In his latest Sunday column for the L.A. Times’ Westside Weekly, journalist Robert Scheer extolled the willingness of the now-defunct Our Times to “get down in the local dirt, where the deals are made and where the public consistently loses out.” Scheer wrote for both Our Times and Westside Weekly, one of a handful of weekly and semiweekly pubs spared in the wholesale purge of the L.A. Times community news supplements. His piece was a fine homage to laudable ideals, but was he talking about the same Santa Monica/Venice Our Times we knew and even occasionally read?
Staring from across the page directly at the columnist’s mug in the same local-news edition as Scheer’s paean was an article that made us wonder why the supplements, officially shuttered two weeks ago, weren’t killed sooner. The cover-page headliner, “Virtual Obscenity,” was about a tawdry billboard campaign mounted by dot-com Bigredwire.com. The ads featured a photograph of Queen Elizabeth II, phone to ear, chattering: “Pay long distance? fuhgdat!” Some Westsiders, notably Santa Monica City Council hopeful Herbert Katz, didn’t like the brazen slogan, and that presumably made news. Family-style, that is.
“‘Pay for long distance?’ asked the billboard for Bigredwire.com, followed by a made-up word which sounds like a profane phrase,” was how the Westside section treated the slurred expression. The accompanying photo blacked out most of the phrase, leaving the f and the t! intact. A caption cleared up any confusion, however, noting that “the nearly profane phase has been intentionally obscured by the Westside Weekly.” The caption also may have unintentionally revealed the best reason to yank Our Times from circulation. Despite Scheer’s occasional forays into real journalism, Our Times maintained a cadre of understudy reporters at stepchild wages, producing a paper that obscured more than it elucidated. So the question is, Will the skinflints at Spring Street spring for real local news? Or is this just the latest in a string of line-item squeeze-outs? Don’t hold your breath.
EMMY FREEBIE FOR ABC
Talk about a stretch. At the beginning of the month, as part of the buildup to its September 10 Emmy telecast, ABC-TV was allowed by the city of Los Angeles to drape its corporate colors from nearly 200 lampposts clustered along major streets around town. Despite a city-imposed embargo on commercial content in banners, the minibillboards, sporting ABC’s signature yellow-and-black motif, were technically legal because they promoted a “nonprofit event”: the Emmy-award ceremony at the Shrine Auditorium, broadcast by ABC. Christopher M. Westhoff, the assistant city attorney who vetted the Emmy banners, admitted that ABC’s campaign was “pushing the envelope”; a purely moneymaking message is barred by law.
If it was such a close call, why would the city allow ABC’s banners to remain up for a week after its permit expired? The network paid $3,400 to post its advertising until the night of Monday, September 11. By Tuesday, the banners should have been down, right? As late as the following Sunday night — one week after ABC broadcast the highest-rated Emmy show in years — the network’s corporate logo continued to float above choice boulevards — a bit of freebie gloating courtesy of lax city oversight. The city leaves it to the permit holder to comply with the expiration date. “Oh, yeah, we need to be more diligent,” Westhoff confesses. “But, you know, we’re living in the do-more-with-less century…make that, do-even-more-with-even-less.” One thing is for sure: ABC-TV wouldn’t do for the city what the city is doing for it.
STARR’S WRATH LIVES ON
The Clintons might have escaped prosecution, but the collateral damage from Kenneth Starr’s $55 million Whitewater investigation is far from over. Consider Julie Hiatt Steele, whose 15 minutes of fame stemmed from her refusal to back up Kathleen Willey’s story of being groped in the Oval Office. Steele’s independence brought down the wrath of Starr, who hit her with a three-count obstruction-of-justice indictment. Steele got off with a hung jury, but was left with nearly $1 million in attorneys’ fees and legal expenses. So she started a legal-defense fund on the Web. And that’s when her troubles began all over again.
Steele’s Web campaign came to the attention of posters at FreeRepublic.com, a hard-right anti-government site whose red-meat issue is to drive Clinton out of office by any means necessary. Some of them began a concerted campaign to flood Steele’s site with bogus donations, thus saddling her with processing charges that would drain rather than fatten her account.
The whole sorry tale can be traced in a series of FreeRepublic Web-site postings, obtained by OffBeat from Steele’s archives.
“I suggest that we all dig out our checkbooks and mail in a check for $.01 each,” one January 30, 1999, FreeRepublic posting read. “Do you know how much it will cost that fund to open the envelopes and process those checks?”
“My name is Brigidoe Barnidoe and Amex number is 123-456-78910,” said another poster, apparently suggesting the use of a fake credit-card number to jam Steele’s site.
“I’m not as cold-blooded as you people. I sent her a $1 gift certificate from Burger King, were [sic] Sundays are home of the 99-cent Whopper! So she gets a last meal and a cent for her defense,” posted a “Bommer.”
Were the FReeper postings idle fantasies or a call to action? Steele’s Webmaster, John Hennessey, says her site was barraged with hundreds of bogus donations charged to fake credit-card numbers; Steele had to pay her Web e-commerce servicer, Michigan-based E-Z Merchant Accounts, 25 to 35 cents to process each “contribution.”
“Julie’s site took in about $1,550,” says Hennessey. “The fake charges cost around $4,000.”
Of course, it’s illegal to use a fake credit-card number. The federal wire-fraud statute forbids “any scheme or artifice to defraud . . . or for obtaining money or property by means of false or fraudulent pretenses, representations, or promises . . . transmitted by means of wire, radio or television communication in interstate or foreign commerce.” “Scheme” is further defined as a plot to “deprive another of the intangible right of honest services.” But the FBI is unlikely to go after a case encompassing $4,000 in damages, an agency spokesman says.
“Steele’s site is liable for the charges if said charges are off bogus cards or numbers,” says E-Z Merchant owner Barry Peterson.
FreeRepublic officials deny any knowledge of the Steele postings.
“I can’t keep track of everything here,” says Jim Robinson, the site’s Webmaster. The Steele postings are no longer on the site, however. And FreeRepublic knows that postings can get them into trouble. The site was sued by both the L.A. Times and the Washington Post for posting articles without paying for them. The site also took down death threats (aimed at the Clintons) that resulted in one FReeper’s being detained by the Secret Service.
Meanwhile, Steele can’t find a job in ultraconservative Richmond, Virginia, she says. “Even the Virginia Democratic Party said I was too hot for them,” says Steele. Her credit cards and cash and check donations are keeping her head above water, Steele adds. But the former Republican voter says she has learned a lesson.
“I used to think that it wasn’t that important who you voted for,” says Steele. “I’ll never make that mistake again!”