Yesterday, Spotlight won the Academy Award for Best Picture for its retelling of how the Boston Globe broke the story of the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston sex-abuse scandal in the early 2000s, thereby unleashing a tidal wave of outrage and lawsuits that has fundamentally changed the Catholic Church. It’s a great film, one that captures a golden era of print journalism long gone in this age of page cutbacks, layoffs, and an emphasis on listicles and Twitter-comment aggregation.
The original Globe staff has taken a much-deserved victory lap around the country, none more deserved than then-editor Marty Baron, now the head of the Washington Post and played by Liev Schieber in Spotlight. Indeed, Esquire’s November profile of him asked, “Is Martin Baron the Best News Editor of All Time?” with the answer a resounding, “Yes, Cerritos!”
But lost in the hubbub and love is when Baron flat-out failed in one of the biggest stories in Orange County history: our 1994 bankruptcy.
From 1993 through 1996, Baron was in charge of the Orange County edition of the Los Angeles Times (Yes, kids: Times were when the Times had a full, huge office just to cover OC, with a staff of over 200). He was brought in during a newspaper war between the Times and the Register, one which the Reg handily beat the Times due to the latter’s arrogance and dismissal of us as a backwater. The Esquire profile only spends two paragraphs on this part of Baron’s career, mostly to burnish him as a rising star who was already transforming reporter lives.
“Baron immediately made his presence felt,” wrote Esquire scribe Baxter Holmes. “‘I wanted to impress him,'” says Matt Lait, a reporter under Baron then and now The Times‘ city editor. “‘I wanted him to think I was a serious journalist, like he was. He made me better. He just made you want to be better.'”
But Baron’s inspirational tactics and vision only went so far. As Chapman University journalism professor Susan Paterno laid out in a devastating 1995 examination for the American Journalism Review (a version of the story which ran as the OC Weekly‘s second-ever cover story), the Times OC blew the 1994 bankruptcy despite reams of paperwork and evidence provided by John Moorlach and Chriss Street, two guys then just dismissed as Chicken Little quacks but now regarded as prophets (Moorlach went on to serve as county treasurer-tax collector, OC supervisor and is currently a state senator; Street replaced his mentor as treasurer-tax collector before falling into his own scandal).
You should read Paterno’s piece in its entirety, but telling is Baron’s no-fucks-given quotes to her then about his paper blowing the bankruptcy story. Here’s one passage:
Editors at the Times and the Register make no apologies for their coverage. “You dig wells all the time. You don’t always hit oil,” says Martin Baron, editor of the Times Orange County Edition. “The question is, how long do you want to keep digging the well before you want to try a different field?”
Baron says the Times took the story seriously from the moment investment banker Chriss Street walked into the Orange County office in 1993 and immediately assigned a reporter to look into Street’s allegations. “One of our reporters spent a fair amount of time researching that,” he says. “She had it on her story list for some time.”
The Times published no stories, Baron says, because at the time Street’s complaints seemed to be old news. “This was something that had been publicly debated at all the school districts and there had been some controversy on the boards,” Baron says. “..It’s not like it was some sort of new discovery.” And, Baron says, the paper talked to a lot of people but “we didn’t find people who were quite as vehement as [Street]. You can’t write a story on just what Chriss Street says.”
Moorlach, in particular, chided the Times for their laziness (while blasting the Register for sheer stupidity):
Moorlach says, “The reporters didn’t do the heavy lifting. Any business reporter would understand [it].”
Times editor Baron disagrees. “We don’t have an expert on every subject. We’re constantly assigning good reporters to go cover things they’re not an expert in,” he says. “What we do is talk to the experts. We got the names of people we thought were experts in the field. Any business reporter would have done the same thing.”
One more passage:
Orange County Editor Baron says he feels the coverage was “the best we could [do] at the time with the resources available.
“It’s easy to look back in retrospect and say had [we] asked this or that we would have come back with something different,” says Baron. “Our stories outlined generally the principle and the risk and dealt with the issue seriously. We didn’t say the fund is on the verge of collapse. I’m not sure it was on the edge of collapse. All the participants said they were delighted with the fund.”
And, says Times reporter Jeff Brazil, what might have happened if the media exposed Citron’s gamble and caused a run on the fund? “The newspaper…has a responsibility to the community,” he says. “Just because you know something doesn’t mean it should go in the newspaper.”
Baron deserves a permanent exhibit in the Newseum, and a seat next to St. Peter Damian up in heaven. But let’s not forget that even saints were once mortal.