Column: Journalism doesn’t have to be this bad: A lesson of truth over extremism from Orange County

Rep. Robert Dornan, R–Calif. appearing on NBC's "Meet the Press" in 1995 in Washington.
Rep. Robert Dornan, R–Calif. appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in 1995 in Washington.
(Joe Marquette/AP)
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Today’s newsletter is written by Deputy Managing Editor Shelby Grad. Anita Chabria will return next week.

If you think election denial is reserved for rural red pockets, let’s take the 405 into Orange County.

Yes, the O.C. was once famous as a conservative bastion. It is now deep purple, with Democrats making serious gains in recent decades. It is also one of the most affluent and well-educated places in the nation. But consider these findings from a recent UC Irvine poll:

  • 26% of adults said they did not believe Joe Biden legitimately won the presidency in 2020, with an additional 17% unsure.
  • A majority of the Republicans surveyed for the poll — 55% — thought Biden had not won fairly.

Remember, this is not the Orange County of John Wayne and the Reagan revolution. Voters rejected Donald Trump in both 2016 and 2020, backing Hillary Clinton and then Biden.


I was intrigued by the poll results because I covered Orange County for The Times in the 1990s. The vast majority of the politicians I covered were Republican, and some were suspicious of the political leanings of a reporter from L.A. (though I did not vote and could declare truthfully I had no political affiliation).

The old O.C. stereotypes

There were many moments where Orange County politics lived up to the stereotypes. On one of my first weekend shifts as a 20-year-old intern, the newsroom buzzed after a prominent politician greeted some gay-rights protests by saying: “I’m a retired Marine. A couple of faggots out there aren’t going to scare me.”

But looking back, I don’t believe that many of the GOP sources I talked to then would have claimed an election was stolen without any evidence. And I don’t think this is simply nostalgia for an era of less-divisive politics.

In 1996, one of the most watched congressional races in the country pitted Rep. Robert K. Dornan, an outspoken far-right Republican, against Democratic upstart Loretta Sanchez in a central Orange County district that was rapidly becoming less white and less Republican. The GOP saw the demographic shift coming and a few years earlier installed “poll guards” at some voting centers in Latino neighborhoods to intimidate voters. But that could not stop the inevitable.

‘B-1 Bob’ fights a losing battle

Election day 1996 came and it was too close to call. Dornan alleged voter fraud and fought even as he fell behind Sanchez. Weeks passed without a winner. “B-1 Bob” was a legend on the right, known for his bombastic speech on the empty House floor and guest hosting on the “Rush Limbaugh Show.” He was not going down without a fight.


When final results showed he lost by 984 votes, he demanded a recount. When the recount did not change the tally, he said non-citizens had voted in Latino neighborhoods and vowed to go to court. So began months of investigations — by state and local officials, by newspapers, by Congress itself — into significant fraud allegations.

But it did not stop Sanchez from taking her seat in Congress. She was recognized as the elected representative of her district even as the allegations were probed. When the House formally rejected Dornan’s challenge, the vote was 378-33. Dornan wanted his old job back so he ran against her in 1998 — and lost.

Dornan reportedly complained that some Republicans did not back him adequately. And he did not get a big boost from the famously right-wing editorial pages of the Orange County Register.

Conservative, but not scorched-earth

The Register’s editorials were remarkably measured by today’s “politics is war” standards. They demanded the fraud allegations be taken seriously and fought for full inquiries when some Democrats balked. But they never went scorched-earth on Sanchez, never demanded action before all the facts were in. The overwhelming message: Follow the law and the truth will come out.

The Register’s owners back then were famously libertarian. They backed the extremist John Birch Society, red-baited with the best of them and railed against “taxpayer-supported schools.”

Yet they also had a history of speaking truth to power, particularly government power.

In my experience, they never pulled punches when Republican officials wasted taxpayer money or got into trouble.


When the U.S. government rounded up Japanese Americans at the beginning of World War II, most newspapers (including this one) cheered. But the Register was practically alone rallying against it. Owner R.C. Hoiles said the government was exceeding its authority and the whole thing was profoundly un-American.

“Few, if any, people ever believed that the evacuation of the Japanese was constitutional. It was a result of emotion and fright rather than being in harmony with the Constitution and the inherent rights that belong to all citizens,” the Register wrote in one 1942 editorial.

Hoiles’ crusade made him enemies at the time, but it is viewed very well in the eyes of history.

It’s a different media world now

It’s notable that Fox News made its debut just a month before the first Sanchez-Dornan election. The late 1990s turned out to be the waning days of local newspaper dominance, before the internet and other market forces would shift attention, hollow out print newsrooms and create business models based on telling people what they wanted to hear.

Fox News officials were pretty clear about why they back Trump’s claims even though many didn’t believe them. It came down to business.

Times coverage of the 1996 race between Bob Dornan and Loretta Sanchez
(Los Angeles Times)

I suspect few of those UCI poll respondents were getting their news about Trump’s election lies from the Register or any local paper.

This is not to say that the old ways of journalism were perfect or even better. Just look at the shameful cheerleading my own newspaper displayed toward Japanese American imprisonment to see the heroism of R.C. Hoiles.

But when we wonder how our politics got so divided, we need to also ask how we are getting the facts that form our opinions.

The must read: Why Juneteenth didn’t actually end slavery in Texas
The San Francisco special: Why a San Francisco bookstore is shipping queer books to conservative states — for free
The LA Times Special: California races roiled by border, immigration. It could tip control of the House

P.S. Goodbye to a Giant.

Here’s our obit.

Willie Mays receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama in 2015.
(Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

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Times librarian James Kim contributed research for this newsletter.