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Hard Times for Net News

During the recent Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) conference in New York City, OffBeat was struck by the strutting bravado of the armies of reporters attending from the online news service APBnews.com. One young hotshot from the cops-and-crime-focused site (APB for “All Points Bulletin”) opined that online news was better than the old-school variety because Internet reporters could link readers to arrest warrants, indictments, etc., as “proof” of their stories. Police reports proof? Tell that to the Rampart police-corruption victims. At another panel, an APBer suggested that viewers often prefer source documents to news stories anyway. (So much for analysis, focus and balance, but apparently those are pre-Net news values as well.)

Well, arrogance goeth before the fall, etc., so it should have come as no surprise that the day after the conference ended, APBnews announced it was out of money and was firing all of its 140 employees. Despite its quibbles with some APBers’ conference comments, OffBeat is dismayed by the site’s problems. First, APBnews did good work, including reports on university-neighborhood safety and NFL and NBA players’ criminal records. Secondly, the layoffs came as a report was released indicating a dramatic increase in online news consumption. One-third of the public now go online weekly, and 15 percent daily, for their news fix. And some of that can be attributed to sites like APBnews, which have given new life to a profession that works its employees like oxen, pays them peanuts and stifles their best work. APBnews paid decent wages and supported its reporters. Case in point: The site waged a court battle to be able to post federal judges’ financial-disclosure forms online. And the rest of the media took notice; even The New York Times is offering online employees stock options.

Sydney Schanberg, the Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Timesman who exposed Cambodia’s killing fields, was one of the big names who jumped to APBnews. At the IRE conference, Schanberg participated in a dispiriting panel on attempts by the Pentagon and the mainstream media to discredit stories such as Associated Press’ report on U.S. Army civilian killings during the Korean War. Schanberg and the other panelists offered little hope that things will get better. APBnews did. Schanberg is one of dozens of APBnews staffers who continue to work gratis to keep the site up while the owners look for new investors.

ET TU, NEW TIMES?

If you’re a media junkie, you may be aware of the flap over the most recent ethics breach at the L.A. Times. Now it seems another L.A. paper has some explaining to do.

The L.A. Times in December ran a story by crackerjack cops reporters Matt Lait and Scott Glover naming one Amir Muhammad as the suspected hitman in the 1997 shooting death of rapper Notorious B.I.G. Muhammad was alleged to have acted on orders from Death Row Records founder Marion “Suge” Knight.

That story, as it turns out, was wrong. As reported in the June issue of Brill’s Content, Muhammad, a mortgage broker, was not a suspect when the L.A. Times story ran in December. A detective on the case confirmed that to the L.A. Times in March, Brill’s reported, yet the L.A. Times did not run a story clearing Muhammad until May.

New Times Los Angeles then jumped into the fray, devoting two separate full-page pieces in its June 1 news section to the story, including an illustration of a dark-skinned man, presumably Muhammad, being lynched by a pair of angry white, male reporters.

“A police department source says only one former LAPD detective considered Muhammad a suspect, and his theory was officially disregarded almost two years before publication of Lait and Glover’s piece,” wrote Rick Barrs, New Times editor and writer of The Finger column. Barrs went on to report that some L.A. Times staffers had suggested that the paper “would never have embraced such flimsy evidence if the target had been a prominent white businessman, instead of a Nation of Islam member.”

In a separate article, New Times staffer Tony Ortega wrote that “when the Times plastered Muhammad’s face on the front page and made him out to be a possible killer, police were no longer looking into the theory that he was involved in the crime.”

Problem is, in a March 2 cover story by freelancer Jan Golab with assistance from Ortega, the New Times parroted — without attribution — the L.A. Times’ erroneous account.

In that story, titled “Burying the Evidence,” Golab and Ortega reported that investigators believed that a corrupt cop “arranged for longtime friend, Amir Muhammad, a.k.a. Harry Billups, to do the hit for Suge Knight. Billups, who remains at large, matches the shooter’s composite drawn from witness accounts.”

Oops.

“Jan basically just reiterated what the Times had said,” Ortega said. “We trusted the Times, and we won’t be doing that in the future.”

Barrs said that he had not been aware or had forgotten that New Times had mentioned Muhammad in its March 2 story. He called the reporting “sloppy,” but pointed out that unlike the L.A. Times piece, which ran on the front page and focused on Muhammad, the New Times put him near the end of the story. “It’s not like we ran his picture on the front page,” Barrs said. “The point is the Times is still refusing to retract” its December story.

New Times plans to run an explanation this week.

—Sara Catania

EROTIC CITY

“Somebody said we came from storks,” says announcer Max Lobkowicz into the microphone. “We don’t do animal sex here. We come from cunts, beautiful wet cunts . . .” Lying only a few feet away on a heavily pillowed, red-satin bed, L.A.’s sex therapist Dr. Susan Block coos into her headset, “Testing, testing, testosterone, testicles.”

Clad in a green bra-and-panties set, fishnets, garters, knee-length black lace-up boots and a fuzzy black gangster hat, Block is broadcasting her online show Saturday night from her new 10,000-square-foot erotic-art gallery in downtown Los Angeles. About 35 of Block’s friends, including peepshow king Lasse Braun and L.A. Free Press publisher Art Kunkin, are on hand to celebrate her birthday (Block, who appears 40-ish, refuses to give her age). They watch the cable-access queen talk dirty, fondle herself and advise callers on their sex lives.

“Welcome to the twilight zone of sex. We speak about sex in all its fun and splendor,” she purrs. “We are all born from sex. We are all children of sex. Sex is what brings us into the world and sex is what keeps us around for a while.”

Sex has kept the philosophy Ph.D. in business since the early ’80s. Although she has no degree in psychology, sex therapy or human behavior, Block’s Web-site advice program averages 2,000 visitors a show. “You don’t need a degree to help someone,” says Block. “Most people are guessing when it comes to helping another person you don’t know.” The Philadelphia native began a professional radio career interviewing people who placed personal ads, then moved to public-access cable and, later, the Net before landing shows on HBO’s Radio Sex TV and Real Sex. In July, Block’s gallery will premiere “Democratic Sex,” an exhibit she bills as political erotic art.

Meanwhile, Block, surrounded by a veritable garage sale of erotic memorabilia, including a museum-size collection of dildos (OffBeat’s favorite model is the Clinton), jumps from sex to her endorsement of Al Gore over George W. Bush — she calls the latter a “dangerous dufus.”

In the middle of a tirade against the LAPD, Block is informed that her first caller, Jason, is on the line. He is having trouble reaching orgasm, to the chagrin of his girlfriend. Block concludes that it is not Jason’s position or technique that is holding him back but mental pressure. “You don’t need to cum, Jason,” she says. “In fact, don’t cum. Take the pressure off and you’ll probably cum more often,” she concludes. “Hmm, reverse psychology,” ponders a thankful Jason before he hangs up. Later, there is Paula, who asks how to please a woman, and Peter, who claims his wife can’t orgasm unless she has sex with their two Great Danes. Block is never at a loss for an answer.

“I am just feeling around in the dark, giving my own experiences and opinions to try and help,” she says. —Christine Pelisek

Edited by Gale Holland