It’s rare for a reporter from one newspaper to congratulate those from another, but that’s exactly what I want to do.
Congratulations to the Los Angeles Times for winning the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. It is an extremely well-deserved Pulitzer and should be celebrated by anyone -- journalists and the public alike -- who champions open government and accountability.
The Times won for its series of investigative stories, “Breach of Faith,” that looked into mile-high salaries being earned by members of city council and administrators in Bell, Calif. As I mentioned in this space last August, the city manager was earning $787,637; assistant city manager, $376,288; and police chief, $457,000. The mayor and all but one city council member were earning about $100,000 a year thanks, in part, to a scheme where they were being paid extra money for sitting on city commissions.
This was happening in a town where the average household income was less than $35,000 a year.
The Times’ reports and citizens’ actions led not only to those officials’ resignations, but prosecutions of those involved.
How the Times presented the information they uncovered is a story in itself, as told by Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute, an educational facility committed to ensuring journalism excellence.
Tompkins spoke to one of the reporters on the story, Jeff Gottlieb. Gottlieb said graphics assisted tremendously in helping readers and website visitors understand what was going on. The Times employs “graphics reporters” who are dedicated to the task of interpreting data and finding meaningful, and often interactive ways to present that data.
Gottlieb told Tompkins these reporters are “experts in explaining.” He said that because front page story deadlines have to be done by 2:30 p.m., the writing reporters rely on the graphics reporters to help tell the story.
What I didn’t know before reading Tompkins’ column was that the story didn’t end where I thought it did. It turns out that -- after waiting for weeks on open record requests -- they were able to report that the scandal was not over.
The Times further learned that “the city’s director of administrative services, Lourdes Garcia, was earning $422,707, and the director of general services, Eric Eggena, earned $421,402, officials said. Those amounts included salary, deferred compensation and some benefits, which city officials did not fully detail.
“In addition, Bell’s director of community services, Annette Peretz, earned $273,542, a deputy city engineer earned $247,573, the business development coordinator earned $295,627, a police captain earned $238,075, and a police lieutenant earned $229,992. Their names were not immediately released.”
Gottlieb and his writing partner, Ruben Vives, used video of interviews of citizens participating in a protest.
When the salaries came out, wrote Tompkins, activists began filing record requests. When the city was slow to answer, the Times “created a tool to help citizens get the answers they needed.” They even found a way -- through the Internet “Cloud” -- for readers to share public documents they had been able to obtain.
Gottlieb and Vives are still covering the story, all these months later. They recently reported that, during the time period in question, Bell police officers set up a competition where writing tickets and impounding vehicles had become a game.
Thanks to this incredible coverage of such awful corruption, four council members, two former council members, the city manager and his assistant all face corruption charges and were trespassed from Bell City Hall.
The good news is that five new members took the oath of office recently and named a new mayor (that’s how the system works there).
The Times covered the swearing-in where new Councilman Ali Saleh said, “We are coming in with a clean slate. We are inheriting a lot of wrongs that need to be righted.” The Times reported that they will have to immediately deal with budget cuts in order to wrestle with a $3.5 to $4.5 million deficit.
Another new councilman, Nestor Valencia, asked for the community to get involved.
“We will be listening to you to set our priorities and move forward with transparency and good government,” Nestor was reported as saying.
Good to say; I hope they live up to it.
As one L.A. Times reader commented on the paper’s website concerning the swearing-in, “the people of Bell better not sit back and let these people ‘take charge’ without a watchful eye ... they are subject to the same unethical or ethical decisions of their predecessors. Freedom must be continuously fought.”
One other thing that I can’t help being tickled by when it comes to the L.A. Times’ Pulitzer win: Vives, a Guatemalan native, has only been a reporter for three years. According to Times columnist James Rainey (same as previous link), Vives’ grandmother “packed him in a van for an interminable road trip” when he was a preschooler ... dropping him “in Southern California to be raised by two people, his parents, who were little more than strangers.”
Vives was hired at the Times as a teenage copy messenger; much later as an interpreter. In 2008, he took over as a homicide reporter.
Now, he’s a Pulitzer Prize winner, a journalistic example of the American dream.