Despite rumors otherwise, journalists are human and make mistakes. We occasionally misspell, use bad grammar, provide erroneous information, make ridiculous assumptions and mishear quotes. In rare cases, a reporter commits intentional media malpractice by letting nefarious motives trample reality.
A recent Southern California flap illustrates that point. On Feb. 8, I revealed legitimate news about one of Orange County's most controversial politicians. Court records showed an arbitration judge rejected as bogus Costa Mesa City Councilman Jim Righeimer's efforts to avoid paying huge debts from his private, California real-estate-development projects. Here is the opening paragraph of that post on our Navel Gazing blog:
"At the same time [Mayor Pro Tem] Righeimer poured more than $42,000 in personal funds into his 2010 political campaign to successfully fight police-union attacks, the Republican real-estate developer of three decades stiffed his own corporate lawyer out of nearly $195,000 in fees." (See "Jim Righeimer Ordered to Pay Huge Legal Bill.")
Righeimer's political opponents pounced on the hypocrisy. The councilman, who despises public employee unions and campaigns on the notion he is a keen money manager, was embarrassed. If he'd had his way, my story wouldn't have been written.
At The Orange County Register, editorial bigwigs chose to grant the councilman his wish. They ignored their duty to report the court action. But days later, I've learned, they decided Righeimer's mess should be ressurected with a sympathetic spin.
Register social columnist Barbara Venezia, whose claim to fame was playing a ditzy female on a local public-TV cooking show years ago, received orders to "give [Righeimer] his say." Frank Mickadeit, her colleague, was in on the arrangement. Mickadeit, Righeimer's regular cocktail-and-cigar buddy at Gulfstream in Newport Beach, gave Venezia my private phone number.
When she called, I was busy beating the Register on several other stories—including my scoops about a jailhouse sexual affair between a black sheriff's deputy and a white-supremacist inmate, as well as a Corona del Mar restaurant's racist customer receipts (see "World's Greatest Nazi Love Story Born in Southern California in Time for Valentine's Day," Feb. 14, and "Case of the 'McStinkyNigger' Orange County Restaurant Receipt Settles," Feb. 13). Nevertheless, I stopped and we talked. "It's the first time my editors ever told me what to write," said Venezia, who has written her column for almost four years.
Despite the red flag, I devoted part of an hour answering her questions. She thanked me and praised the Weekly's scoop. A day or two later, Venezia's story hit the Internet. The Register—which has an ugly history of shilling for favored politicians—converted the Righeimer ethics story into the Moxley ethics story. I called Venezia to ask why she'd left out key facts.
"What?" she asked. "I put everything in my story."
While still on the phone with me, Venezia checked what the Register published. "Oh, no!" she said. "My editors changed it!"
I asked, "Do you see how your omissions make me look unethical?"
"You're right," she said. "I wonder why my editors changed it."
When Venezia first contacted me, she said Righeimer claimed I'd made no effort to get his side of the case. The accusation wasn't true. My phone records, which I shared with the Reg columnist, showed not only that I had called Righeimer's private phone before publishing the story, but also that I had left a detailed voice mail seeking comment—evidenced by a whopping 42-second message.
That proof shifted the line of attack. In her column, Venezia offered a new version: Righeimer had been too busy to take my incoming call and only thought to respond—hours later, it turns out—after publication. Cagey political figures often think they can block a story if they don't take a reporter's phone call.
I explained my call had been a courtesy because I had already obtained all sides of the story—Righeimer's side, the lawyer's side and the judge's side—before publishing. Venezia asked how that could be true if I hadn't talked to the councilman.
"Barbara, the court file contains all of Righeimer's assertions, all of his complaining lawyer's assertions, as well as the judge's review of all of the evidence and his reasoning that Righeimer stiffed the lawyer," I explained.
"Oh," she replied. "I didn't know that."
Venezia then said Righeimer complained I hadn't let him "set the record straight." His explanation befits a slick used-car salesman. The councilman argued in court filings that he didn't think his signature on lawyer-fee contracts meant he'd agreed to pay any lawyer fees.
I read Venezia the fifth paragraph of my story, which included this phrase: "[The judge] rejected Righeimer's attempts to delay a ruling, as well as his stance that he wasn't personally liable for any of the bills."
She replied, "You did put in his side of the story."
But somehow Venezia's acknowledgement didn't make it into her Feb. 14 column, "Councilman Jim Righeimer Gets Say on Personal Legal Bills." The piece quotes Righeimer at length, and as intended, he appears as the wounded, noble victim slaughtered by a scoundrel. My crime was reserved for the final sentence: "Moxley didn't give him a fair shake here."
I called Venezia and asked, "Tell me why your column omitted that Righeimer originally lied about my call, omitted my 42-second message, and omitted that I had all sides of the story from the court documents?"
Venezia assured me the version she wrote included those facts. To prove her point, she read me sentences that had been deleted by, she says, her editor, Susan Gill Vardon.
"I'm going to call [Vardon] and have her put those facts back in," Venezia said. "I'm sorry."
The new version gave me credit for the 42-second message and noted that the court record I'd relied on contained both sides in the lawsuit. However, they again decided to ignore the original deceit about my call. They also, incredibly, didn't correct the false premise of their column.
Venezia told me that Vardon, a Reg veteran who is Facebook friends with Righeimer, insisted she'd deleted my entire side of the story only "for space reasons" and intended no offense. (At press time, she had not agreed to an interview request.)
"Barbara, you've attacked my ethics on a story in which I reported both sides, on a story for which I called Righeimer in advance, and on a story that contains zero factual errors," I told her.
"I see what you're saying," she said.
"The Register slams me for not telling Righeimer's side of the story while purposely omitting my side of the story," I said. "That's pathetic and funny at the same time."
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"Nobody purposely smeared you," a bubbly Venezia said. "It was a simple mistake. I'm a big fan of yours."
I asked Righeimer if he'd summoned his Register pals for a hit piece on me.
"No," he replied. "I would rather the story die. . . . There's nothing in it for me."
This column appeared in print as "Saving Jim Righeimer: The Orange County Register smears OC Weekly for revealing bad news about a favored politician."