Elected leaders often complain about local news coverage they believe is too critical or unfair. But in Beverly Hills, the City Council is doing something about it: The city has decided to start its own cable news show.
Many link the decision to a soured relationship between some city officials and one news outlet in particular: the Beverly Hills Courier. The free weekly paper has grown in influence in recent years, angering a few of those who tend to be the subject of the sometimes-pointed articles.
The Courier’s publisher, Clifton S. Smith Jr., believes the council is targeting his paper because of objective reporting that has been misconstrued as having an inherently critical agenda.
“The city staff resents our investigations into their acts and expenditures,” he said. “They think this is a way to avoid scrutiny from the independent press.”
The ritzy burg already has one other free weekly and a hyper local news website, aside from the occasional coverage in Los Angeles news outlets. But council members voted 3-1 less than two weeks ago to start a news program on the city’s cable channel, BHTV-10.
The plan, spearheaded by Councilman Julian Gold, is to produce a weekly newscast in which an anchor will brief viewers on newsworthy events of the week, such as decisions made by the council or city commissions.
Independent journalists often dismiss such shows as taxpayer-funded ventures that typically make elected officials look good, but it’s not an unheard of arrangement. Cities such as Santa Monica and West Hollywood fund similar cable programs, often hiring independent journalists to report local news.
But for Beverly Hills, the decision has taken on increased importance given how the hot issue of tunneling for the Westside subway extension is being covered in the local media. Many in Beverly Hills are vigorously opposed to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s proposal to tunnel under the Beverly Hills High School.
Councilman Barry Brucker, a supporter of the new programming, claims the Courier’s reporting has falsely convinced some residents that there is council support for the plan to tunnel under the high school.
But the tiff is visible in lesser issues too, such as one that came up in March, when the Courier ran a front-page article about the decision by Brucker, then mayor, to appoint himself and William Brien, then vice mayor, to a committee giving them power to select members of a newly formed cultural heritage commission.
The article quoted an anonymous City Hall source who said the decision not to appoint Councilman John Mirisch was “retaliation against Mirisch for championing reforms at City Hall against Brucker’s wishes.”
Outraged, Brucker wrote to AOL’s Beverly Hills Patch that the story was “the most recent example of Mr. Smith’s misleading pattern of using salacious headlines and gutter-ball journalism to try to fracture our City Council.”
Brucker was equally critical in comments to the Business Journal – even as he maintained that the decision to vote for the news program was not related to his differences with Smith.
“The community is deserving of having correct information disseminated to them through as many venues as possible. This is just another vehicle to communicate the news,” he said. “Unfortunately, we have a newspaper whose publisher is so Tea Party right wing and slanted that it makes it very confusing to our community.”
Gold said the idea for the programming came to him earlier this year while he was touring the city’s cable studio, which was finished last year and where other programs such as “Inside Beverly Hills” are produced. That public affairs show hired host Rudy Cole – a Beverly Hills Weekly columnist – to discuss city issues with guests.
Gold said he sees the news show as an opportunity to put the facility to greater use while increasing communication with residents.
“Though it’s a little city, it’s a complex place. Eleven commissions cover everything from fine arts to traffic and parking. We hear a lot that, ‘We didn’t know that,’ ” he said.
However, no matter Gold’s intentions, the decision to start the programming comes amid an increasingly polarized political climate.
Beverly Hills taxpayers previously funded a monthly newscast until 2005, when the program was cut due to budget constraints. That same year, publishing company San Marino Tribune Co. purchased the Beverly Hills Courier and Smith came in as the Courier’s publisher. Since then, the paper has increased its influence. It has a circulation of more than 25,000 for Beverly Hills, plus about 8,000 copies going to surrounding areas. Cross-town competitor Beverly Hills Weekly has a circulation of about 15,000.
As its influence has grown, the Courier has been criticized, notably by Brucker, for injecting what he sees as an anti-spending, small-government bias into news stories. Typical of the dispute is the latest Aug. 24 edition of the Courier.
It has a front page story titled, “Brien, Brucker, Gold Help Metro Again,” about a recent meeting in which council members discussed whether the council should be required to review all of the MTA’s permits for the portion of the subway project that goes through Beverly Hills.
The story stated that Brien, Brucker and Gold rebuffed Mirisch’s proposal that the council review the permits. The paper often refers to the three councilmembers named in the headline as the “council majority,” while Mirisch and Lili Bosse are often tagged in the paper as “reformers.”
Brucker said that such characterizations portray the council as fractured, while Smith defended the tags.
“The characterization is accurate. I think most people in town think it’s accurate. The significant votes facing this council have been 3 to 2,” said Smith, who vouched for the accuracy of the paper’s reporting and added that everything in his newspaper is sourced twice.
Brien said his vote wasn’t affected by his opinion of the Courier’s reporting.
“At times, they’ve not be so objective,” he said.
News for cheap
The lone dissenter on the programming proposal was Mirisch. (Bosse did not attend the meeting.) He said he believes the proposal stems from council members dissatisfied with news coverage, though he would not name the Courier.
“I’m guessing that the origin is that other council members are not happy with the reporting from our existing outlets,” he said.
“It’s not the city’s job to make up for that.”
Another issue that has arisen is the cost. Although the outlays seem fairly modest, Smith said he believes there are hundreds of thousands of dollars of hidden costs in the plan, such as time spent for staff to interface with city departments.
But the city is hoping to keep costs down by hiring freelancers or allowing university students to report the news for cheap. The proposal approved by the council came with options. The weekly programming could be as short as 10 minutes to as long as 30. As a result, annual costs could range from just $3,000 to $22,300 depending on the payroll. A decision will be made later by city staff.
Beverly Hills Weekly Publisher Josh Gross said aside from any questions over origin or objectivity of the programming, he’s not sure the newscast with its shoestring budget will be up to the challenge of reporting for the city’s highly-educated audience.
“They don’t like the coverage in the Courier. I can understand their position on that. This isn’t going to remedy it. It’s not going to have the viewership and the quality,” said Gross, who recalled the previous city news show as not only taking the city’s point of view but lacking depth and quality.
Lawrence Wenner, professor of communication and ethics at Loyola Marymount University, said that if done correctly, a city-backed news program can be fair. He said council members must stay out of day-to-day editorial operations – but no one will forget the council holds the purse strings.
“A city can always pull funding if they are not getting the coverage they want,” he said in an e-mail.
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