There’s an old newsroom aphorism from which all Americans living in this Bronze Age of the Internet might profit: “If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.”
Translation: if you’re a journalist, bring skepticism to everything you hear or read or even witness via your own ocular nerves. Check it out.
The violation of that principle led to the publication on Nov. 2, 2018 of an OC Weekly story falsely claiming that a San Clemente city council candidate, an attorney named Dan Bane, was in the pocket of the controversial Transportation Corridor Agencies, or TCA.
The TCA oversees construction and management of the county’s four toll roads. In San Clemente, the TCA is pretty widely reviled for its determination to extend State Route 241 through (or merely near) a city that prides itself on its low-key, beachtown vibe. Saying that your political opponent is backed by the TCA? Those are fighting words, like calling your Uncle Bill “Hitler.”
Making that claim on Friday, Nov. 2, 2018 just 96 was the political equivalent of burying an improvised explosive on the road to Election Day – just 96 hours later, on Tuesday, Nov. 6.
The Weekly story “Special Interests Buying Elections in San Clemente, Newport Beach, and Lake Forest” was on the paper’s website for just a few hours – from sometime late on Nov. 2, when its author, intern Liam Blume, first posted it until the next morning, when Blume, following an unnerving phone call with Bane, took it down.
But in those few hours, Bane’s political opponents had already emailed voters a link to the story and shared it across social media. Council candidate, incumbent Kathy Ward, was among the earliest to boost its circulation, with a 10:22 p.m. Facebook post linking to the article. The story, she told voters, revealed that “your quality of life is up for sale. The smear campaign against the city is designed to get your vote.”
Even deleting the story from the Weekly’s website couldn’t kill it. It was like a zombie. Yes, the link was dead, but in just those few post-publication hours, Bane’s political opponents had copied the story as a PDF and emailed that PDF throughout the city. When some observers noted that the Weekly itself had not only retracted the story but trashed it, anti-Bane activists had a deft but completely false spin for that too: Clearly, they asserted on social media, the TCA had bullied the Weekly into removing it.
In addition to targeting Bane, Blume’s story sideswiped others. Attempting to connect the dots in the non-existent conspiracy, Blume wrote that local conservative activist Jim Bieber was “allegedly college roommates” with Scott Voigts, a Lake Forest councilman and his city’s representative on a TCA board; Bieber calls the accusation ridiculous. “I never had a roommate in my life,” he says, and adds that he didn’t meet Voigts until he was in his thirties. Writing that the “grand motive” in this fantastical effort was “nebulous,” Blume nevertheless speculated that “it’s possible” Bieber was hoping to replace the city council with pro-development officials who would “turn San Clemente into a giant beachside apartment complex, with Bieber as acting landlord.”
Similarly, longtime conservative political consultant Dave Ellis was alleged to have distributed racist flyers in one campaign and was supposedly involved with a pro-toll road group supporting Bane in this one. Ellis says simply that he has no relationship with the group – and “I don’t know what the hell Blume is talking about regarding ‘racist flyers.’” Attempting to bolster Ellis’s bona fides as a dark lord of the far right, Blume asserted that the consultant connected two key figures in Orange County’s massive 1994 bankruptcy. He didn’t.
It was a picture of Ellis’ mug – beneath a Photoshopped crown to indicate his ostensible desire to unite Orange County’s warring political kingdoms – that illustrated a story designed to expose the whole scandalous operation.
The story was, in short, wrong on all key points.
Blume remembers the Saturday morning of Dan Bane’s call as “one of those moments where you know you’ve just written something really . . . .” He seems about to say “something really dumb” or “badly researched,” but after pausing a moment, he says, “something that really just hurt a lot of people and their families. That’s what I really regret.”
Bane remembers that call, too. The entire debacle had exploded during “what should have been a quiet weekend with my family – the first in many months.” Instead, he says, it kickstarted “a several-day effort to set the record straight.”
By Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 6, despite Blume’s effort to kill it, his story was everywhere, bigger in death than it had been in its short life, the roadside bomb erupting into a sky-high, skull-shaped cloud of black smoke, still raining debris upon the heads of Dan Bane, Jim Bieber, Dave Ellis, voters and other innocents.
Blume is a UC Irvine senior whose Weekly internship had begun just a few months earlier, during the summer 2018 break. How did he get so much wrong? He never called the subjects of his reporting to check the claims against them.
Blume admits this. But why did he fail to make the calls? Because his once-anonymous source told him not to bother. That source, Blume has revealed, was another council candidate, incumbent Kathy Ward.
And so, in the space of a few hours on Nov. 3, Liam Blume, an aspiring young reporter, learned one of the most fundamental lessons in journalism and maybe life: Even if the person who gave you birth says her affection for you is unconditional, look for the counter-evidence.
His learning wasn’t over. Furious that the story was still circulating, Bane told Blume he would settle for nothing less than a complete retraction. Blume set to work immediately but says he struggled to write anything that satisfied the outraged candidate. When after several drafts he succeeded in writing a sufficiently thorough apology, even that proved problematic: “Bane wanted me to send my apology to him on a sheet of OC Weekly letterhead,” Blume recalls. “We didn’t have OC Weekly letterhead, so he said that I could send it to him in an email.” It read:
Dan: I apologize for the various false statements and factual inaccuracies included in the article I published in the OC Weekly on Friday, November 2, 2018 entitled “The Special Interests Buying Elections in San Clemente, Newport Beach, and Lake Forest.” I hereby retract that article in full and it has been removed from the OC Weekly website for this reason. Anyone disseminating this article should immediately stop as the article contains too many misrepresentations and factual inaccuracies.
I apologize for my misreading of Residents for Reform and Citizens for Responsible Leadership’s campaign 460’s. Likewise, I apologize for wrongfully stating you have any relationship or connection with Jim Bieber, and the assertions I made about him attempting to get you elected for City Council. Those statements and assumptions were plainly wrong. I should have fact checked and I acknowledge that at no time did I never reach out to you to fact check prior to publishing. I deeply regret publishing misleading and incorrect information and hope you can accept this apology.
I now realize, after reviewing the appropriate disclosure forms again, that neither you nor your campaign ever received any funding from either Residents for Reform or Citizens for Responsible Leadership. In fact, in reviewing your campaign disclosures, I see that you have not received funding from any PACs for the 2018 election.
Also, I interpreted the address I saw listed, 603 E Alton Santa Ana, as being the address of those GPC’s and not of Lysa Ray (the treasurer), and therefore I made the connection between Residents for Reform and Citizens for Responsible Leadership when there was none to be made.
My sincerest apologies to you, your family, and the community. – Liam Blume
Hours passed. By Wednesday, Nov. 7, the day after the election – and despite Blume’s immortal story – Bane had easily won a seat on the San Clemente City Council. And so had Bane’s critic-in-chief, Blume’s source, incumbent councilmember Kathy Ward.
Kathy Ward did not respond to several requests – phone calls and emails over the course of a month – to comment for this story. Then, she replied last week [EDITORS: THIS WAS ON APRIL 24], saying, “Send me your questions and I will think about answering your questions in writing.” We sent the questions but heard nothing. Blume says Ward ghosted him as soon as the story was first published.
So we’re left to speculate that, in the heat of a political campaign, she may have hoped to bring down Bane, the campaign frontrunner, by linking him to the unpopular TCA.
DAN BANE WAS AN UNLIKELY TARGET for Ward’s disinformation campaign. Blume already relied on Bane as a source of information about local politics. He knew Bane as an attorney (with the national law firm Sheppard Mullin), an attorney who had, no less, represented plaintiffs in complaints against the TCA. So in October, when Ward hit up the young reporter with the claim that Bane was actually a tool of the TCA, Blume was at first skeptical. But he was slowly spellbound, an ambitious but inexperienced reporter enticed by what began to look like the story of his short career, the map of “an elaborate conspiracy,” he called it, a network of political action committees, front groups, and payments.
Ward had documents, she said, to prove the scope and power of the conspirators. One of her more bizarre accusations involved the local Boys & Girls Club, where Bane’s wife is a volunteer board member. The TCA had given the club $5,000. Blume says Ward told him that he should see that donation as evidence of a payment to Bane’s wife – and therefore to Bane. It was, of course, neither.
Blume says Ward and a Ward ally named Michelle Schumacher told him not to bother checking the claims with Bane. “They said he would just deny it,” Blume recalls. Of course, Bane would have denied it.
And if Blume had simply called Bane before he hit publish, you wouldn’t be reading this story now.
THERE’S SOMETHING ELSE WEIRD about Ward’s attempt to link Bane to the TCA: Ward herself was always in the best position to attack the TCA, and yet didn’t until the campaign season heated up. As a San Clemente councilmember and the city’s elected representative on the agency board, Ward was a TCA insider. So, despite her electrifying campaign claim that the agency made key decisions in secret, a review of the minutes of agency meetings suggests she never raised that outrage while sitting on the dais in front of an audience. Weirder still: it was Bane, not Ward, who first raised the specter of the TCA making decisions without required public notice and comment. He did that in a July 6, 2017, letter to the TCA.
By then, the TCA’s lawsuit with toll road opponents had been settled in a November 2016 vote of the board. Ward was one of two board members opposing the settlement, in a 10-2 vote.
But Ward had almost nothing to say about the settlement – she told reporters she voted and would have no comment. Her Twitter account (profile statement: “Life in a small beach town . . . priceless”) shows no public criticism of the toll road agency, no mention of secret meetings, or the settlement until May 9, 2017, six month after the settlement vote, and about 18 months before Election Day 2018. On that day, she tweeted out a petition asking Gov. Jerry Brown to abolish the TCA.
Ward’s strangest move came a few weeks after Election Day 2018, following months of campaigning on the claim that Bane was working with the TCA to destroy her beloved San Clemente. On December 18, the newly installed San Clemente City Council selected Dan Bane – its newest council member, the man Kathy Ward regarded as a tool of the TCA – as its new TCA board representative.
Kathy Ward not only voted with the majority. She actually nominated Bane.
“I’ve been on TCA for four years,” she told her council colleagues. “I think it could be a good strategy to change faces. So I’d like to step off, and I’d suggest that Dan go on that. I’d like to shake it up there a bit. I’m proud of where we are, and what we’ve accomplished. I think we’re in a good place, but I think it’s a good time to do that.”
Bane politely thanked Ward for the nomination. “I was surprised Kathy removed herself from the TCA Board, especially given her statements during the campaign that she was best-suited to continue representing the city’s interest,” he says.
He was gracious, in other words, and neutral outsiders would be excused for thinking there was peace between them. He noted that he couldn’t take Ward’s seat on the board of the Eastern toll road, because . . . . and he paused for a moment to let Ward see the obvious. But Ward – the TCA insider who occupied the city’s seats on both boards simultaneously for years – didn’t seem to grasp the problem.
“Why?” she finally asked.
“Isn’t he in litigation [with the TCA]?” another board member asked.
Indeed, he is.
In this brief, bureaucratic exchange about who would represent the city on a board most residents have never heard of, there’s light — a spotlight, really – on the lie at the heart of a political campaign that lasted more than a year. So what, you’ll likely say, politicians are liars. Big deal.
And I’ll say that’s true often enough, and it’s one of the reasons normal people hate politics.
But there’s another way to look at that nomination, as a kind of Hallmark movie ending – two politicians burying their instruments of war and working elbow to elbow for the good of their city. So, that was sweet.
OR WAS IT A HOLLYWOOD ENDING? At nearly the same time as that fabulous feel-good vote, someone in San Clemente was filing a complaint about Bane with the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC), the state’s politics watchdog. The anonymous complaint alleged that Bane stood to make money by suing the TCA while sitting on one of its boards.
It was as if the complainant knew Bane’s nomination to the toll road board was a sure thing.
Bane received a letter from the FPPC. In it, the agency laid out the anonymous conflict-of-interest allegations against him, and asked Bane to respond. Bane looked through the documents carefully, opening one of the attached documents. It had been offered by the complainant as evidence of Bane’s perfidy. Bane look closely at what geeks call the metadata, the bits of information that reveal a document’s creator. In this case, the document was apparently created by Ward’s ally, Michelle Schumacher.
It’s easy to imagine that Bane might have been fighting dark impulses at this point. He had been fighting shadow enemies for months. His wife had been accused of criminal conspiracy.
He returned to Liam Blume, the weapon that Ward had first picked up to destroy Bane’s candidacy. For months, Blume would not reveal the source of his Nov. 2 story to anyone outside the Weekly. But on March 1, still dogged by the story, Bane texted Blume to say that he knew Kathy Ward was Blume’s source. Blume fell for it: he texted back to confirm that she was indeed his source.
Bane now says Blume merely confirmed what Bane already knew. It was, he alleges, Ward herself who revealed her identity as the source of the Weekly hit piece; he claims City Hall employees told him she openly spoke of her role, even embracing it as evidence that she’s someone you don’t mess with.
Revealing Ward’s identity violated another newsroom norm. Reporters have gone to jail rather than obey even a court’s demand to know an anonymous source. Older citizens may remember that New York Times reporter Judith Miller spent 85 days behind bars for her refusal in 2005 to name the person revealed to her the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame. There are other examples, but you get the picture: if as a reporter you grant anonymity to a source, you don’t name that source, even under threat of jail time.
The confirmation of Ward’s identity earned him a little satisfaction, along with the knowledge that her ally was behind the FPPC complaint against him. More comforting was a March 26 letter from the FPPC telling Bane the agency had “found insufficient evidence of a violation . . . , and will not pursue an enforcement action in this matter.”
THE RULES OF THE NEWSROOM are remarkably like rules for living. Remain skeptical. Keep the confidence of your fellows.
There’s another that applies here, though I never heard it any newsroom but those I led. I first heard it as a story, a kind of parable about the ancient problem we now sometimes call fake news. I heard it in a sermon at the St. Margaret Mary Catholic Church in Lomita, California, when I was eight years old, and prepping for my First Confession:
The town gossip goes to her parish priest for confession. She tells him that she can’t control her impulse to spread salacious stories about her neighbors. The priest listens intently, and then tells her the penance she’ll need in order to absolve her sin against God and community. “Take your best feather pillow into the church bell tower,” the priest says. “There, rip open the pillow and shake loose all the feathers. When you’re complete, come back and tell me.” She leaves and returns an hour later, a few stray feathers caught in her hair. “Well?” he asks. “Father,” she replies a little breathlessly, her eyes glistening in spiritual wonderment, “it was beautiful. Like a miracle. Watching those feathers drift out over the city . . . . My soul just felt so free!” “Good,” the priest replies. “Now you’re ready for the second part of your penance: go collect all the feathers.”