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A cheap broadside on the LA Weekly
I hadn't had a chance to open my morning papers last Friday when my cellphone started ringing and I heard my home computer beeping upstairs, letting me know that e-mails were pouring into my in-box. All were from colleagues, readers and friends, and all were ridiculing James Rainey's June 19 column, "LA Weekly’s aggressive slant erodes quality," his take-down attempt of me and my work as the news editor at the LA Weekly.
As I have made clear via the blogosphere since then, Rainey did not contact me for his wrongheaded column, published the same week in which the Weekly's news stories that I assigned and edited won several Los Angeles Press Club awards. These awards, announced five days before Rainey's attack, were judged entirely by journalists from other major U.S. cities to avoid local favoritism.
Staff and freelance writers under me won in the categories of hard news, investigative, news feature and political journalist of the year for large papers in Los Angeles. Our star was Christine Pelisek, a triple winner and the digger who wrote "The Grim Sleeper" cover story last August. The day before The Times printed Rainey's column, which tried to sell the backward message that I am dragging down the Weekly, Max Taves, a young reporter who works for me, beat the New York Times in a hard-fought, nationwide competition for biomedical news coverage, the Michael E. DeBakey Journalism Award. He heard what a rotten editor I am -- as he headed back from Washington, where he collected his award.
I have told many of my colleagues in journalism that it's hard to imagine Rainey wrote this column without being bothered by a article the Weekly published about him and his frequent use of blind sources while covering his bosses. I am the editor who assigned and edited that article, which was written by Luke Y. Thompson. His 2007 report was a classic Weekly news story using my approach: tough, factual and filled with excellent sourcing.
Late last Friday, Rainey sent me an e-mail explaining that he had forgotten about the Weekly article on him. He says he remembered it only when he clicked a link I sent after reading his harangue. Most journalists remember the stories written about them. Both Thompson and Rainey audio-taped the interview -- a somewhat unusual arrangement that would make the story hard to forget. At the very least, Rainey should have disclosed the fact that the Weekly had published a story -- assigned and edited by me -- that was critical of him. Our Weekly article about Rainey was, in fact, far better reported and sourced than his column.
In his column, Rainey quotes a blogger who is unhappy with our recent article, "Trust Us, It’s 1956." This cover story detailed how Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton plays with statistics to make the dubious claim that L.A. is as safe as it was 53 years ago. Rainey clearly intended to leave Times readers with the impression that this terrific cover story was virtually free of facts. In truth, Weekly staff writer Patrick Range McDonald spent many weeks delving into Bratton's data, and tracked down crime statistics experts who crunched the numbers. We ultimately showed how Bratton arrived at his tortured, misleading claim about 1956. The other day, I decided to count up the number of facts in that story, in preparation for a segment on KABC 790 TalkRadio with Doug McIntyre. I counted about 250 facts -- and I hadn't even finished McDonald's piece.
I knew Rainey's take-down attempt was coming, because he did contact some of the paper's freelance writers. Curiously, Rainey's article didn't include a single comment favorable to me. He did, however, manage to use an off-the-record quote that fit his unfortunate view, shared by some old-guard reporters in Los Angeles: that my aggressive form of journalism is not good for people.
Judges of media competitions across the country disagree. I disagree. Many disagree. In fact, I found Rainey's column to be an example of the things he was skewering. We at the Weekly do not practice gotcha journalism. For example, our freelance theater critic Steven Leigh Morris, a reporter of multiple talents who also writes factual, hard-hitting stories about the L.A. development wars, spent months trying to interview Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Morris couldn't nail an interview. The mayor does not like to discuss with journalists complicated policy issues, particularly in areas where he has misstepped. When we finally ran Morris' cover story, "Bitter Homes and Gardens," it made waves and catapulted a writer best known for his Stage Raw blog, theater coverage and plays into second place at the Los Angeles Press Club awards -- for business writer of the year.
Rainey accuses me of being an ideologue. Isn't he talking about himself? I suspect that he cannot abide a mixed-bag political mutt like me, a lifelong Democrat raised in a working-class union household, yet one who finds the Democratic leaders now running most of L.A.'s political and civic institutions to be doing an exceptionally poor job of it. That's news, and we at the Weekly will continue to cover it.
I wrote back to supporters on the left, right and center after Rainey's article ran, to tell them that I had been worried about winning local journalism awards this year. Both the Weekly and, I'm told, The Times submitted far fewer articles than normal to the L.A. Press Club competition. I needn't have worried. With my stunning but small staff of news reporters including Pelisek and McDonald, and my terrific news freelancers including Tibby Rothman, Daniel Heimpel, Max Taves, Paul Teetor, David Ferrell, Beth Barrett and several others, we'll just have to keep disappointing Rainey and The Times.
Jill Stewart is news editor at the LA Weekly.