By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
CASE IN POINT: ATIMES INVESTIGATION of grocery magnate and gossip magnet Ron Burkle that began in April, shortly after his involvement in that Page Six scandal became known. It ended up back-burnered — coincidentally? — after Burkle’s name surfaced as one of the paper’s billionaire suitors. I’ve obtained some of the e-mail exchanges between the staff writer, veteran investigative reporter Ted Rohrlich, and one of his sources. They offer a rare glimpse into the progress of a Times probe of a secretive personality who’s been prominent in the news for a variety of other reasons all year: his name surfacing in The New York Times in connection with the Pellicano scandal, a divorce so messy it resulted in a legislative attempt to shield those court files from public scrutiny, his relationships with high-profile people ranging from ex-President Clinton to supermodels, even a juicy lawsuit filed against him by his ex-wife’s boyfriend, and, of course, Burkle’s mega-investments. While other media outlets began to lavish attention on Burkle, the Times has written sparingly about him.
Rohrlich first introduced himself to the source in April with an e-mail saying he’d been assigned to the Burkle story “over the long haul.” Several interviews ensued. Then, on May 1, Times media reporter James Rainey wrote a story headlined “Far From a Passive Observer of Media; Billionaire Ron Burkle says his run-ins with the press show that he’s committed to integrity.” The next day, on May 2, an e-mail from the source to Rohrlich asked about his progress. Rohrlich replied, “A lot of progress. Supposed to sit down with Burkle on May 3rd.” That day, Rohrlich had what was described as a three-hour off-the-record chat with Burkle during which the reporter in advance pledged “for darn sure” to ask tough questions. On May 4, Rohrlich made clear that nothing said at that meeting by Burkle “was persuasive enough to drive the story off its track.” And, in another e-mail that day, the reporter said about the story, “The substance of this stuff is getting mighty interesting . . . I think it’s going to produce really good stuff — and sooner rather than later.”
Meanwhile, Rohrlich was apprised that both New York magazine and The New York Times were looking into Burkle. On May 11, Rohrlich revealed that he’d tried to speak to Burkle’s estranged wife, Janet, but she wouldn’t talk to him. On May 18, Rohrlich wrote that he hoped to see the Burkle divorce files, because their thousands of pages were being unsealed. That day, the Times published a story by another reporter headlined “Billionaire’s Divorce Deemed No State Secret; The California Supreme Court lets stand a lower court ruling that a politically connected investor can’t have his records sealed.”
On May 24, asked by the source if everything was cool with the story, Rohrlich responded, “cool as a cuke.” Also that day, the reporter assured his insider: “Don’t worry. I’m not playing into anyone’s hands. Just doing my work, like I always do — thoroughly.”
But on May 31, local media reported that a man who claimed he’d dated Burkle’s estranged wife was suing Burkle for being behind a police search that led to the boyfriend’s arrest. The Times did not cover the lawsuit, however.
Rohrlich’s e-mails to the source stopped on June 2. On June 14, the Times published an article, headlined “Talk Grows of Possible Sale of L.A. Times; Local investors express interest in bidding for the Tribune Co. paper amid a boardroom rift,” mentioning Burkle’s interest in buying the paper in the third paragraph. The next day, on June 15, asked in an e-mail by the source whether the reporter was still on the beat, Rohrlich never responded. Meanwhile, he has not published a Burkle article and rebuffed my attempt to speak to him.
Granted, such things are never black and white with a newspaper; as a veteran of bigtime media, including the Times, I can personally attest that editorial decisions to back-burner, or even kill, stories more frequently occur because of inattention or incompetence than because of conspiracy. I’m told that Baquet strenuously denies that he killed the Burkle probe, but does admit back-burnering it because he wasn’t convinced his reporter “had the story.” I’ve learned that Rohrlich and Baquet are going to talk about the probe again.
I do know this as well: Baquet has met Burkle only once, when the billionaire came to Spring Street to complain that the paper kept referring to the divorce-shield legislation as “Burkle’s bill.” Burkle sat down with Baquet and Doug Frantz; I’m told that, in the course of that conversation, he “may have mentioned Ted’s story in passing. But the paper’s ownership never came up.”
As for the other billionaire suitors, I’m told that Baquet has met about five times with Eli Broad, who a year ago hosted a reception for the newly named editor at an old-money club and more recently introduced the paper’s brass to the new director of LACMA. “And in the course of conversation with Baquet and [Times publisher] Jeff Johnson, in passing they discussed that the L.A. Times should be locally owned,” an insider said. Baquet, meanwhile, has never met David Geffen. “But if David Geffen called me up tomorrow and said, ‘I want to have lunch,’ I’d probably have lunch with him,” Baquet was overheard saying. “After all, I’m the editor of the L.A. Times.”
True, but that’s exactly why this is all such an ethical dilemma too.