When the LA Weekly wrote a lengthy story last September about how little Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa attended to his official duties, it wasn’t plowing fresh soil.
The mayor’s exuberant fundraising and his frenetic campaigning on behalf of presidential contender Hillary Rodham Clinton had already received plenty of attention, in this paper and elsewhere.
The media, rightly, should do whatever it can to determine if a politician is already measuring the drapes for his next office while sitting in his current one.
But as it has with several stories in recent times, the Weekly didn’t let the facts speak for themselves in its Villaraigosa takedown.
Instead, it employed more semantic spin than Kobe Bryant puts on a jump shot, along with a prosecutorial methodology that proved much more about the declining quality of our city’s dominant alternative newspaper than it did about our attention-grasping mayor.
I got to thinking about this when the Phoenix-based company that publishes the Weekly forced the resignation of its thoughtful editor, Laurie Ochoa, late last month.
It was the latest departure in a protracted exodus by many of the Weekly’s best-known and most accomplished journalists.
Ochoa declined to talk about her exit, but those around her said she had “creative differences” with the bosses at Village Voice Media and long anticipated the ouster.
It’s too easy to mark such departures in epochal terms, and I think one of America’s most honored alternative papers will occasionally still deliver arresting criticism and a fresh voice our city wants.
(It helps that Ochoa’s husband, Pulitzer Prize-winning, octopus-gobbling restaurant critic Jonathan Gold, will remain at the paper, at least through the fall publication of his list of L.A.'s top 99 restaurants.)
Still, the Weekly has fallen far from the days it was required reading for those in the know about the city. In those days, the paper belonged to powerful writers such as Michael Ventura and Harold Meyerson, the political savant who now writes op-ed columns for the Washington Post.
But many who work at the paper attribute its tone and direction in the last couple of years to its news editor, Jill Stewart.
A convoluted history brought Stewart -- a former L.A. Times reporter and flame-throwing columnist for the now-defunct New Times Los Angeles -- to the Weekly to replace popular news editor Alan Mittelstaedt, who was forced out in late 2006.
While Ochoa remained in charge of the overall operation, a couple of people who worked at the paper told me she effectively ceded control of news to Stewart, a favorite of the Village Voice Media executives who oversee the operation.
Ochoa, the one-time editor of Gourmet magazine, remained in control of feature and arts coverage. And former employees, like veteran writer and commentator Marc Cooper, told me she did her best to protect writers and parts of the paper she felt still had value.
Cooper and others have written about the stark change in political focus that infused the paper after Stewart’s arrival. The Weekly’s faithfully pro-union, lefty bent gave way to the news editor’s libertarian sensibility. “Laughable ‘reporters’ were brought in,” Cooper wrote, “to scribble highly ideological pieces that reflected Stewart’s world view.”
But to me Stewart’s more important, and insidious, influence has been not as an ideologue but as a pedagogue -- pushing for what one writer who has worked with her called “gotcha, pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey journalism.”
(Like most of those who spoke to me, this scribe declined to be named because he feared Stewart could hurt his chances of writing for the Weekly, a risk he didn’t want to take in a contracting market.)
I know Jill from her time as a metropolitan reporter here at The Times. Her strength is intelligence, sharp writing and her passion for local news.
Her weakness, described by several journalists who have worked with her and reflected in several recent cover stories, is that she pushes story lines that make some sense, with arguments that make very little.
It was once fun to read Stewart’s New Times column because she painted a cartoonish world. Public policy was either brilliant or shameful, politicians either beatific or (more often) amoral and parasitic. Forget the shades of gray.
I see those same strains in pieces like the one on Villaraigosa’s work habits.
The story claimed to faithfully track the mayor for more than two months. But some who follow local politics became instantly suspicious of an analysis that defined the mayoral role in extremely narrow terms.
In one of his prime examples, for instance, reporter Patrick Range McDonald characterized two hours the mayor spent riding a subway and announcing new MTA bus lines as a mere publicity stunt. Using that kind of rationale, McDonald didn’t count most of Villaraigosa’s public activities as “direct city business.” The story therefore concluded the mayor spent just 11% of his time actually doing his job.
Meanwhile, the piece uncritically accepted the assertion of some anonymous politico that members of Congress from California spend “70 to 80% of their time on hard-core governing.” Sure.
I’ve covered Villaraigosa and know he can be an unctuous glad-hander. Yes, he’s an ambitious climber.
But he deserved better than the Edward Scissorhands, slice-and-dice analysis. And he’s not the only one who has been penalized by the Weekly’s thumb-on-the-scale approach.
It came as no surprise last month that the paper wanted to do a reality check on Police Chief William J. Bratton’s claim that crime rates in the city were comparable to what they were in 1956.
But instead of merely parsing, per capita, which crimes had gotten worse, the Weekly determined to prove that something much more nefarious was at work.
The resulting story was so over the top that one of the Weekly’s own veteran writers, Celeste Fremon, wrote a sharp rebuttal on her Witness LA blog.
Fremon, no pal of the LAPD in much of her own coverage, slammed the Weekly story for suggesting, without hard evidence, that department officials intentionally cooked the crime statistics.
“There was innuendo aplenty,” Fremon wrote. “But facts? Even circumstantial, ominously suggestive, tangential facts. . . ? None.”
Such attitudes even creep into the Weekly’s seemingly more innocuous work.
In a news story last month on the closure of newsstands, the tabloid seemed to embrace the theory of one stand owner that “smart growth” planning -- which allows high-density development along transit corridors -- was the principal cause of his family business’ demise.
Stewart deserves some credit for exploring the idea in her writing that the planning theory is really a Trojan horse that allows excess urban development.
But does the paper she edits have to be so credulous of the opposite claim, that “smart growth” is the key component in killing off a family newsstand? Next we’ll be reading that all those close-packed apartments are promoting teen pregnancy.
I don’t see the Weekly regaining its equilibrium as long as Stewart remains in charge of the news section. It’s likely that a new top editor will be brought in from outside.
But no one I talked to expects the bombastic Ms. Stewart to be going anywhere any time soon.