‘Bell leaders hauled off in cuffs’ (September 22)

The following is an analysis that is part of a graduate thesis. Learn more.

The lead photograph on this story showed Robert Rizzo, handcuffed and head bowed, led by three police officers across his front lawn. It clearly had been a busy news day for the Times. So the main issue this story confronted was, naturally, “What happened in Bell on Tuesday?”

To this issue the reporters presented several conclusions. The first obvious one was in the lede of the story:

Eight current and former Bell city leaders were arrested Tuesday on charges of misappropriating more than $5.5 million from the small, working-class community as prosecutors accused them of treating the city’s coffers as their personal piggy bank.

That is, eight Bell officials were arrested. (Another conclusion to be drawn from the paragraph regards why they were arrested, which will be addressed later.)

The picture of Rizzo in handcuffs provided pretty good support of this conclusion even before readers proceeded. But to ensure the other seven arrests were covered, the reporters also paraphrased Steve Cooley, the Los Angeles County District Attorney, as saying that “Tuesday morning’s arrests were without incident” (19). This paraphrase relied on an appeal to an authority, but no reason is immediately obvious why this authority would have reason to lie about the matter.

A second conclusion was that Bell residents celebrated the arrest. Specifically:

Many city residents greeted news of the charges with joy. (11)

The reporters justified this conclusion with a quote from “a longtime Bell activist”:

“Finally the crooks are going to suffer what the city suffered for many years,” said Carmen Bella, a longtime Bell activist. (12)

They also described a gathering of “about two dozen Bell residents … outside City Hall.”

One man used a bullhorn to broadcast the Queen rock song, “Another One Bites the Dust,” while others laughed, cheered and applauded. (13)

These scenes furthered the conclusion that residents “celebrated the arrest,” although notably readers weren’t told how the reporters know about the celebrations they described. More importantly, “many” is an ambiguous and relative term (“many” compared to what?). It was difficult for readers to know how many residents the reporters believe celebrated the news. Would “about two dozen” residents qualify as “many”?

Granted, within the larger story the matter was fairly dispensable, but it was not wholly unimportant either. The reporters were trying to give readers an impression of something that was true about the world: The reaction among Bell citizens to the arrests. Readers might justifiably have wanted to have a good sense of whether the arrests were well-received (maybe the citizens would have preferred that Rizzo and co. fled and were never again seen).

Regardless, “many” is also quite likely one of the most popular terms in journalism-speak. It is so popular that the temptation might be to interpret its use as just a transition to be able to talk about the gathering for whatever reason the reporters wanted. The consequence of that interpretation, though, is that it would break the tie between the event and the larger issue of “what happened Tuesday?” The celebrations would become part of their own, smaller issue — “what was the protest on Tuesday like?” — that isn’t as interesting when it’s unconnected to arrests.

The lede, through its reference to charges and the “piggy bank” accusation, also spoke to a second issue addressed in the story: “Why were the officials arrested?”

Arguably, a strong argument here was more important than a strong argument for “what happened Tuesday?”, assuming that the reporters sought to provide information for citizens in democracy. A government that restricts the liberty of its citizens through arrests without cause is one of the chief evils the American press is supposed to protect against. Readers have cause to want assurances that the Bell officials, though unpopular, were treated according to the law. The accused, in turn, deserve to have their supposed crimes reported accurately by the press.

As with the first issue, it is probably easier to consider the reporters to have offered many smaller conclusions to this issue, each not requiring much evidence, rather than one or two big conclusions. The reporters simply offered too many loosely joined statements on the same issue to try to condense them into single headings for analysis.

So the reporters’ conclusions regarding “Why were the officials arrested?” began in the lede: “On charges of misappropriating more than $5.5 million from the small, working-class community as prosecutors accused them of treating the city’s coffers as their personal piggy bank.”

Acknowledging its pleasant flair and alliteration, this statement was slightly ambiguous: Was the specific charge “misappropriating money”? Did the “piggy bank” accusation refer to the misappropriation or was it a separate charge?

As usual, Rizzo received most of the attention, as the reporters outlined more of what he was charged with:

Prosecutors accused him of illegally writing his own employment contracts and steering nearly $1.9 million in unauthorized city loans to himself and others. He was booked into Los Angeles County Jail and was being held on $3.2-million bail. (3)

Much deeper in the story, the reporters began providing harder details of the charges against Rizzo. Did the specifics of the charges justify the summary given to them?

Rizzo is charged with 53 criminal counts that include misappropriating public funds, conflicts of interest and falsifying public records to keep his lucrative salary secret. … Rizzo is also charged with giving unauthorized city-funded loans to himself and numerous others, including Spaccia, Hernandez, Artiga and former police chiefs Michael Chavez and Andreas Probst. (40, 45)

For simplicity, each element of the reporters’ description of the charges can be reviewed.

First, the group was described as being arrested “on charges of misappropriating more than $5.5 million” from Bell (1). What listing of the charges justified this description? (Again, ambiguity is a problem here.)

The later paragraphs simply repeated the description, but only regarding Rizzo (“Rizzo is charged with 53 criminal counts that include misappropriating public funds”), which would qualify as the Begging the Question fallacy if it was used as evidence in support of the conclusion.

However, a sidebar included with the story, which also described the charges, said that Rizzo was “arrested on 53 felony counts of misappropriation of public funds, conflict of interest and falsification of documents.”[1] This slightly more formal wording indicated that “misappropriation” was indeed the formal charge, which provided some assurance that the initial description is accurate. Similar descriptions of misappropriation were also listed under the remaining seven accused.

Next, the reporters said prosecutors “accused [the group] of treating the city’s coffers as their personal piggy bank.” The reporters never clarified whether this accusation was related to the misappropriation charge, or indeed what the accusation really meant. Possibly, it referred to the charge against Rizzo of giving unauthorized city loans (45) and, as outlined in the sidebar, charges of illegally receiving the loans brought against three of the arrested officials. But this possibility would be only conjecture on the part of readers. There was thus an important ambiguity in the story in its flowery “personal piggy bank” accusation, a perfectly fine claim to make but one that could harm defendants in a serious criminal case and confuse readers trying to make sense of it.

The reporters then began work on Rizzo. They wrote that “prosecutors accused him of illegally writing his own employment contracts.” Was this the specific charge? There seemed to be some connection between the prosecutors’ accusation and the charge against Rizzo of “falsifying public records” (40). The sidebar said that Rizzo was arrested for “falsification of documents, including allegations that he wrote his employment contract without council approval.” But what did “including” mean? Only if readers assumed that falsification charge entailed the allegations of writing his own contracts could a case be made that the reporters adequately justified their description of the charges against Rizzo. Once again, confusing and ambiguous language prevented readers from understanding what exactly happened.

Rizzo was also charged with “steering nearly $1.9 million in authorized city loans to himself and others.” As described above, the reporters justified this characterization of the charges with their explanation in paragraph 45 and with their additional comments in the sidebar.

The Times and its readers had every right to indignation and irritation at the actions of Rizzo and his crew. They could be happy, as was Carmen Bella, that “the crooks are going to suffer.” But when the telling of that suffering contained important ambiguities and confusing descriptions, it failed to provide a solid base on which readers, of all persuasions on the issue, could have a measure of certainty that they knew what happened and could decide what to do and think about it.

  1. The sidebar is included as an image in the version of this story available on the Pulitzer Prize website.  ↩


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