This Is How They Do It About the O.C.

Photo by Tenaya HillsWith the inordinate national media attention Orange County receives, it's always amusing to see outsider journalists get us terribly, laughably wrong. Consider the following three parachute dispatches from the country's most powerful daily newspapers: the WallStreetJournal, LosAngelesTimesand NewYorkTimes.

Few things irk the national Republican Party more than Loretta Sanchez, the Latina congresswoman who has built a Democratic empire in otherwise-red Orange County since her 1996 toppling of Bob “B-1 Baboso” Dornan. But in a April 4 online column for the WallStreetJournal, commentator John Fund suggested the improbable: that Sanchez's days might be numbered.

Fund based his extraordinary claim on recent stats showing how President George W. Bush made significant electoral gains amongst Latinos in the 2004 elections. In Sanchez's district, he noted, Bush lost by 15 percent in the 2000 presidential contest; this time around, Bush beat Kerry. Ipso facto, Loretta is doomed.

But to make that leap of logic based on such numbers, Fund ignores the joke that is the Republican Party in central Orange County. Every election cycle since 1998, when Sanchez, Joe Dunn and Lou Correa respectively won the region's congressional, state Senate and state Assembly seats, the local GOP has run candidates of lesser and lesser caliber whom the Democratic incumbents easily trounced. 2004 was the worst year yet: Sanchez whipped ditzy Alexandria Coronado by more than 22,000 votes, and an invisible Tom Umberg pummeled the shady Otto Bade in the race for Correa's former state Assembly seat (see my “A Few Words on Why Tom Umberg Doesn't Want Campaign-Finance Reform,” April 28).

Even TheOrangeCountyRegisterdismissed Fund's analysis, but April 4 wasn't the first time Fund fucked up while forecasting Orange County's political winds. In 2001, the columnist predicted Dubya would appoint Newport Beach Congressman and perpetual also-ran Chris Cox to the Ninth U.S. District Court of Appeals and that either New Majority leader Mark Chapin Johnson or conservative darling Jim Rogan would replace Cox; none of this happened. That same year, he also eulogized former ultraconservative Orange County Congressman John Schmitz as “outrageous, extreme, funny and a patriot.” In 2003, Fund attributed the recall of former Santa Ana school trustee Nativo Lopez to voter disgust about his support of bilingual education rather than corruption.

You wouldn't know it from the paper's coverage, but the LosAngelesTimesstill maintains an Orange County bureau despite gradually culling its Costa Mesa staff since the paper's 2002 sale to the ChicagoTribune. As a result, Southern California's top daily now covers Orange County as if it were Vanuatu. Occasionally they'll enlist a former native to return, eyes aglitter, and write about the county's transformation from his white-bread memories to today's white-wine extravaganza.

Which brings us to Scott Duke Harris' cover story for the April 24 edition of the LosAngelesTimesMagazine. The current Bay Area resident and former Timescolumnist bemoans the supposed transformation of a county he remembers as “a quilt of largely hum-drum communities with their discrete charms” into a “new Todayland for people with serious money or a reckless way with a credit card.” Harris doesn't like this he says it “makes my head hurt.” But he proceeds to cavort with the people who make his noggin numb South Coast Plaza baron Henry Segerstrom's son Anton, the Fletcher Jones of Fletcher Jones Motor Cars and assorted Newport Beach bimbos.

Harris' story wasn't too far off from the truth Orange County is indeed a playground for the nouveau riche, the trust-fund hipsters, the plain folks who don't bat an eye spending hundreds on a pair of bloody jeans. Only twice, though, does a hint of the real Orange County emerge: when Harris mentions that, in his former hometown of Santa Ana, “Latinos who help prop up the good life account for more than 75 percent of the population” and how “before moving into a three-bedroom Santa Ana bungalow built by Habitat for Humanity, Mario, Iris and their five daughters shared a home with relatives. Fourteen people and one bathroom.”

Harris sells short his hometown. Not only is Santa Ana more than 75 percent Latino, it's also the country'syoungest, most Latino, most Spanish-speaking, most crowded and toughest-to-live-in city. Now that'sa story. But it's a story Harris and other national reporters love to sweep away when covering Orange County after all, sweating Mexican laborers do not a sexy story make.

On April 28, it was TheNewYorkTimes' turn to trudge into Orange County, talk to one or two locals, and jet out. This time, the topic was one too familiar with county residents: congestion on the 91 freeway.

What separates a great story from a hack job is context. But in the midst of glamorizing the 91 expressway “first class on asphalt” was how Timesscribe Timothy Egan described the toll lane and using it as a case example of the rising popularity of such projects nationwide, Egan reduced Orange County's decade of toll-road troubles to two “cautionary stories,” each reduced to a paragraph in a 1,594-word article. Egan's memorable summation of that infamous clause instituted by the 91 expressway's builders prohibiting Caltrans from expanding the 91? “This brought a lot of anger.”

TheNewYorkTimesdidn't bother to mention that officials used hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies for supposedly privately funded toll roads, how local politicians got rich with consultant fees, or how traffic conditions actually worsened with the construction of the 73 and 91 toll roads. And so, in this, as in the efforts of the LosAngelesTimesand WallStreetJournal, the lords of Orange County smile again the legend of their meticulously pitched OC fantasy prevails.


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