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Response to Gregory Rodriguez

In regards to Times columnist Gregory Rodriguez's Sunday column about the left in Los Angeles, former LA Weekly news editor Alan Mittelstaedt emails:

• L.A. Times’ columnist Gregory Rodriguez made some valid points about the media’s coverage of so-called leftist leaders and causes, but I wish to dispute his central thesis that demeans the work and reputation of the news staff and freelancers at the L.A. Weekly. The paper’s focus on hard-hitting, investigative work challenging liberal sacred cows did not begin with the recent takeover by New Times. An era when the paper served as the left’s unwavering mouthpiece ended long ago.

As news editor for seven years, I worked with some of the best reporters in Los Angeles – Jeffrey Anderson, Daniel Hernandez, Christine Pelisek and David Zahniser, among others - uncovering wrong-doing, questionable practices and important stories wherever we found them. Let me share a few of the highlights.

Consider the body of work of investigative reporter Jeffrey Anderson. Hired in 2004, he’s taken on city department heads serving under pro-labor Democratic mayors Jim Hahn and Antonio Villaraigosa, including Department of Water and Power’s Ron Deaton. Jeff broke the story about a confidential DWP executive memo sent to Hahn that exposed as political extortion the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers’ iron-fist rule at the nation’s largest public utility. Jeff’s story forced Deaton, who now answers to Villaraigosa, to confront an imbalance of power that endangered employee safety and hindered public accountability. He also was first with the story about the sweetheart salary deal the IBEW struck with the city last year, with Hahn voting no and Villaraigosa hiding behind the wall of the mayoral transition process. Jeff’s coverage of the pact, which expanded the already huge gap in city workers’ salaries, prompted a citywide labor audit by City Controller Laura Chick. Jeff also broke the story about Chick’s secret – and legally questionable – meetings with the four candidates challenging Mayor Hahn in 2005.

Early on in his days at the Weekly, Jeff riled L.A.’s tight-knit band of civil-rights lawyers by zeroing in on the high-pressure tactics used by Inglewood police brutality victim Patricia Surjue’s attorneys to force her to agree to an out-of-court settlement and drop her demand for a jury trial. Surjue’s lawyers – shocked that the L.A. Weekly would question their conduct – threatened to sue us, and got 30 lawyers, including Carol Sobel, Dan Stormer and Stephen Yagman, to write a letter to the editor protesting Jeff’s stories.

Consider the L.A. Weekly cover package on “The Subway Mayor,” by freelance journalist Eric Berkowitz in the summer of 2005. This deeply reported story revealed the West Side power elite’s misguided and often racist policies that derailed L.A.’s subway program in the mid-1980s. The package laid blame for an abysmally incomplete public transportation system squarely on the shoulders of liberal icons – Tom Hayden, Henry Waxman, Zev Yaroslavsky and the Bus Riders Union’s Eric Mann, among others.

Did Rodriguez see the special issue devoted to smog in September 2005 that called out by name the Democratic leaders who are failing to address a public health crisis, which kills 9,600 Californians a year? Or freelancer William J. Kelly’s 2004 cover story on William Burke, the African-American liberal leader (married to County Supervisor Yvonne Burke) whose public service record as chairman of the region’s smog police and founder of the L.A. marathon is riddled with conflicts of interest? Or Marc Cooper’s Dissonance column, in which he shoots at liberals and their causes most every week?

I suspect the main cause of Rodriguez’s flawed analysis is that he has not read the L.A. Weekly very closely for years. He fabricates imaginary conclusions about the departure of Harold Meyerson, whose influence on the news pages, since 2001, largely amounted to a column e-mailed every other week from Washington D.C. Did Rodriguez see our hyper-critical endorsement of the Democratic incumbent in the 2002 governor’s race? It began: “We abhor so many things about Gray Davis….” Or our lukewarm endorsement of Villaraigosa for mayor in 2005, which started off: “We’re disappointed and even annoyed that with five Democrats in the mayor’s race, we do not see an ideal candidate running for mayor of Los Angeles.”

Had Rodriguez bothered to read the paper, he would find some of the most complex investigative work defies labeling as either pro- or anti-liberal. Christine Pelisek’s stories on unsolved murder cases, on racial tensions in Highland Park, on an outbreak of Skid Row staph going unaddressed by the county health department, are powerful, old-fashioned shoe-leather journalism. As was freelancer Celeste Fremon’s painstakingly detailed coverage of the police shooting that killed 19-month-old Suzie Pena, who was mortally wounded when police opened fire on her father as he used her as a human shield during a July 2005 standoff. Her coverage – neither pro-police or pro-victim -- answered the highest calling of all: pro-truth.

More recently, consider the work of two hires made in January. Daniel Hernandez tore apart the myth of the South-Central Farm as the last stand of impoverished residents taking on the man; in fact, as Daniel reported, the farms’ organizers were the real problem, and the mayor’s office hampered negotiations to buy the property from developer Ralph Horowitz.

Consider the work of David Zahniser, the best City Hall reporter in Los Angeles, who in 10 months on the job has done as much as any writer to make the L.A. Weekly a must-read for people interested in civic affairs. Week after week, in “The Z Files,” David goes after hypocrisy and excesses of power, with the mayor’s school takeover plan and city ethics reform two perennial topics. David’s cover story on gentrification showed the social and economic benefits of neighborhood upheaval in a richly nuanced treatment that surprised some Weekly readers who expected him to focus on the plight of the displaced. He also wrote the cover story about the mystery of Miguel Contreras’ final hours that Rodriguez sees as the biggest sign of all the changes at the L.A. Weekly. Guess what? We would have run the story five years or longer ago. It was not a borderline call to publish a story that raised questions about the possibility that Miguel’s powerful pals bullied authorities into giving Miguel special treatment. Among the questions raised by David’s story: Did Miguel’s closest friends and allies, including then-City Councilman Martin Ludlow, pressure doctors and investigators not to order an autopsy that would have made all of the details of this labor leader’s death a matter of public record? The story made a strong case that the coroner’s office shirked its responsibilities to all of us by its handling of the death investigation of one of the most powerful men in Los Angeles history. And David’s predecessor at City Hall, Rob Greene (now an editorial writer at the L.A. Times), firmly established the non-ideological tone of our civic coverage when he came on board in 2003.

I wouldn’t underestimate the future changes in store for the L.A. Weekly. But first-rate journalism – which punctures hypocritical and ineffective leaders of all political stripes – has been practiced at the paper for years.

Alan Mittelstaedt

L.A. Weekly news editor, 1999 to Nov. 1, 2006

Mittelstaedt was recently laid off by the Weekly but continues to write the paper's L.A. Sniper column. He previously responded to an email by ex-Weekly editor Harold Meyerson.

November 20, 2006 4:12 PM • Native Intelligence • Email the editor

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