Thursday, November 18, 2010

Covering foster care in Los Angeles: It’s all starting to sound a lot like “The Wire”


            High on most people’s short lists of best television dramas of all time is HBO’s series The Wire, by former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon.

            Much of the action in the final season revolves around a fictional (but not all that fictional) Baltimore Sun, a newspaper reeling from budget cuts and desperate for a high-profile story or series to win the paper a Pulitzer Prize.  In real life, Simon has referred to this as “Pulitzer-sniffing.”  

           Given their state of mind, it’s no wonder the top editors portrayed in The Wire are very happy with the work of reporter “Scott Templeton.”  Templeton is genuinely talented, with a gift for narrative writing.  But he distorts facts to suit his narrative and then starts embellishing, inventing quotes and sometimes entire people.

            The city editor is suspicious, but his bosses are in love with Templeton’s narrative style and, with visions of Pulitzers dancing in their heads, they back the reporter – whose answer, whenever confronted by questions about the veracity of his stories, is to declare “It’s in my notes!”

            Garrett Therolf of the Los Angeles Times also is a talented writer working for a paper that’s been devastated by budget cuts and appears to be doing a lot of Pulitzer-sniffing.  I’ve been thinking about the similarities between The Wire and Therolf’s child welfare reporting ever since the first time he had to pull back on a story.  The parallels became clearer recently when his immediate superiors dialed back on another of Therolf’s stories.  But, like their counterparts at the fictional version of the Baltimore Sun, there is nothing to indicate that the higher-ups at the Times have any problems at all with Therolf’s work – certainly not if the response to the latest accusations, described below, is any indication.

            But I didn’t draw the analogy then for one reason: No one had suggested that Garrett Therolf had made anything up.  (And it should be emphasized that even now, none of the accusations concerning Therolf rise to anywhere near what was done by the fictional Templeton, or even what was alleged in a real-life case at the Sun which partially inspired the Templeton storyline.)

            So even though leaving out of a story information that contradicts a reporter’s master narrative, as Therolf has done repeatedly, thereby leaving an impression 180 degrees from the truth,  is almost as bad as an outright lie, and even though one could even make a case that doing things like taking the evaluation of the Los Angeles child welfare waiver totally out of context actually is worse than what now has been alleged, I didn’t bring up The Wire.


            But the latest incidents to come to light take the questions about Therolf’s reporting beyond just sins of omission.

            Those incidents, and in particular the failure to correct errors, are discussed in Daniel Heimpel’s carefully-documented column in The Huffington Post.

            The first example concerns Deanne Tilton Durfee, who heads L.A.'s Interagency Council on Abuse and Neglect, serves on the county's child abuse death review team, and heads the National Center for Child Fatality Review.

            Heimpel writes:

            In an Oct. 19 blog, reporter Garrett Therolf wrote, "Tilton-Durfee, executive director of the interagency council said [two members of the County Board of] supervisors had misrepresented her organization's figures."

On October 21st Tilton Durfee sent a correction request to the Times' Reader Representative stating that she had not said the Board had misrepresented her organization's figures when Therolf had called about the numbers on the 19th. Shortly after that initial conversation with Therolf, Tilton Durfee reviewed the tally and found that a typographical error was to blame. At which point she called Therolf to clear up the confusion, according to her correction request.

"I phoned Mr. Therolf and told him this in the mid afternoon, which I presume was before his deadline," Tilton Durfee wrote.
Despite this forewarning, the blog went out at 5:41 PM. No clarification or correction was ever given.
Heimpel writes that the second case concerns a claim in a Therolf story that:
"The county's Office of Independent Review recently found that the department hid dozens of cases from the public," …
The report itself was devoid of any indication that the Department had "hid" anything. Rather Mike Gennaco, Chief Attorney at the Office of Independent Review wrote in the report, "that during OIR's review, it received no information to believe that this alleged inconsistent approach in assessing child fatalities between different components of DCFS was either intentional or designed."
On October 12th, DCFS Communications Director Nishith Bhatt sent the Times' Therolf an email asking where in the report Gennaco had used the word "hid." Three minutes later Therolf replied, writing: "In his oral remarks, Gennaco said dozens of cases were inappropriately hidden from the public."

Nowhere in the transcripts from the August 31 Supervisorial hearing in which Gennaco shared his report did he indicate that the Department had hid child deaths. …  

                Both these examples may differ from the plot in The Wire in another respect: They could be simply honest errors – albeit errors that happen to promote Therolf’s point of view.   But in both cases, Therolf and his editors have refused to correct the errors.
                Consider what happened when Therolf was pressed in the second example.  Heimpel writes:
When asked again by Bhatt to produce documentation, Therolf retreated from his email response claiming that Gennaco had said, "dozens of cases were inappropriately hidden from the public," in his "oral statements." Instead. Therolf wrote that Gennaco's purported statement that the Department had "hid" cases was "unpublished reporting."
In other words: It’s in his notes.
TOMORROW: A day off from L.A. (I hope) to update our annual post about National Child Welfare Hypocrisy Day.