Photo by Gustavo ArellanoYou wonder sometimes if daily-newspaper reporters read their own work. Consider Eleeza Agopian, who covers Anaheim for The Orange County Register. In the Jan. 29 Anaheim Bulletin, the Reggie-owned community weekly, Agopian filed three separate stories that appeared under a single bold-faced headline, "City Faces $16.3 Million Shortfall." One covered massive planned budget cuts in the city. Another focused on a proposal by Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle to suspend home-improvement fees for 100 days. The third celebrated groundbreaking on a $100 million downtown redevelopment project, which includes construction of a $13 million parking structure financed entirely by the city.
It could've been an investigative trifecta for Agopian, leading her readers to ask whether Pringle's fee repeal, coupled with the diversion of millions toward a parking structure, played any role in Anaheim's $16.3 million budget shortfall.
But Agopian's reports were the newspaper equivalent of isolation chambers—each existing in its own world, its author ignorant of the clashing, contradictory realities in her own adjacent stories. Agopian didn't even note Pringle's Jan. 26 State of the City address, in which he conceded that the proposed fee repeal would lead to the loss of about $500,000 in revenue. And Agopian quoted without question an Anaheim official who insisted the city had to pay for the parking structure "to lure a developer."
Asking the hard questions about Pringle is seemingly anathema for reporters at the Register and Los Angeles Times. Both papers marked the Anaheim mayor's first year in office with pieces that depict Pringle as the most innovative county mayor since a young Larry Agran shook up Irvine in the 1980s.
Investigative reporting requires work. It's far easier to simply ask people for opinions, as Agopian did in her Dec. 3 piece on Pringle's first year. There, she finds even Pringle's erstwhile foes singing the mayor's praise.
"I have seen [Pringle and his council] moving very deliberately and consistently into a new arena," said Amin David, chairman of Los Amigos of Orange County. "'I call that arena a renaissance, a rebirth of thinking.'"
The evidence of this Anaheim renaissance? Agopian and fellow Anaheim reporter Vik Jolly cite only the repeal of a statute limiting motel stays, the loosening of city codes regulating landscaping, and the rejection of a state grant that would've funded additional police patrols during Thanksgiving.
Those are all nice initiatives, really, but hardly what you call a renaissance. In the real Renaissance, Florence at least got nice paintings.
Bad as they are, Agopian's stories are better than the breathless Pringle feature that appeared in the Jan. 26 Times. There, reporter Kimi Yoshino ran from adjective to adjective for nearly 2,000 words, describing Pringle as "savvy," "respected" and "mesmerizing." But again, no evidence, only quaint anecdotes: Pringle serving coffee and cookies at a meeting; Pringle allowing all Anaheim city employees to visit his office ("Even the guy from the mailroom," Yoshini noted with solemnity); Pringle's ability to forge ties with both Republicans and Democrats. Those alliances, she wrote, had helped Pringle achieve "several successes"—but she doesn't name even one.
Worshipful? You decide: the article led with a portrait of Pringle, a natural halo glowing around his boyish, blond head—sunlight reflecting off Anaheim City Hall's mirrored exterior.
The premise in both papers is that Pringle's congenial personality and connections are reason enough to herald him. Yes, he served for years in the California Assembly, and yes, he made many friends from both parties while there. And yes, as the Times noted, he still runs his own Irvine-based lobbying firm, and sure, he brings his lobbying skills to bear on the problems that plague Anaheim, a city still known among locals as Anacrime.
But these traits—ties to the politically powerful, a day job in the world of lobbying—would make a better reporter ask questions. It's worth noting, as neither paper did, that:
•In 1999, Pringle's lobbying firm sought to win a contract to maintain electric lines operated by the city-owned Anaheim Public Utilities for Enron. Pringle lost, and Anaheim is the better for his failure.
•While campaigning for the mayor's office in summer 2002, Pringle spoke out on behalf of Gigante, a Mexico-based supermarket chain that played the race card to obtain a liquor license in an area already over its state-mandated limit. That stand bolstered his reputation amongst some county Latinos who harbored bitter memories of Pringle's use of poll guards in Latino-heavy precincts during his first Assembly race in 1988. The public display was more than merely symbolic, however. A couple of months later, Pringle received a $750 contribution toward his mayoral fund from Waters & Faubel, the PR firm that manufactured Gigante's phony claims that it was the victim of racist politics in City Hall.
•Of the 287 people who contributed to Pringle's 2002 mayoral race, only 31 originated in Anaheim.
But such facts would only get in the way of a great—and easy—hagiography.
NOTES FROM THE BANANA REPUBLIC
You can attribute Agopian and Yoshino's stories to laziness or hasty deadlines. But there's another possibility, that daily reporters—driven by bottom-line publishers to grind out stories at an assembly-line pace—survive only when they cultivate relationships with powerful sources who can ensure quick access to information and a chatty quote on deadline. The care and feeding of good sources becomes more important than serving the public.
Take the case of Joel Rubin, who joined the Times Orange County bureau late last year after covering California's recall election. Barely two months on the beat, Rubin might have displayed the merciless reportorial instincts of a man without friends. Instead, on Feb. 8, readers were treated to a piece of official propaganda that might have been released by the Santa Ana Unified School District itself.
Under the headline "O.C. District's Rowdy Days are Over," Rubin paints a portrait of a district settling down to the people's business after the February 2003 recall of former trustee Nativo Lopez.
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"Officials say they are enjoying a renewed sense of normalcy," Rubin wrote. Rubin allows district officials to blame all their past woes on Lopez, even quoting trustee Audrey Yamagata-Noji as saying, "If the recall had not happened, the district would have gone down the tubes very quickly.'"
If Rubin had actually done his job, he would've discovered that the district went down the tubes and is clogging up the septic tank.
Santa Ana Unified faces a $29 million deficit thanks not to Nativo López, but to a bureaucratic blunder that severely overestimated the number of students enrolling in the city's schools. Because of stalled contract talks, teachers are murmuring about a summer strike. And state budget cuts are driving out of the district programs such as the Puente Project—a University of California-sponsored outreach program seeking to enroll more Latinos in four-year universities.
Agopian, Rubin and Yoshino—all reporters, for that matter—should reflect on the words of London Timescolumnist Bernard Levin. Almost 25 years ago, Levin observed that good journalists must operate as "vagabonds and outlaws, for only by so remaining shall we be able to keep the faith by which we live, which is the pursuit of knowledge that others would like unpursued and the making of comment that others would prefer unmade."