Hard-Pressed for Ethics

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Posted October 3, 2007 in News

 These should be exciting times for the Riverside Press-Enterprise, the so-called newspaper of record for the city and county of Riverside, and the only paper around with the name Riverside in its name.

The city is neck-deep in the largest public-works program in its history, the $1.2 billion Riverside Renaissance, in which an estimated 30 years of public improvements will be built in just five years. The Riverside Redevelopment Agency is on an eminent domain tear, seizing vast tracts of private property and handing them off to commercial developers. And three incumbents on the seven-member Riverside City Council are in the throes of hotly contested re-election bids, a rare occurrence that could change the political dynamic in the city for years to come.

It’s a confluence of events for which local reporters live—the stuff that wins Pulitzers and cements journalists’ reputations. And yet, thus far, the P-E’s coverage of these events has been anemic, to put it mildly.

It did run a large piece on the Riverside Renaissance when the city unveiled the program, followed by several shorter stories on components of the initiative. But then, so did the city’s website. In fact, much of the P-E’s coverage of the program has consisted of repackaged materials handed to it by City Hall. This includes a breakdown of the proposed projects and their estimated costs under the heading “Spreading the Benefits;” a streaming-video section on its website in which each of the seven council members wax on about how excited they are with the plan; and a PDF file on the plan, written by the city and for the city, which the paper dutifully posted on its site so fast that it didn’t bother to remove the “Honorable Mayor and Council Members” address from the document’s heading.

Nine months after the council approved the Renaissance plan, the P-E has published only two articles taking a hard, independent look at what the project means for Riverside residents—and in both cases, we use the words “hard” and “independent” very liberally.

One of them, published October 5, 2006 under the headline “Riverside officials positive they can pay for plan,” shows City Hall insisting that financing the Renaissance will be a cakewalk. This is remarkable optimism, given that the city plans to pay for much of the plan through bonds, land sales and support from other agencies—in other words, by wading into the highly volatile bond and real-estate markets and hoping other government bodies make good on their promises. For “independent analysis” of the city’s claims, P-E reporters Doug Haberman and Joan Osterwalder ran the plan by a Riverside county official—nope, no potential conflict there—and some marketing guy in Concord, Massachusetts, both of whom gave it their stamp of approval.

Since that article was published, the price tag for the Riverside Renaissance has risen from $700 million to more than $1.2 billion. The P-E ran that piece of information without bothering to recheck whether the plan was still financially sound.

The other article, which ran April 8, 2007 under the headline “An upscale vision for downtown,” was so clearly pro-Renaissance that it read like a city press release.

“Imagine downtown Riverside teeming with high-income professionals, upscale neighborhoods, trendy restaurants, boutique businesses, artistic attractions, and an expanded federal court complex,” the Michelle DeArmond and Kimberly Trone-penned article gushes. “If Riverside leaders get their way, the gritty city center will be transformed in five years into a vibrant urban village and government business district, where residents can stroll into eateries, entertainment and art venues around the clock.”

With regard to the Redevelopment Agency’s ongoing eminent domain craze, the P-E has deigned to report on only a fraction of the dozens of businesses the agency shut down when it seized the lands on which they sat. Even then, much of the reporting was done as an afterthought, as in the case of its recent business feature on Corona barber George Mendoza.

“Mendoza, who recently had to relocate his shop from the La Sierra area in Riverside due to an eminent domain ruling by the city . . .” was all the paper had to say about the barber’s fate at the hands of Riverside Redevelopment.

Then there’s the case of the former auto shop building at Lime Street and University Avenue in Riverside, which the city seized and on June 8 targeted for demolition over the objections of the city’s Cultural Heritage Board. To any other newspaper, the notion of City Hall seizing and destroying an historic building would have been front-page material. The P-E buried it in a 105-word news brief.

That’s 105 more words than the paper has devoted to the topic of council members Dom Betro’s and Steve Adams’ questionable campaign finances. As we reported in last week’s IE Weekly, the incumbents have thus far accepted more than $45,000 from developers, lawyers and real-estate businesses that either have business in front of the council, stand to gain big from the city’s eminent domain and Renaissance programs, or both. The P-E has yet to find this worth reporting.

Why? Why, with so much going on in the city, has the P-E decided it was time to take a nap and let the competition worry about this silly business of news reporting? It’s not as if the paper isn’t aware of what’s going on. Local eminent domain foes Ken Stansbury, Richard Brent Reed, Paul Odekirk and Letitia Pepper say they’ve done everything but push the reporters aside from their computer terminals and write the stories themselves.

“I called Doug Haberman,” says Stansbury, who’s the target of an ongoing city lawsuit for having dared try to put an anti-eminent domain charter amendment on the ballot. “I wrote out the information in the form of press releases and faxed and mailed them to him. I even tried walking the information to him in his office. I simply couldn’t get him interested. I’m convinced now that the Press-Enterprise is nothing more than the PR arm of City Hall.”

With respect to Stansbury, the problem at the P-E is almost certainly not with Haberman—a seasoned reporter well regarded in the Inland journalism community—nor with anyone else on the reporting staff. If there’s a hands-off policy going on at the paper, you’d better believe it’s radiating from above, from the notoriously business-friendly upper bricks of the P-E’s management pyramid.

 

BREAK

 

Exactly what is going on at the paper, we may never know. As always, calls for enlightenment by the Weekly went unanswered by P-E Managing Editor John Gryka. But could the answer be that the paper is feeling a bit conflicted because the legal firm handling at least two lawsuits against it by former employees—suits that have the potential of costing the paper millions—is the same legal firm representing the Riverside Redevelopment Agency in its eminent domain lawsuits?

As we reported April 19, the P-E is being sued by former Business Press publisher James Milbourne, who claims the paper fired him for having multiple sclerosis (the P-E owns Business Press); and by former P-E advertising director Michael Barboza, who says he was axed after Milbourne named him as a potential witness during a deposition. Fighting on behalf of the P-E in both suits is Best, Best & Krieger, a downtown Riverside law firm so powerful and well-connected that it serves as city attorney to 31 California cities, including Coachella, Corona, Colton and Ontario.

(Incidentally, the P-E covers Coachella, Corona, Colton and, occasionally, Ontario. But that’s a conflict-of-interest story for another issue.)

At the same time Best, Best & Krieger, referred to locally as BBK, was working to keep the P-E from having its collective pants sued off it, attorneys for the firm were filing condemnation lawsuit after lawsuit against Riverside property owners on behalf of City Hall. In keeping with its minimalist reporting on eminent domain, the P-E has yet to mention to its readers its connection to the firm, which one source described as “lips and teeth, with the P-E being the lips and BBK being the teeth.”

One of the property owners to find herself in BBK’s crosshairs was Sarah Garner, trustee of the Garner family estate that included the auto repair garage on University and Lime until the Redevelopment Agency took them away. Garner says she was saddened, but hardly surprised, at the P-E’s lack of coverage on the condemnation.

“My family still has 11 separate parcels in downtown and one in north Riverside, and out of those 11, eight are presently candidates for being taken over by the Redevelopment Agency,” she says. “This is part of my family’s legacy, my birthright, going all the way back to my grandfather and grandmother. You’d think the P-E would be interested in this, but I’m not surprised that no one from the paper has come to us. The Press-Enterprise has an interest in seeing downtown redeveloped.”

Reached for comment on his firm’s connection with the P-E, BBK partner Mark Easter pointed to the University and Lime condemnation as “the flaw in this line of reasoning.”

“This firm is not representing the city in the University and Lime matter,” he says. “That’s where the logic fails. We have a very detailed conflict-of-interest procedure, but the work that we do for the city is entirely unrelated to whatever we’re doing for the P-E. The notion that the Press-Enterprise doesn’t want to report on things because they’re worried about hurting our feelings doesn’t make sense. That’s the logic I’m missing here. The P-E can do whatever they want to do.”

Easter is correct in that his firm had nothing to do with the University and Lime case. Perhaps Garner’s confusion lay in the fact that BBK did represent the city in its seizure of Garner’s properties at 3575 Merrill Ave., 3605 Merrill Ave. and 3607 Merrill Ave. Multiple lawsuits do tend to blur together.

But we’re not clear as to exactly why Easter finds the potential here for conflict so difficult to fathom. It’s not that hard. Type “Best, Best & Kreiger Press-Enterprise” into an Internet search engine and you’ll find that BBK lawyers and P-E executives attend the same local social events, give generously to the same local charities, sit on the same local advisory panels, and are huge fans of the same local politician—Dom Betro, to whom four BBK partners donated money to in March, and whose reelection bid the P-E endorsed in May. One of those BBK partners was John Brown, who happens to specialize in redevelopment.

It’s all a very cozy environment, and one in which it’s really not that much of a strain to imagine BBK Partner X whispering into the ear of P-E Executive Y, who then calls P-E Editor Z into his office and suggests, “Maybe not so much coverage of the eminent domain thing.”

Let’s be clear: We don’t know that the P-E is conflicted in its coverage of BBK-related news. But we do know there’s the appearance of a conflict, and even the appearance of a conflict of interest is a violation of the ethics guidelines established by the Society of Professional Journalists, a national advocacy group of which the P-E is a member.

The paper’s relationship with BBK certainly raised flags with a journalism ethics expert at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Florida. Dr. Bob Steele, a Nelson Poynter scholar for journalism values, said the newspaper at the very least needs to let its readers know about the relationship.

“Certainly, there’s a question of legal ethics that should be addressed to make sure there are no competing loyalties that would compromise obligations to the public at large,” says Steele, whose institute is an internationally renowned school for journalists and journalism teachers. “The newspaper would need to develop a very clear check-and-balance system to make sure its service to the public is not undermined by the legal representation of this law firm. Among the steps the paper should consider taking, and that I would advocate it actually take, would be full disclosure on a regular basis to the readers of the intersecting roles that the law firm has in relation to government agencies and the paper. Disclosure at least alerts the public to potential problems.”

No worries, Bob. If the P-E’s reporters and editors won’t disclose their connection to BBK, the Weekly is more than happy to do the job for them.

 

 

 


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