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City salary scandal and the collapse of the press

citiesCoverage of city manager salaries in the northeastern Los Angeles area, back when the traditional press was still vibrant.

Loss of Fourth Estate oversight has real and detrimental consequences

By Bruce T. Murray

Revelations that city officials in the southern California city of Bell paid themselves stratospheric six-figure salaries – worthy of ravenous Wall Street raiders – have sparked outrage and recrimination from many quarters. Most appropriately, the residents of this gritty, immigrant town are calling for accountability. Predictably, what is left of the media in the area have editorialized against the corrupt and larcenous city officials.

But somewhat dubiously, the Los Angeles Times credits itself with breaking the story about the salaries; when in reality, the Times finally caught up with a story that had been going on unreported for five years. The situation in Bell had been festering since 2005, when the city, through a deceptive ballot measure, maneuvered its way into becoming possibly the highest-paid municipality in the nation.

The problem is, no one was watching. No one was there to ask the right questions and report back. The Los Angeles Times was preparing for its next buyout, its next round of editorial layoffs and subsequent bankruptcy of its corporate owner. The Long Beach Press-Telegram was busy downsizing itself into insignificance even in its core community, much less outlying cities like Bell, Maywood and South Gate.

The situation in Bell is a sad reminder and yet another wake-up call that the collapse of the Fourth Estate, as we once knew it, has real and significant detrimental consequences for American democracy and civic life.