Two critical lessons emerged from Orange County's March 2 election fiasco. First, Registrar of Voters Steve Rodermund might be a nice guy, but he's clueless when it comes to his primary task: election administration. Although it was his new $26 million electronic voting system that produced an embarrassing 7,000 bad ballots, Rodermund initially blamed the mess on volunteer poll workers. Later, he seemed to reluctantly admit his mismanagement had earned a grand jury investigation.
But there's another scary fact. If the public had to rely on The Orange County Register, it might never have learned of the most serious breach of election security in the nation in Campaign 2004.
At the same time that Orange County-based Los Angeles Times reporters Stuart Pfeifer and Ray F. Herndon were exposing the debacle on March 4, the Register was asserting that there was not a single serious glitch in the election. The paper went so far as to describe the registrar's office as "quiet" on election night. It also reported that new efficiencies in the office allowed the bureaucrats to leave work relatively early.
"Rodermund was delighted with the comparative smoothness of using the new system," wrote veteran Register reporter Dennis Foley, formerly the paper's ombudsman. Capturing the award for either comical understatement or incompetence, Foley noted only that there had been a few "anxious moments during the long election day's journey into night . . . [but] many problems were simple." Unlike Pfeifer, Herndon and the Times, he found nothing alarming. According to Foley, Rodermund was "relieved" everything had gone so well.
You might think the colossal journalistic failure was fair game for discussion during the Orange County news roundtable on KPCC's March 11 Air Talk. In the first segment of the show, Jean Pasco of the Times described her newspaper's coverage of the registrar's screw-ups. Then Chris Reed, an opinion-page editor at the Register, ridiculed election officials and said the problem deserves rigorous investigation.
When my turn came, I agreed with Reed but noted the irony of his comments given that his paper had blown the story. I also said the situation underscores the dire need for two competing daily newspapers in Orange County. After all, this place is home to the nation's eighth-largest economy and enough shenanigans to fill several future James Ellroy novels.
Perhaps Larry Mantle, Air Talk's mild-mannered host, felt I'd gone too far. I know Reed—who is Mantle's regular guest—did. Mantle asked Reed to respond. Instead of acknowledging the Register's mistake, Reed seethed. "To the extent that debating with OC Weekly inevitably gets back to them celebrating themselves and trashing the Register and the Times, this is almost pointless," he said. "I'm here to talk about the news and Orange County, and not their relative celebration of their journalistic acumen and how damn stupid the daily newspapers are."
There's nothing like a good journalistic fight—especially with someone as articulate as Reed, who came to the Register in the late 1990s after a celebrated stint at the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin in Ontario. I've admired his determination to hold Sheriff Mike Carona accountable for allowing an environment in which scandal seems to bloom afresh each week. But Reed wasn't about to explain how his paper botched their story on the new voting system or why he thinks Register reporters are immune from criticism. And Mantle had no stomach for my questions. As I started to talk, my microphone went dead and Mantle quickly switched topics.
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I was persona non grata.
The show ended on two topics I had suggested in advance: the toll roads' financial woes and the recent death of legendary Newport Beach con man Eddie Allen. The Register's Jon Lansner—arguably the best business reporter in California—has covered the toll-way disaster superbly, but Reed couldn't say much about Allen.
For years, Reg news reporters have inexplicably refused to tell their readers how Allen crafted a false identity as a battle-scarred CIA agent, Air Force One pilot for JFK, New York Yankee and adviser to President Ronald Reagan in order to steal millions of dollars from unsuspecting fellow Republicans in a simple Ponzi scheme. The colorful tales appeared only in the Weekly and in the Times, leading some to speculate that Allen's wife, Jo Ellen—the longtime OC GOP vice chairwoman who is close to Register executives—had gotten stories spiked.
Only her hairdresser knows for sure.