Despite our best efforts, bloggers just donâ€™t have enough resources to meet the need for full time investigative reporting.
The explosion of internet journalism has launched hundreds of thousands of blogs covering everything from recipes to political opinion. In many cases, politics has inspired the merger of political opinion and actual investigative journalism. The result ranges from little news stories to revelations of full blown scandals.
This dynamic starts simply enough; a blogger hears about some salacious bit of gossip and starts digging for more details. That digging leads to something more, and then something more after that. Eventually a blog post hits the internet and is picked up by other bloggers and sometimes even the mainstream media. Once the resources of the mainstream media come to bear, the story either develops further or fizzles out.
A recent example was the story ofÂ a CityÂ Councilman from Westminster, CA, Andy Quach and his DUI accident. It was local bloggers who pushed for more information.Â That pressure caused the Orange County Register and LA Times to dig a bit deeper into the story and access information that citizen journalists had neither the access nor resources to get at.
But even with an intriguing story such as a City Councilman knocking out power to hundreds of constituents, totaling his $100,000 Mercedes, a block wall, and almost getting his â€œfriendâ€ Assemblyman Van Tran thrown in jail for disrupting the police investigation, if it wasnâ€™t for the citizen journalists pushing the issue most of the story of QuachGate would never have come to light. The reason is unfortunately allÂ too simple. The major media outlets in Orange County and across the nationÂ have slashed their resources devoted to true investigative reporting. Publications such as the Orange County Register seem to spend more effort covering who has the cutest cat than true investigative journalism.
When the OCRegister does finally find a bone of a storyÂ the reporters must modify their investigation to be sure they do not â€œoffendâ€ the political ideology of the editorial board, and their GOP masters. Simply put, the so-called newspaper of record in Orange County jumps through hoops to ensure that their coverage strengthens the GOP and/or Libertarian talking points and diminishes the perspective of Democrats, liberals, progressives, or anyone different from the white Republican men they choose to see as their only valid constituency. This situation exists in communities all across the nation and Orange County is not a unique example of the problem.
The situation in Orange County does however demonstrateÂ the need for a truly independent investigative news reporting organization as is being created by the â€œVoice of Orange County.â€ On Thursday, October 22nd OCWeekly published an intriguing profile by Spencer Kornhaber of this new venture into non-profit journalism and Norberto Santana Jr., the former OCRegister investigative reporter behind the project.
Earlier this year, he (Norberto Santana, Jr.)Â heard that Hutchens and Orange County Sheriffâ€™s Department spokesman John McDonald were going to sit down with Register staffers. They were unhappy with the way they were being covered.
â€œStay calm,â€ Santana recalls one editor telling him.
He knew something similar had happened a few years earlier with Mike Carona, the disgraced ex-sheriff. Reporter Aldrin Brown had shed light on the sheriffâ€™s departmentâ€™s prisoner abuse, excessive use of helicopters for personal business and misplaced crime reports. Carona complained in 2004 and was granted a meeting with the paperâ€™s editorsâ€”Brown wasnâ€™t invitedâ€”and, Brown says, the Register ended up running a clarification of one of his articles. Brown, now at the San Bernardino County Sun, told the Weeklyhe thinks the paper treated Carona, who faced federal corruption charges and was convicted of felony witness tampering earlier this year, â€œwith kid gloves.â€
Santana says he was happy to meet with Hutchens about his articles. But the sit-down was scheduled for the same week Santana was set to go on furlough (mandatory, unpaid vacation). While on furlough, Register staffers were told they werenâ€™t allowed to check e-mails, listen to voice mail, or do anything work-related from home. They were, for that week, not staffers.
Santana asked if they could please move the meeting with the sheriff. He says his request went unanswered. When his furlough week came, he went Jeep-riding with his wife and son in the high desert. But Santana says that while he was away, Hutchens and McDonald had lunch with Registereditor Ken Brusic, Knap and at least one other reporter. Neither McDonald nor Knap would discuss that meeting. But, Knap says, public figures regularly complain about coverage. â€œI always defend the reporter,â€ Knap says. â€œI always tell the public figure that if they want better PR, they need to return the reporterâ€™s phone calls.â€
In an e-mail to the Weekly, Brusic says that the idea for a sit-down came up while he was having coffee with the sheriff. He asked if she thought the paper had been fair; she said that some of her staffers had concerns. â€œThe meeting was a general clearing of the airâ€”an attempt to keep communication open,â€ he wrote. â€œThey had some concerns; so did we.â€
According to Brusic, Santanaâ€™s reporting was not the focus of the â€œwide-rangingâ€ discussion, though coverage of the concealed-weapons issue did come up. Santana says he was told that former Register reporter McDonald had called his articles â€œtoo aggressiveâ€ and â€œunfairâ€ without offering any concrete examples. When he returned from furlough, Santana says, he was told to â€œbe fairâ€ when covering the sheriff.
â€œIâ€™m not sure what Chris Knap told Norberto after the meeting, but an editor reminding a reporter to make sure all sides get fair treatment in our stories is pretty common advice around here,â€ Brusic says.
But Santana bristled. To him, â€œbe fairâ€ was code for â€œback off.â€
â€œIâ€™m sitting there, looking at an editor, going, â€˜Have we ever not been fair?â€™â€ Santana recalls. â€œThat, to me, was a death knell to my time at the Register. They have every right to run that paper however they see fit. But then I have to decide whether I want to work there.â€
The bottom line is that there is no real opportunity for the public to getÂ fair or balanced investigative reportingÂ from the Orange County Register. The LATimes has all but given up on covering news for the more than 3 million people in Orange County. The fact that the Orange County Register will not even run a single moderate or progressive syndicated column in their publication even though Orange County demographics clearly would support it should be a clear sign that their reporting is slanted dramatically to the right side of the political spectrum. I have stopped counting the number of times that the framing of the story titles and their link titles from the front page of their website have been ripped from the right-wing headline book.
â€œThereâ€™s a storm coming; A storm of accountability.â€
Nick Berardino, general manager of the Orange County Employees Association (OCEA), arrives. HeÂ has broad shoulders, is balding and mustached, and wears a dark sport coat. With a $140,000 donation, OCEA is, so far, the main financial backer of the Voice of OC. Santana picks up Maximo from the windowsill and takes him to Berardino. â€œLook,â€ Norberto says to Max, gesturing to the gold baubles around the union bossâ€™s neck. â€œHeâ€™s got chains. You can pull on those.â€
â€œWe need to get some chairs in here,â€ Berardino says.
â€œWhat do we need chairs for?â€ Santana asks. He has now got an unlit cigar between his lips. â€œWeâ€™re a moving organization. Moving and grooving, moving and grooving, moving and grooving.â€
â€œTo relax,â€ Berardino says.
Santana laughs. â€œThere is no relaxing at the Voice of OC!â€
Itâ€™s not as if Santana, who chomps cigars even indoors and spends his weekends fixing up old Jeeps, ever really relaxes. When the Voiceâ€™s existence was announced via press release in mid-September, a few of his former Register colleagues snickered at the thought of Santana trying to run anything. â€œThe guy is crazy,â€ says one former Register editor who asked to remain anonymous. â€œHe is a wild guy.â€
â€œThereâ€™s a storm coming,â€ Santana, somewhat inexplicably, tells Berardino during their chair-related deliberations. â€œA storm of accountability.â€When the Voiceâ€™s existence was announced via press release in mid-September, a few of his former Register colleagues snickered at the thought of Santana trying to run anything. â€œThe guy is crazy,â€ says one former Register editor who asked to remain anonymous. â€œHe is a wild guy.â€Â
But, publicly at least, concerns about the man in charge have been eclipsed by questions about the Voiceâ€™s model and motives. Some Orange County media watchers fret about the Voiceâ€™s agenda, given that itâ€™s funded by the public employees union and its board of directors is led by Democratic former state Senator Joe Dunn and a slate of liberal-leaning legal minds including UC Irvine Law School dean Erwin Chemerinsky. Others wonder how long an online nonprofit publication funded mainly by private donors, NPR-style â€œsubscriptionsâ€ and some advertising can survive. Santana brushes aside the doubters. With the Voice of OC, he seeks to reinvigorate Orange County investigative reporting while reigniting the civic awareness that he believes made this country great. Convinced that the â€œcorporate-owned dailyâ€ business model of The Orange County Register and the Los Angeles Times will forevermore be unable to hold elected officials accountable to voters, Santana talksâ€”a lotâ€”about changing not only Orange County journalism, but also Orange County itself.
It is refreshing that there will be an opportunity to have investigative news reporting that is not driven by ideology or profit, but by the need for the public to have access to straight-forward and unbiased reporting. The Voice of Orange County has the potential to fill that need. It is my hope that this model continues to expand beyond San Diego and Orange County to other communities across the country.
As Santana says the skeptics will just have to wait and see. â€œIf weâ€™re going to be a union rag or a left-leaning rag,â€ he says, â€œyouâ€™re gonna know that in our first two stories, right? If not, and weâ€™re the real deal, likewise.â€