‘Rizzo’s horse had come in’ (August 22)

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

This article was a behemoth by the standards of the series to date, spanning almost 3,000 words and covering several related issues. Once again, the focus was on the disgraced Robert Rizzo.

The first issue addressed was descriptive: “What is Rizzo’s personality?” The reporters indicated that this was the issue they wanted to address in paragraph 5, where they say that Rizzo’s “devotion to the pari-mutuel game helps bring into focus the man they say they came to know.” And throughout the first section of the story, the reporters discussed different aspects of Rizzo’s conduct at work and with colleagues.

The “conclusion” the reporters reached on this issue was really a series of conclusions, each primarily elicited from the testimony of different eyewitnesses. So the reporters have carefully distinguished their conclusion from a stronger form that it might have been read as: not that Rizzo definitely acted in a certain way, but that some people understood him to be that way.[1]

Often, readers facing these conclusions about Rizzo’s personality could have accepted them only as arguments from authority. For example, one conclusion drawn about Rizzo was that he became known to people as a “calculating risk-taker” (5). But no further word was said about who thought so, or why, or how many people expressed this opinion.

Readers obviously could assume that the reporters did actually talk with people. But there was no way for readers to judge whether “people say” Rizzo was a certain way independently of the journalists saying so. Readers would have been able to make that judgment if they were presented with, for example, quotations from people describing Rizzo’s risk-taking (it would have seemed a good time for the journalists to loose an anecdote from their quiver).

A similar presentation accompanied the conclusion that “some former and current Bell officials and business leaders … say [Rizzo] increasingly displayed the manner and habits of a high-rolling horse player, with a weakness for Cadillacs, expensive cigars and alcohol” (8). The only evidence associated with this conclusion was a quote from the Bell Chamber of Commerce of President: “I always thought he was living beyond his means the last two or three years. … All of a sudden, this was a person I didn’t know” (9).

Without trying to put too fine a point on the matter, by definition “some” means “more than one.” So quoting one business leader to support the claim that “some former and current Bell officials and business leaders” didn’t strictly cut it. Once again, no additional support was given in the story — for example, another quotation or a citation of “X interviews” — and so readers needed to take it on the reporters’ authority, again under the reasonable assumption that the reporters did talk to people, that some business and political leaders thought that way.

The remaining conclusions drawn about Rizzo’s personality fell into the same pattern: Conclusions acceptable only on an argument from authority because insufficient evidence accompanied them:

Over time, by providing large salaries and other perquisites to his allies, Rizzo gambled that his huge paydays would never come under harsh scrutiny, said people who have worked with him. (12)

The “people who have worked with” Rizzo were not listed or quoted, and the point was not discussed again.

Short and rotund, the 56-year-old Rizzo took to quoting tough-guy lines from “The Sopranos,” and tolerated no challenges to his expanding authority at City Hall, Bell insiders say.

Only one “insider” was quoted — Victor Bello, a former councilor — and by the time of the interview he might have been more appropriately called an outsider. Bella “told of quarreling with Rizzo over [a previously mentioned business deal] and other matters before stepping down last year” (23). Readers might have questioned the use of someone who obviously clashed with Rizzo, and might be disproportionately likely to fine him despotic, as an authoritative, “insider” source someone who obviously clashed with Rizzo. Readers must assume the reporters talked to at least one other insider who said what was described before accepting the description as accurate.

The reporters offered another conclusion, albeit a less important one, in their transition from Rizzo’s horse-training interests to his personality in Bell. The conclusion was that an understanding of Rizzo’s equine activities “brings into focus” the person who the coworkers interviewed by the reporters described. Yet the “devotion to the pari-mutuel game” that the reporters demonstrated is far from the kind of devotion that one would expect characterizes a “calculating risk-taker.”

In fact, the reporters summarized the description of Rizzo by people “acquainted with him through racing” as “a friendly and unassuming man who cherishes his horses more than he does the modest purses they win” (25) — which nearly, though not necessarily, contradicted the reporters’ previous characterization of Rizzo as “devot[ed]” to betting on horses (5). Some acquaintances might have seen “the manner and habits of a high-rolling horse player” in him, but according to the reporters, he neglected to display those tendencies at the track. “Track officials and trainers said Rizzo has generally bought relatively inexpensive horses” (70).

The issue in play during the second main part of the article, which attempted to trace “Rizzo’s journey to the genteel Washington countryside” (40), was extremely difficult to glean.

In the simplest form, the section simply described Rizzo’s work history prior to moving to Bell in 1993. But the section was often more complicated. It included quotes and accusations about Rizzo’s demeanor, his attraction to power and his willingness to wield it. It described his efforts to improve the cities he worked for. It also described the controversies surrounding his departure from the job he held before Bell, then some of his first steps after Bell hired him. So the issues involved in the section were more intricate than “where Rizzo worked and when.”

But for the range of old laundry aired — in some cases still reeking — and all the personal traits asserted, readers must have eventually concluded that no conclusion was offered. There was simply no main message, or even set of messages, about the way the world was, to be drawn from the section, except those presented as assertions or tautologies. The only issue relevant to the reporters’ mentioning that “some of [Rizzo’s] underlings [when he worked in Rancho Cucamonga] remember him as intimidating and standoffish” (41) was that some former colleagues found him standoffish. In theory, each of these claims about Rizzo could be taken as mini-issues with conclusion (issue: What was Rizzo like in Rancho Cucamonga? Conclusion: Some people found him standoffish; Reason: They said so). But this would give too much weight to what were essentially isolated assertions.


  1. There is an exception to this general hedging by the reporters, to be discussed.  ↩

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