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Community newspaper backed by former Irvine mayor and current council candidate draws criticism

 Larry Agran, former Irvine mayor and current council candidate
Some question whether a newspaper backed by Larry Agran, former Irvine mayor and current council candidate, is misleading.
(Robert Lachman / Los Angeles Times)

An Irvine community newspaper backed by a former mayor and City Council candidate is drawing criticism from academics and council members who consider it misleading to residents.

Some have called Irvine Community News & Views biased in favor of Larry Agran, the longstanding local politician who helped get the newspaper started.

“I think everyone knows it’s linked to Larry Agran,” said Councilwoman Farrah Khan, who is running for mayor. “It’s his newspaper and whatever he puts out in it he has the right to do so, but I wouldn’t call it an independent newspaper.”

She continued: “I personally would feel very uncomfortable putting out a paper claiming it to be a community paper if I was promoting myself in it all the time.”

Residents in North Irvine say they believe a nearby asphalt factory is releasing toxic fumes, potentially harming their health.

Khan, who was endorsed by the newspaper, compared Irvine Community News & Views to two other newspapers in Irvine run by developers Five Point Holdings and the Irvine Co. She said each paper has a “bias.”

Yet, Agran said in an interview with TimesOC that the newspaper, which claims a circulation of 66,500, is legitimate and just like any other. Agran credited publisher and friend Frank Lunding with starting and running the newspaper.

“People can characterize it as my paper,” Agran said. “I have written for it. I am proud of it. I help Frank wherever I can. I help recruit writers for him.

“I think it’s a wonderful enterprise that he has ventured out in late in life, and our community desperately needs it. We don’t have the coverage here that we should have.”

Agran’s affiliation with the paper

Agran has a number of connections to Irvine Community News & Views.

He said he owns about a 4% financial stake in the newspaper. The column he used to write for it was discontinued when he announced his candidacy for the November election. His wife, Phyllis, also regularly writes for it.

His daughter-in-law, Kerrie Agran, is listed as the chief operations officer and calendar editor in the print editions as “Kerrie Mahan.” State records show that the newspaper is registered under a “Kerrie Mahan Agran.”

Larry Agran is listed as a staff writer and contributor in the print newspaper.

“We support Larry Agran, and we’re happy to have his involvement in the paper, but the fact that he has a small interest in the paper doesn’t mean that he’s going to control the copy,” Lunding said before adding that he will sometimes check with Agran on facts in articles he’s writing.

Councilman Mike Carroll, who is running for election after being appointed to his first term, takes umbrage with Agran’s claim that his newspaper is just like any other.

“Larry Agran’s ‘newspaper’ is misleading to residents because people expect campaign laws to be followed and enforced, namely that the people who pay for political mail will be identified,” Carroll said through email. “In the case of this ‘newspaper,’ Agran is once again avoiding disclosing who is trying to influence Irvine voters, by hiding political mail inside a supposed ‘newspaper.’”

A recent print edition of Irvine Community News and Views.
(Photo by Ben Brazil)

Carroll said he doesn’t believe that residents can readily identify that Agran is connected to Irvine Community News & Views.

“Just because it may be legal does not make it a legitimate newspaper,” Carroll said.

The paper’s content includes negative articles about Agran’s political opponents, mainly Carroll and Mayor Christina Shea. Shea declined to comment for this report.

Articles about Agran are generally glowing. When Agran’s candidacy was announced months ago in the paper, the article listed his accomplishments in a manner closer to a news release than an objective accounting of Agran’s government service.

The paper has also produced a number of articles in support of Agran’s advocacy for a controversial veterans cemetery in the Orange County Great Park, which is one of the main platforms he’s running on.

It’s unclear who writes the articles online, as the bylines for many of them are labeled as “ICNV Staff,” described on the website as “local Irvine journalists who are personally familiar with the events and issues they write about.”

Lunding said in an interview that many of the writers are volunteers. He refused to identify which writers are paid.

When asked why writers don’t provide their names on the articles they’ve written, Lunding responded: “No real good reason, I guess ... We just thought that was the best way to do it.”

In recent weeks, Irvine residents have been receiving copies of Irvine Community News & Views in the mail with a political advertisement from Agran’s campaign inserted inside.

How it started

For several decades before coming to Irvine in the mid-1980s, Lunding was an attorney working on election-related matters in Chicago, including election fraud. Lunding said he’s been friends with Agran since before he moved to Irvine.

Lunding, who lives in Monterey, said he started the newspaper in 2014. He owned a slate mailer operation prior to creating the newspaper.

Slate mailers are a form of political advertising sent out to residents. A recent Los Angeles Times editorial called slate mailers “misleading.”

Larry Agran stands on a soccer field during a tour of the O.C. Great Park in 2013.
Larry Agran, then an Irvine City Council member, stands on a soccer field during a tour of the Orange County Great Park in 2013.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The newspaper may have spawned from Lunding’s slate mailer, which was called “Irvine Community News & Views” and looked almost exactly like the current print editions.

Lunding said he didn’t “specifically remember” whether the newspaper came out of the slate mailer publication. He said he started his newspaper to counteract information put out by developer-run newspapers like Irvine World News, which was once backed by the Irvine Co.

“The goal was to get all the actual factual information out about what was going on in Irvine, primarily relating to the developers and what was happening,” Lunding said.

When asked whether he had been directly involved with any political campaigns for Agran, Lunding responded: “I don’t recall.”

Agran said Lunding asked him to help start the newspaper.

“I didn’t know anything about starting a community newspaper, but Frank wanted to do that, this was in 2014 after I had been defeated and left the City Council,” Agran said. “I had some time on my hands and said I would give him a hand initially. I am a good writer, I am certainly interested in knowledge and community issues.”

Agran said he helped recruit writers for the paper and encouraged his daughter-in-law to help with it. His wife would later join as a regular writer.

Lunding refused to disclose how the newspaper is funded. He did say that he oversees the paper as the “controlling interest.”

“I just do not get into the financial side of it,” Lunding said.

The legality of the newspaper was considered in 2016, when Lunding sued the city for barring distribution of the paper in City Hall. The city at the time claimed political publications would not be distributed at city facilities.

After mediation, the city agreed to pay Irvine Community News & Views a $350,000 settlement.

“It’s legal and newspapers have always had a point of view, even the L.A. Times, which used to be a right-wing newspaper and became a centrist and even left-leaning newspaper,” Agran said. “People who had ownership interests had agendas and connections with politicians ...”

Analysis

Susan Paterno, professor and journalism program director at Chapman University, said politicians have a very long history of using newspapers for public relations.

Paterno said as community newspapers disappear and remaining ones are bought up by corporations, many communities no longer receive objective news by unbiased community reporters.

“With the fact that hedge funds and private equity managers have bought up most of the local newspapers in America and created ginormous news deserts,” Paterno said. “And, you know, people like Larry Agran and Donald Trump are going to try to fill those news deserts with their propaganda ... Whether or not you like it, the 1st Amendment gives them the right to do that.”

She continued: “In these news deserts will grow politicians with agendas and corporations with agendas, and they will steal journalism. The very people who we should be holding accountable are actually stealing journalism.”

Jason Shepard, Cal State Fullerton media law scholar, professor and chair of the Department of Communications, said it’s important to question whether a reader can evaluate the credibility of a publication by looking at it.

“If [Agran] is hiding who is producing this content with the intent to win political favor for himself and his allies, that to me does seem problematic,” Shepard said.

Shepard wrote a book analyzing what characteristics define what a journalist is in the digital age.

He has also studied campaign finance law.

“The whole point of campaign finance law is meant to protect citizens from manipulation and distortion through paid communication,” Shepard said. “And so we have many laws in place that are meant to help voters understand who is trying to influence elections. I don’t know if this is skirting the intent of campaign finance law, but it certainly is an interesting question if it is.”

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