington Beach development after the developer gave Garofalo and his publishing company $2,995 for advertising.

It was a well-written story, and it made the front page of the Independent. But the Times, which almost daily publishes articles by Independent reporters, refused to run even an inane half-inch blurb of Ben-Yehuda's latest Garofalo story. That same day, the Times chose instead to publish a piece detailing hourly wage increases for Huntington Beach's part-time city employees.

Efforts to get an on-the-record explanation from the Times were unsuccessful. Orange County edition editor Lennie LaGuire did not respond to requests for an interview. Former Daily Pilot and Independent editor Bill Lobdell, who now oversees the Times' community-news sections and is in a position to make the case that Independent stories should be picked up by the Times, would not comment. It would seem an obvious and easy story for Times OC editorial page editor Stephen Burgard to tackle, but he has also been curiously silent on the scandal.

Perhaps the blackout can be explained in one word: fear. Powerful Huntington Beach Republicans like Dana Rohrabacher bombarded Times OCeditors for months with accusations of political bias for their 1996-1997 coverage (which, by the way, was outstanding) of the Scott Baugh voter-fraud/fake-candidate scheme. Rohrabacher helped organize a vocal boycott of the Times during that scandal. Like Baugh, Garofalo is a close political ally of Rohrabacher.

 
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