A week ago, the Los Angeles Times published an astonishing editor’s note, a correction-cum-dismissal notice that triggered instant media attention. Not only did the paper issue a monster correction to a Dec. 7, 2013, story on Occidental College, it also revealed that it had dismissed the reporter who’d done the story, investigative reporter Jason Felch. As we learned from the editor’s note, Felch had entered into an “inappropriate relationship” with a source.
On the factual front, the Dec. 7 story by Felch claimed that Occidental, a liberal arts college based in Los Angeles, hadn’t disclosed 27 sexual assault allegations made in 2012. “Dozens more may have been ignored by the Dean of Students’ office since 2009 because they were made anonymously, records and interviews showed,” noted the story. Felch’s piece centered on the college’s legal obligations under the Clery Act, which binds universities “to publish statistics annually on reported crime on or near campus,” in the word’s of the editor’s note.
Contrary to the gist of the Felch story, the editor’s note claimed that Occidental needn’t have revealed these cases:
Documents reviewed by The Times this week show that the 27 incidents did not fall under the law’s disclosure requirements for a variety of reasons. Some were not sexual assaults as defined by the Clery Act. Rather, they involved sexual harassment, inappropriate text messages or other conduct not covered by the act. Other alleged incidents were not reported because they occurred off-campus, beyond the boundaries that Occidental determined were covered by the act. Some occurred in 2011, and the college accounted for them that year.
And that was the end of that: In a statement regarding these circumstances, Felch says that the material underlying this vast correction “has not been shared with me. If the account is true, I deeply regret the error.” Curious: On two occasions in March, Los Angeles Times’s top editor, Davan Maharaj, met with a hired representative of Occidental, Glenn Bunting of the crisis management firm G.F. Bunting+Co. In the first meeting, according to a statement from the college, Bunting presented Maharaj with the “firm’s findings.” The second session came at the request of Maharaj, “to review documents showing that that entire premise of the Dec. 7 story was fundamentally flawed,” according to Occidental.
What documents? And who aside from Maharaj reviewed them?
The Erik Wemple Blog this week pushed the Los Angeles Times on just this question, wondering why this correction didn’t have more corroborating evidence behind it. After we presented these questions to Los Angeles Times spokeswoman Nancy Sullivan:
*Will you folks share the material presented by Oxy/Bunting that persuaded you to run the editor’s note?
*Who reviewed that material in the newsroom?
*Who was Felch’s editor on the story, and did that person review the material?
She responded with this: “Hi Erik [Wemple Blog] – Please refer to our Editor’s note or let me know if you want me to resend our statement.”
No need to resend that statement. It’s just an abridgment of the editor’s note and reads like this:
A recent complaint from Occidental College representatives, regarding a Los Angeles Times article published on December 7, 2013, led to an internal investigation. The result is today’s correction of that story and subsequent Times articles published December 20 and January 22. It has also resulted in the dismissal of staff writer Jason Felch, who during the investigation revealed that he had an inappropriate relationship with a source for The Times’ stories. In a note to readers, Times editor Davan Maharaj stated that ‘our credibility depends on our being a neutral, unbiased source of information – in appearance as well as in fact.’ The Times regrets the errors in the articles.
We’ve also asked Occidental for a copy of the materials that were presented to the Los Angeles Times. Jim Tranquada, a spokesman for the college, responds that he is working on the request.