‘How Bell hit bottom’ (December 28)

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

The final prize-winning story from the Times was another monstrously large effort to knot several pieces of the Bell story (see also “Rizzo’s horse had come in,” August 22). As usual, Robert Rizzo was the focus, and even the reporter acknowledged that Rizzo had gained the image of a “greed-crazed, cigar-chomping puppet master” within “a hydra-headed scandal that … transformed a forgotten suburb into a synonym for rogue governance” (5).

The story itself could have been called hydra-headed. It was a 2,600-word mix of fresh interviews, references to previous Times work, and a history of Bell. Yet the reporter offered a clear statement of the issue he wanted to address and his conclusion.

The issue, composed here by reformulating of one of the reporter’s sentences, was “How did Rizzo evolve from an obscure civil servant into what a prosecutor called an ‘unelected and unaccountable czar’?”[1] While cautioning that an answer “may never emerge in granular focus,” he concluded that “the broad contours are clear” (6); or, put together with the issue statement, he concluded that “the contours are clear as to how Rizzo evolved from an obscure civil servant into the accused criminal he is today.”

Immediately readers faced an ambiguity that was not clarified in the story: What form of “how” did the reporter mean? Generally, “how” can mean “What happened?” or “Why did it happen?” Each interpretation would have required a different set of reasons and evidence from the reporter: The former would have required some sort of timeline, while the latter would have called for a showing of causation. Which did the reporter mean to argue? Did he mean to argue both? He never said.

The reader’s confusion on the “how” matter was compounded throughout the story. The reporter followed his statement that “the broad contours are clear” with:

Ambition and opportunity aligned in a place that allowed him to be both ever-present and invisible.

The normal checks and balances, from a robust local press to engaged civic groups, had largely vanished before or during Rizzo’s long reign as city administrator. And the grim climate in which he arrived made him seem, for a time, like the man Bell needed. (6–7)

These read as attempts at explaining causation. “Rizzo evolved into what he did because normal checks and balances in the city had vanished” and so on. Arriving as they did directly after the statement of purposes leading into a long investigative report, and a few quick paragraphs away from a break into the next section, it would seem perfectly reasonable for readers to have inferred that the reporter was planning to address “why?” not “what?”

If that were the case, then it would be fair to say that in what followed the reporter took every possible advantage his qualifier of “broad” contours. There simply was scant evidence connecting the conditions the reporter mentioned above — no local press, a “grim climate” — with what became of Bell and Rizzo, nor was there much evidence suggesting other reasons for the evolution.

The reporter first detailed the circumstances surrounding Bell’s gradual decline beginning in the 1970s, a description that appeared thorough albeit unsourced apart from a few interviews (12–22). This history led into a play-by-play of Rizzo’s hiring, on the cheap, and his beginning to implement measures to cut costs and beautify the city (23–25). But though informative about Rizzo’s appearance (27), his attempts to improve Bell’s image (25), and his relationship with other city officials and fellow city managers (26), no paragraphs provided a link between Bell’s history and Rizzo’s ascendancy.

It was not until paragraph 37, in an interview with former Bell Police Chief Michael Trevis, that readers learned of Trevis’s theory that “the climate of constant layoffs [referred to in paragraph 23] lent camouflage to Rizzo’s steady accumulation of power.” Why Trevis believed this was so was not mentioned, however.

The reporter’s own clearest statement of a reason in support of the conclusion came shortly after:

[Trevis]’s ouster was followed by a deeper power shift in 2003, as council veterans Janssen and George Bass – pillars of the old guard – left office. In their place came two of Rizzo’s future co-defendants, George Mirabal, who ran a mortuary, and Oscar Hernandez, owner of a corner grocery.

Whether by chance or design, Rizzo found himself with an increasingly free hand. More than anyone, it was Hernandez who came to symbolize the new, more manipulable City Council. A former farmworker, he had emigrated from Mexico in his teens. With only an elementary school education, he could barely read the papers that passed across his desk at City Hall. And yet he became Rizzo’s go-to man, prosecutors say, putting his signature to complex documents and to papers that obscured the city administrator’s increasingly hefty salary. (41–42)

Rizzo, then, was able to gain unrestricted power because he could more easily manipulate the city council than he could have when he started in Bell (or, alternatively, he faced less resistance from the council). By itself, this would have been a reason that supported the conclusion. But the reporter was lacking in evidence demonstrating that the council was as malleable as characterized, and lacked totally evidence suggesting it fought Rizzo before Janssen and Bass departed.[2] Why, for example, did the reporter consider Hernandez symbolic of the council? Did all the members act as auto-pens as Hernandez did? On a council where presumably a majority rules, how did Hernandez become Rizzo’s “go-to man”? What did that mean?

Lastly, the reporter recounted the “little-noticed” election that turned Bell into a charter city:

Then, on a sleepy day after Thanksgiving in 2005, a little-noticed election was held. The single question on the ballot: whether to turn Bell from a general law city into a charter city. By some accounts, it was a change Rizzo had aggressively pushed.

Passing with just 336 yes votes, the measure lifted salary caps on council members, who went on to approve further dramatic pay raises for Rizzo and for themselves. (44)

The connection between the election and Rizzo’s salaries was driven almost entirely by the Post Hoc fallacy, given that the reporter presented no evidence of an agreed-on quid pro quo regarding the election. Nor was any detail given of whose “accounts” of Rizzo’s support were referred to.

These problems are compounded by the fact that the reporter did not clarify how Rizzo’s salary and his status as “unelected and unaccountable czar” are related in the first place. There was no statement from the reporter that the salary was illegal, which would have gone toward his characterization of the charges against Rizzo as “looting” (5). Even in attempting to discuss Rizzo’s journey only broadly, locating the salary along the path was quite difficult for readers.

The “broad contours,” then, of “how Rizzo evolved” were much more clear to the reporter than they were to readers. The reporter spoke of “ambition and opportunity”, but not a word was written about Rizzo’s “ambition,” and there was not much that was clear in the way of “opportunities.” He said that civic participation in Bell declined long before Rizzo began his “reign” (7), and although there was some justification offered for believing so, it wasn’t enough by itself to demonstrate the larger claim of “why.”

But what if there had simply been a mistake? Perhaps the reporter, though inartful, meant to provide only “what,” not “why” — not an explanation of why Rizzo was able to obtain the position he did but simply the play-by-play of what got him there. How would a reader attempt to critically analyze such an argument?

They were not left with much option besides taking the argument on authority. Unless readers had special knowledge of the situation, they would be in a worse position than the reporter to know how well the “broad contours” in the article actually described the important moments in Rizzo’s rise.

The reporter, to his credit, mentioned from the outset that his was not an all-encompassing account. But at the same time, that qualification made his argument largely immune to criticism, at least based on his timeline. Any charge that he left out an important detail could be dismissed by referring back to the qualifying statement. Readers, for their part, would not be in a good position to try to point out that the reporter should have excluded some other detail.

Whichever version of the claim the reporter meant, that the confusion about the question existed belied the fundamental problem with the article: ambiguity. It would have been difficult, even unreasonable, for readers to know what the reporter wanted to tell them about the world given what the reporter had written. Without a clear sense of what was being discussed, how could readers easily begin working out whether to accept the claim?

  1. The actual sentence was: “How Rizzo evolved from an obscure civil servant into what a prosecutor called an ‘unelected and unaccountable czar’ may never emerge in granular focus.”  ↩

  2. Just the opposite, in fact: Janssen was paraphrased as saying Rizzo “put the city on stable financial footing and took a keen interest in its image” (25) suggesting at least an uncontentious relationship.  ↩


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