True Life at the Register

My so-called life at Orange Countys biggest daily newspaper

Photo by Jeanne RiceFor just shy of four years, I was a staff reporter at The Orange County Register. On Nov. 6, I got laid off.

It was sort of "Donner, party of one," since nobody else in the newsroom got the ax. According to editor and senior vice president Tonnie Katz, a downshift in ad revenues had caused publisher Chris Anderson to issue an edict that the news department needed to take in a tuck. Happily for the bottom line, the elimination of my salary would put the newsroom budget back on an even keel. If so, I'm glad to trudge up Golgotha.

But I don't think that was it. I think I got canned, not exactly for whistle-blowing, but for a plaintive bleat I made on an in-house electronic forum about one of the Register's deceptive practices.

The Register, understandably, is touchy about credibility. National polls continue to underscore that the public doesn't much trust the media. Most of the gripes that trickle in to Reg ombudsman Dennis Foley carp about the Register's frequent, irritating inaccuracies. This is mostly niggling stuff and more amusing than worrisome. For example, some Register caption writer put "soldiers" on the doomed Russian submarine Kursk. Even a senile old fud in his Barcalounger in Mission Viejo knows that sailors man naval vessels. Wrong dates, misspellings, garbled nomenclature and other two-bit errors are the inevitable effluvia of the Register's young copy desk. At your typical newspaper, the copy editors are ancient, bitter, alcoholic failures whose last scrap of dignity involves holding the line against factual error. They have a withering contempt for blasť reporters who bobble World Series dates or don't know that the CDC is the Centers for Disease Control.

But the rookie copy desk at the Register is not my peeve. My bitch, which I aired a few months ago on the newsroom-wide ombudsman's forum, criticized the Register's reliance on phony "reaction" stories masquerading as news. I had developed a distaste for a certain kind of bogus story the Register often prints, designed to fool the reader into thinking the paper is on top of the community.

I wasn't on my high horse. In 37 years of newspapering, I've cranked out a ton of this crap, although for the past year, I'd sworn off. Nor is this sin peculiar to the Register; most newspapers are guilty to some degree. But as a second-tier, provincial paper, the Register struggles desperately to localize everything. Executive editor Ken Brusic says he likes to think of the Register as a country weekly published every day. Billboards proclaim that the Register is Orange County's newspaper, although until recent cutbacks the Los Angeles Times ran more column inches of Orange County news.

Anyway, the Register markets the perception that it's local. Thus, it's policy that editors must always try to tie local reaction to any extramural doings. What does Orange County think about Oval Office sex? How has Orange County reacted to pilot error off Martha's Vineyard or to a celebrity auto fatality in Paris? In my posting to the ombudsman, I said what most of the staff already know: that a lot of these stories are pretty much bullshit, pretending to know what they don't and making sweeping statements unsupported by meaningful evidence, and they are assigned solely for appearances. Most are based on a handful of random man-on-the-street interviews.

Lots of reporters and editors are responsible for these things, but since I don't want to break anybody's rice bowl, I'll use examples from my own checkered—and now historical—career at the Register.

In my posting to the ombudsman, I mentioned that my personal worst for reaction stories was one that ran on Sept. 18, 1999. The headline: "Korean Community Cautiously Optimistic on Trade Move." Subhead: "REACTION: But some condemn the easing of restrictions as a form of capitulation." In the lede, I wrote, "Orange County Korean-Americans responded cautiously to the Clinton administration's decision to ease trade restrictions with North Korea." It went on for 703 boring words, sounded authoritative and conveyed the impression that the Register might know something about Orange County Koreans. Nope. My story was based entirely on quick phone interviews with two businessmen. For one of them, the English language was a very distant second cousin. I'd been assigned this turkey by one of the little chiefs late in the afternoon, and after a few hours of calling around with deadline coming up, that's all I had. The subeditor and I both knew the story was bullshit. The thing is I could write it so there was no overt lie. And we had our orders. So the next day, the Register put another one over on the minuscule number of readers who care about the Korean community's reaction.

It's no big deal. Nobody reads this stuff. But it's bogus. That was my point to the ombudsman—that any time a reader sees "REACTION" in a headline, he oughta be wary. Here's one I helped on during the Monica Lewinsky scandal: "On Main Street in Orange County, people paused to consider the possibility that President [Bill] Clinton might face impeachment now that Congress has received the report of independent counsel Kenneth Starr. For the most part, they didn't like the idea." A careless reader might assume from the lede that the Register had done some scientific polling of the county's 2.7 million residents. In fact, the story was based on a handful of random interviews. We had no clue what the people of Orange County thought about the Starr report.

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