Someone shut down a newspaper last week. His name was Steve Cooley, and he’s the district attorney most voters — including me — chose two years ago because we thought he was the best man in the race.
Now it looks like we were wrong.
In shutting the Metropolitan News-Enterprise, Cooley violated one of the cardinal principles of the First Amendment. Then he said it wasn‘t his fault. Both the action and the denial were the deeds of a thug.
After the three-hour closure, Cooley blamed the victim — “due to the initial refusal of the co-publisher of the paper to cooperate.” You’d think management had forced reporters and other employees onto the street, not — as was the case — D.A. investigators packing big handguns. Cooley continued, “This search had nothing to do with First Amendment issues as it relates to newsrooms.” The district attorney added, “This was a focused and narrow search. We were only requesting business documents for one transaction.”
Elsewhere the official version stated, “News files, records or any other information pertaining to the gathering, writing or coverage of news by the paper were not the object of the search warrant. Only specific business records pertaining to the South Gate investigation were sought.”
Two untruths so far. First, the deception that Roger Grace — co-publisher with his wife Jo-Ann — shut the paper down or somehow compelled Cooley to do so. But it doesn‘t seem to be in question that Cooley’s roughnecks kicked out the staff, news and business, when the Graces wouldn‘t give them what they wanted. The second was the “narrow, focused search.” It appears that no search took place. But had it happened, according to the warrant itself, the newsroom (which is not physically separated from the business office) would have been tossed. Superior Court Judge William R. Pounders — notorious for the McMartin trial — issued a warrant authorizing search of “advertisement, accounts receivable, editing andor any office which can provide information . . .’‘ Cooley, by the way, sought materials involving an ad placed by a law firm entangled in the writhing can of worms that is the politics of South Gate and the city’s latest recall campaign.
The point is that Cooley‘s people closed the paper until they got what they wanted. (Grace, for his part, told me that once he understood the D.A. already knew the information that his proprietary client files contained, he surrendered the paperwork.) The Graces held out for three hours; their afternoon paper came out late. Had they held out longer, it wouldn’t have come out at all. This makes Cooley‘s statement about no free-press interference pure balderdash. What Cooley meant was that he’ll respect freedom of the press — unless some newspaper‘s business side has something he wants. Then he’ll shut the paper down like an ill-behaved pool hall. If he thinks he can get away with it.
The Met News, for which I once worked, is as real a newspaper as the L.A. Times that looms nearby on Spring Street. It comes out every day (we used to call it ”downtown L.A.‘s number-two daily“). But it isn’t big. It‘s read by perhaps 4,000 lawyers, judges and officeholders. It fights continuously for its legal-ad lifeblood against its vast rival, the Daily Journal, the legal paper owned by Charles Munger, the billionaire partner of the world’s second richest man, the whoppingly influential Warren Buffet. Had Cooley shut down the D.J., an FBI SWAT team might have stormed the D.A.‘s Office.
But Grace only has his principles and what we still assume to be the law behind him. He’s offered not to sue Cooley if he apologizes, acknowledges the untruths in the press release and ”require[s] that every attorney and investigator in your office — including you — attend an intensive [course] on avoidance of First Amendment affronts.‘’ Oh yes, and pay $3,000 for the Grace employees‘ time on the street.
It’s a generous offer. If Cooley took it, he‘d be showing far more wisdom than he’s shown so far.