Outside the Tent is an experimental column in which the Los Angeles Times invites critics to give it a spanking for its shortcomings, real or imagined. Recently, KFI talk-show host John Ziegler submitted a column in which he discussed the post-trial appearance of a Robert Blake juror on his show (and the juror's alleged misbehavior during commercial breaks), mayoral candidate Bob Hertzberg's purported refusal to be interviewed by Ziegler after learning that he'd be grilled about his support of driver's licenses for illegal immigrants, and Mayor James K. Hahn's supposedly tearful election day interview on another KFI show.
As it happens, I heard Hahn and I don't buy Ziegler's contention that the mayor was "in tears." Hahn sounded like he had a cold and simply lost patience with the hosts' spoiled-brat browbeating. And the juror's side of what happened differs considerably from Ziegler's. But those weren't my reasons for rejecting the column. I spurned it because it reads more like a self-infatuated valentine to KFI than the sort of pointed, specific criticism of The Times that we demand in Outside the Tent.
Ziegler disagreed with my assessment. Vehemently. How, he wondered, could I be so dense as to miss the important point he was making — that on matters such as these, The Times gets facts right but misses "the truth"?
Just for the fun of it, we're giving readers a chance to decide for themselves: Did I spare you from several hundred words of pointless blather or deprive you of the opportunity to read a trenchant critique of a Southern California newspaper? Ziegler's submission follows below. Decide for yourself and vote.
— Bob Sipchen, Sunday Opinion Editor
John Ziegler's column
As a radio talk-show host on KFI-AM (640), I am keenly aware that there is often a dramatic difference between the "facts" of a story and the "truth" of that tale. The Los Angeles Times is usually an outstanding source of facts, but when it comes to revealing the real truth of the big news events, talk radio, with all its own faults, often gives its consumers the type of revealing information that no other medium can or will. Two recent local episodes vividly illustrated this phenomenon.
The first came during the recent race to gain a spot in L.A.'s mayoral runoff election. Although The Times did an admirable job of covering the facts of the primary (other than completely ignoring the only legitimate Republican in the contest until it was far too late for him to gain any traction), the paper kept its readers completely ignorant of two extremely interesting and important developments in the final hours of the campaign, both of which were highlighted on talk radio.
Democrat Bob Hertzberg, who had been surging in the final polls, came out at the last moment strongly in favor of driver's licenses for illegal aliens (usually referred to in The Times as "undocumented workers"). For a candidate who was trying to portray himself as more "conservative" than the others in an effort to appeal to Valley voters, this was an act of near political suicide (especially to do so in the venue of talk radio).
Realizing his mistake, Hertzberg even canceled a long-scheduled election day interview with me after he learned that I planned to confront him on the issue (though the campaign's official explanation was that the famously energetic Hertzberg was too tired to speak to thousands of likely voters possibly on their way to the polls). Although a strong case could be made that this issue cost Hertzberg the 6,000 votes he needed to make the runoff, The Times barely even mentioned the topic.
Also on election day, Mayor Jim Hahn, in an act of pure political desperation, asked to appear on the show of my colleagues, "John & Ken." What resulted was extraordinary theater that revealed much about the mayor and his troubled campaign. After a heated confrontation with host John Kobylt, Hahn got extremely emotional and appeared to be in tears as he abruptly ended the ill-advised interview and hung up the phone. No one who heard the show is likely to forget it, and it certainly revealed much about the psychological state of the mayor. Despite the truly amazing nature of this incident, The Times never wrote even one word about it.
Then came the aftermath of the highly questionable verdict in the Robert Blake murder trial. Among the articles The Times devoted to examining the jurors' thought processes (or lack thereof) in acquitting the only person known to have both motive and opportunity to commit the crime was one about Roberto Emerick. Based only on a reading of The Times article, headlined "Juror Sings the Blake Trial Blues," a reader would have an impression of Emerick that, though factually accurate, would be almost completely in contradiction to the truth that they could have heard by listening to him interviewed on the radio.
The article, which briefly mentions his rocky appearance on my show, portrays Emerick as simply a sincere juror who also just happens to be a musician who created a CD about the trial simply to release the tension of the circumstances by benignly expressing his feelings. Although it was mentioned in the article that commentators, including myself, had been very critical of the appearance of attempting to profit from jury service, the writer appears to naively buy into the notion that because Emerick is not selling his music, there is nothing sinister about what he is doing.
Listeners to my radio interview with Emerick got a totally different perspective on what was really happening. Emerick admitted openly to me that he did not realize until after he created the CD that jurors could not profit from service until 90 days after a verdict and that he knew that, as a mechanic with the Los Angeles Unified School District, this was his lone chance to launch a music career. What is most outrageous about Emerick's music venture is that while his lyrics are consistent with almost any verdict, there is no doubt that they work best, and are far more potentially marketable, with a controversial "not guilty" verdict. Clearly this is the kind of conflict of interest that should have resulted in Emerick's removal from the jury.
Perhaps just as important to the context of understanding the real Roberto Emerick was the abject lack of logic and reasoning behind his view on Blake's guilt or innocence (a position that changed dramatically when the microphones were turned off during commercials), as well as the palatable sense that listeners got that he just didn't care very much about whether the verdict was correct, at least not in comparison with his desire to self-promote.
At the end of the interview, Emerick challenged me to a fight, tore a sign off of the KFI studio door and then turned and emphatically spat in my direction onto the studio carpet. In short, Emerick is a classless jerk who does not deserve any of the same benefit of the doubt that he all too gladly provided Blake.
Although The Times' readers can certainly make up their own minds as to the significance of such information, don't they deserve to at least be exposed to it? Thanks to "Outside the Tent," at least now they have been.
[Editor's note: Roberto Emerick disputes Ziegler's account. He says he never waffled on the verdict: "I've always maintained that I don't believe Blake pulled the trigger." He denies there was an off-air skirmish: "Anything he says happened off the air is more shtick to try to promote himself." And he says sales of his CD will go to a charity that supports victims of violence. Of Ziegler, he says: "He might as well have conducted the interview with himself, because he obviously had all the answers and he didn't care what I said." His take on KFI: "I went there thinking it's a reputable station because Rush Limbaugh's on it. When I got there I found a station of clowns."] Audio clips of the interview are posted at www.kfi640.com/johnziegler.html