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Prying eyes at City Hall

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THIS column is about Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and his love life, but give us a minute to get there:

When it comes to reporting on politics and elected officials, distinguishing between what is properly private and what is necessarily public becomes more difficult all the time.

It's easy to blame the news media for this -- for all the obvious reasons. They include an increasing number of editors willing to take their cue from journalism's lowest common denominator, the gossip sheets, whether online or on slick paper, that continue to proliferate like informational vermin. By its very nature, gossip does not respect the distinction between public and private because it doesn't acknowledge the existence of such a dichotomy. In fact, part of gossip's guilty appeal comes from thumbing its nose at such niceties. The insatiable maw of the 24-hour news cycle also is a factor, as is the generalized collapse of confidence by newspapers engendered by print journalism's passage through an economically wrenching transformation.

To an extent seldom recognized, however, this trend has been abetted by politicians and officeholders themselves. Like nearly every sort of public person in our society, they increasingly and enthusiastically have embraced the culture of celebrity and its indispensable helpmate, the technology of self-promotion. Office seekers no longer have platforms; they have "stories" -- the more dramatic and appealing, the better. Thus nobody in this country can run for dogcatcher without telling us all about their family background and its immigrant origins, their spouses, children and pets. Nowadays, we even have to endure professions of religious conviction. (Who among us ever imagined a debate among presidential candidates that would include a show of hands on evolution?)

Here we get to what's worth considering about Villaraigosa's wretched week, because although he's partly the victim of changes in the media, there are other things that ought to be taken into account before making a judgment -- if one is so inclined -- concerning his situation.

Clearly, the mayor would not be in the fix he's in -- and it's quite a fix -- without the emergence of a vigorous online media that is reshaping the city's political landscape. Los Angeles mayors Sam Yorty and Tom Bradley were married men who had affairs, which never got into the papers because, even if City Hall reporters had been inclined to pursue the story, it would have been virtually impossible to make it conform to the standards their editors enforced. When James K. Hahn's marriage broke up in the middle of his term, there hardly was a ripple in the local press.

No more.

The news of Villaraigosa's marital difficulties was broken by a blogger, Luke Ford, then fleshed out by the Daily News, which immediately posted the story on its website. The paper's editorial page editor set the tone for much of the subsequent commentary by immediately putting up a hysterical screed that, believe it or not, included terms you probably haven't seen since the last time you read "Elmer Gantry," words like "homewrecker" and "repent." All of this has been carefully cataloged and funneled into the national and foreign press by Kevin Roderick's widely read LA Observed website.

How strongly has online journalism driven this story?

Well, as of Friday, the Los Angeles Times has a special page of its website devoted to all aspects of the affair, one titled "Summer of Love." Accounts and comments about the mayor's difficulties are the most viewed stories on The Times' online edition and that of the Daily News. If you think that doesn't get noticed in both papers' newsrooms, you're running a couple of years behind.

Depending on how you look at things, we're witnessing the digital execution of either decency and discretion or of a culture of excessive deference to power. Take your pick, though the truth probably resides, as it so often does, somewhere in between.

Villaraigosa's real problem is that the facts of this particular case undercut any benefit of the doubt to which all these considerations might otherwise entitle him. That's because his lover, Mirthala Salinas, is a journalist, a popular reporter and an anchor on Telemundo's Spanish-language newscast. Worse, she's a journalist who had been covering the mayor as their relationship developed.

Villaraigosa's personal connection with Salinas is a private issue that legitimately concerns only the two of them and their families. No one else has a moral or rhetorical right to an opinion on that aspect of their conduct. However, the fact that Salinas continued to report on the mayor while they were involved in this fashion is a public issue.

Salinas' employers at NBC-owned Telemundo took cognizance of that Thursday, when they suspended her with pay pending the outcome of an investigation into her relationship with the mayor. She reportedly has told associates that she informed her bosses about her relationship with Villaraigosa but was told to continue broadcasting stories about him. They reportedly insisted that she told them only of a friendship and not of a love affair.

Regular readers of this column will recall that, when similar situations have occurred, I've expressed my agreement with the late Abe Rosenthal's standard in such cases: It doesn't matter if a reporter sleeps with elephants, so long as they don't cover the circus.

To note that isn't to suggest that, if misconduct occurred, it was only Salinas'.

Villaraigosa is one of the most media-savvy politicians this city ever has seen. He has parlayed that savvy into what's been called "rock star" status, and, as one of the most dynamic and media-genic Latino officeholders in America, his endorsement has been eagerly sought by this year's crop of Democratic presidential candidates. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who won that contest, has been touting the mayor's support ever since.

Villaraigosa knows perfectly well that an intimate relationship with a reporter is bound to raise questions about whether he granted her special access. Worse, it also raises profound conflict-of-interest questions for Telemundo. Has the network's reporting on his tenure been manicured by a reporter in love with her subject? Has that subject used his mutual affection with the reporter to manipulate coverage of his agenda?

Those aren't particularly pleasant questions, but Salinas and Villaraigosa have behaved recklessly in an environment that, for better or worse, has become unforgiving.

timothy.rutten@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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