Access for Ass Kiss

Do Reg reporters love the DA, or is that a banana in their stories?

"It's old news that DA Tony Rackauckas has an enemies list," my colleague R. Scott Moxley wrote a few weeks ago. "What's news is that the DA also has a friends list."

The enemies list works like this: the DA refuses to cooperate with reporters who've written articles critical of his administration. At present, that's exactly Los Angeles Times reporter Stuart Pfeifer and everybody at the Weekly.

If you want to know the benefits of the friends list, ask Michelle Emard, the DA's official spokeswoman until she was fired last month. Emard has since filed a wrongful-termination claim against the district attorney, alleging that she was "berated . . . for providing information of public records to those who had been 'blacklisted.'"

Emard says she was also directed to help those whom the DA liked. And among all the media the DA likes—including Oprah, Fox News and the Daily Pilot—Emard says Tony likes The Orange County Register best.

Emard says the Register had a deal with Susan Kang Schroeder, one of the DA's top deputy district attorneys: in return for exclusive access to big stories, the Register promised to polish the DA's reputation. You might call it access for ass kiss.

"Susan leaked stories to the Register time and again in return for favors," Emard alleges.

She says it was typical for Schroeder to offer the Register advance notice of big stories, lists of possible photos for those stories (including addresses) and other supporting documents—even private press conferences with top DA officials. In return, Emard says, the Register agreed "not to cover a negative story."

Untrue, says Register reporter Larry Welborn, who has covered the DA. "There was never any relationship like that—never any arrangement. It would never happen. Didn't happen."

But Emard insists it happened routinely—and that it required her to lie to reporters from other papers. She says Schroeder kept her from releasing "new information about a high-profile case or a new [court] filing until the Register had been allowed the proper amount of lead time to do a better story. The lead time often amounted to an entire day or more."

Emard says that in last year's high-profile ARCO settlement, Schroeder treated Welborn to a private meeting with the assistant DA for the Consumer and Environmental Fraud unit and one of the lead prosecutors on the ARCO case. That meeting took place in December, says Emard, "at least a day or two before we even held a press conference on the matter. Susan even gave the Register a list of addresses of affected gas-station sites . . . so a photographer could be sent out to take pictures to accompany the story."

That head start "allowed the Register the time needed to cover the issue more in depth and to create charts and graphs to accompany the story," Emard says.

Charts and graphs? Sure. In depth? Hardly. Writing at the time, the Weekly's Moxley wrote that, even with the one- or two-day lead, "reporters at The Orange County Registerfailed to find (or, worse, did not look for) even one of the numerous knowledgeable critics of the deal. Instead, reporters Larry Welborn and Pat Brennan quoted only Rackauckas and an ARCO spokesman—who were, of course, giddy."

More recently, while reporting on the DA's enemies list, Register staffer Greg Hardesty said only that the DA had blacklisted the Times. He did not mention the Weekly, nor observe that the Weekly and Times have in common just one salient feature: their reporters have uncovered evidence of wrongdoing in the DA's office still unreported in the Register.

But here's what's really weird about Hardesty's story—and what reveals that the Reg squints at the world through a rapidly shrinking peephole. Hardesty quotes many people in his article about the DA's enemies list—Schroeder, a media attorney, a public-information officer for the Cal State system, and the DA himself. So far, so good. And then Hardesty, in a choice that can only be explained by temporary mindlessness or his paper's affection for the DA, quotes former congressman Robert K. Dornan, a man he says is "known for his conservative beliefs" and who "practically cheered when told about the snub of the Times."

"Dornan said he never shunned reporters—even those he despised," Hardesty writes. "He now says that was a mistake."

Irony, understatement, misstatement: these suggest that Hardesty is on alien ground.

First, wing-tips are conservative, Greg; Dornan is a special kind of nuts. And maybe you had to be there back in 1996 when Dornan's attorney, Michael Schroeder—the man who is married to Susan Schroeder—was busy attacking reporters from the Weeklyin order to pipeline pro-Dornan propaganda into the Times. This was no secret; Michael Schroeder bragged about it. Speaking to a group of friendly Republicans in Northern California at the time—just two years before he ran Rackauckas' successful 1998 campaign for DA—Michael Schroeder said he had worked out what he called an exclusive "information-sharing pact" between a Times reporter and Dornan.

To sum up: Not only did Dornan do exactly what Rackauckas is doing, but did so with the advice of a Republican activist and lawyer married to Rackauckas's current spokeswoman—the woman now accused of cutting an information-sharing deal with Hardesty's paper.

It's interesting to speculate that Susan's press-management strategy was inspired by Michael, and to conclude that theirs is clearly a match made in hell. It's just as interesting to wonder if, more recently, Susan directed the Register to her husband on an unrelated item. In a July 8 story on charges Kobe Bryant sexually assaulted a woman in Colorado, Register reporter Kevin Ding turned to a source intimate with the Lakers guard—a man identified only as season-ticket holder "Mike Schroeder of Corona del Mar."

"As soon as I heard [about the allegations against Bryant], I thought that doesn't sound right," Schroeder reportedly told the Reg. "It doesn't sound like his family or anything I know about the guy."

What does Schroeder know about Bryant? Oh, quite a lot: his tickets are just "one row from Bryant's family."

It's a small point, but illustrative: the world shrinks, and soon we see only what the Schroeders and the DA want us to see. And the Register? It connives.

Such sleight of hand isn't limited to the Register newsroom. Up on the fifth floor of Register HQ, where editorial writers pound round pegs of fact into the square holes of their conservative ideology, the DA's blacklist of "certain newspapers" was deemed a "disservice to the public," possibly even "illegal." But at the Register, the June 30 editorial continued, "we generally have been satisfied with the job Mr. Rackauckas has done. . . ." Yes, they admitted, he's "a relatively controversial figure." And, yes, state Attorney General Bill Lockyer is investigating the DA's office over the specifics of that controversy—but that, the Reg said, is merely a "feud."

It's not clear that these two phenomena—that Register reporters have special access to the DA and that the Register downplays news that might ding the DA's reputation—are the result of a deal, or just a relationship that grew up organically between credulous reporters and a manipulative and corrupt DA.

What's clear is that Emard wouldn't go along with Schroeder's blacklist and, so, was fired.

"I felt horribly conflicted and terribly guilty because I was not telling [reporters] the truth, even though I knew that to do so would cost me my job," says Emard, who has since filed a wrongful termination claim against the DA. "I existed in a constant state of frustration and was embarrassed to be associated with an agency engaging in such blatant dishonesty and media manipulation."

But it takes two to manipulate, and let's be clear about this: the problem isn't that the Register's reporters get preferential treatment from the DA—that's what reporters are paid to achieve in a competitive media market. The problem is the apparent quid pro quo, the possibility that the Register's chummy, dumbed-down coverage of a dangerous public official is payment for that access. In that deal, the Register's readers are losers—and so are its reporters. I mean, guys, what's the value in kissing ass if you're not even going to write about it?

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