Gifts That Keep on Giving

What's the difference between an Irvine Co. press release and a Los Angeles Times news story?

Sometimes not much.

On April 16, for instance, the Orange County edition of the Times reported that the county's most powerful real-estate-development outfit “intends to donate land” to the county for a Boy Scout camp in east Orange. You'd be excused for feeling you'd read reporter Zeke Minaya's story before: The Orange County Register broke the same news more than 700 days earlier—on Jan. 29, 2000.

So why run the same story now? As Press Clips readers know, the Times has a long, shameful history of giving Chairman Donald Bren's Irvine Co. undeserved, flattering coverage. This instance proved no different. It's likely company executives—who originally announced their commitment to the Boy Scout land deal four years ago—wanted an additional round of favorable publicity as they seek approval to build a 4,000-home development in the same area as the proposed camp.

If so, the company got its wish. Minaya's article appeared on the same day the Irvine Co. issued its press release. That would usually indicate a reporter had been given an advance copy. Minaya's story displayed little new reporting and contained no mention of the development's numerous controversial elements—for example, the amount of taxpayer subsidization, runoff pollution into Lake Irvine and increased traffic congestion.

The Times raised and quickly dismissed concerns that the timing of the company's announcement might have been self-serving and motivated by the expectation of huge profits from new homes sales. In three paragraphs, Minaya quoted company executives and local politicians who insisted the Boy Scout land deal is “not related” and is “no quid pro quo” for the housing project. He apparently didn't look for—or couldn't find—a single citizen suspicious of the deal. Not even one sentence was given to critics who might have viewed the—what shall we call it?—re-announcement of the company's intention to give the land as little more than legal bribery.

But equally troubling is that Minaya relied on the Irvine Co.'s public-relations department for his key interview. Both the company's press release and the Times story ended with an identical quote from Orange Mayor Mark Murphy. Not surprisingly, Murphy praised the “tremendous” gift from the Irvine Co.

The Register—perhaps the most unapologetic media cheerleader for California real-estate developers—also delighted the Irvine Co. with generous coverage. Like Minaya, Reg reporter Jit Fong Chin ignored anything unfavorable about the development and noted that the “Irvine Co. makes good on 1999 promise, donating 190 acres.” Actually, Chin, nothing has been donated. They've merely issued another press release.

The feckless daily reporters failed to report what even the company admitted in its latest announcement: that the Boy Scout plan has “yet to be finalized,” the site is merely “potential” and the actual transaction could be years away. Those facts did not stop Register headline writers: “Scouts Get Gift of Local Campsite.” The paper ran a similar headline on the same pledge in 2000: “The Irvine Co. Has Committed to Giving 140 Acres.”

No doubt the dailies and the Irvine Co.'s PR staff wanted the public to focus not on the development but on the company's “long history of supporting the scouts,” as Chin wrote—without attribution or citing evidence.

Flowery altruism aside, Irvine Co. executives—among the best when it comes to working politicians and reporters for profit—want something in exchange for their so-called gift. The company is not going to finalize the donation to the scouts until after the offer has exhausted its potential as leverage with local politicians and they okay the housing project. When that happens—sorry to say—prepare to read yet another round of daily-newspaper stories about the Irvine Co.'s generosity.

* * *

The learning curve at the Times and Register is apparently as flat as Kansas. In a May 2000 Press Clips, the Weekly tracked media coverage of a single $2 million Irvine Co. pledge to the Irvine school district. On Sept. 26, 1991, the Register reported that the developer “intends to give” the money. A week later, on Oct. 3, the Reg published a nearly identical story, this time saying the money had been “pledged.” On Oct. 16, the Times reported that the company had “handed” them the money. Two weeks later, it published a story claiming the developers had “offered” the money with a stipulation the company tried to keep a secret: the $2 million gift pledge was in exchange for a guarantee that local politicians would not fight the company's plans to build more than 3,850 new homes in the area.

The 1991 pledge seemed perpetual. After the first round of five stories for the one announcement, the company got further favorable ink in both papers on Dec. 3, 1992; Dec. 17, 1992; Oct. 7, 1993; Dec. 22, 1993; March 29, 1994; Aug. 18, 1994; and Feb. 24, 1995. On Feb. 22, 1997, a story appeared in the Times referring to the company's “pledge made in 1996,” saying that it “will be fulfilled by August 1998.” In 1998, the company got another round of articles touting the same old pledge. On July 15, Aug. 13 and Sept. 16 of that year, the company received six more Times and Register stories about its “generous” pledges.

At the time of our 2000 article, we repeatedly asked Irvine Co. executives and school-district officials to provide proof that they had fulfilled each of their donation pledges. They declined.


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