Newsmakers with JR
LA Magazine Expunges Flawed Blockbuster Article on SB -- Vindication for Anthony Wagner
The "Friday news dump" is a time-honored method in the world of politics and media for entities to put out and lowball negative news about themselves, on the theory that reporters already are out the door by that time of the week, and few people pay heed to the news over the weekend.
Late Friday, February 25, the publishers of LA Magazine did such a dump, informing local media outlets that they were removing from their web site a 4,000-word investigative piece about Santa Barbara that came out nearly a year ago, sending shock waves through City Hall with a purported expose of how the city's retail recreational marijuana licenses were awarded.
Headlined "In Sleepy Santa Barbara, a City Hall Insider Raises Eyebrows" and authored by television writer and novelist Mitchell Kriegman, the piece took direct aim at Anthony Wagner, portraying the former Public Information Officer for the Santa Barbara Police Department in an extremely harsh light, using innuendo and several factual errors to suggest he was corrupt, at one point even referring to him as resembling a "character in one of The Godfather movies."
On Friday, the magazine emailed us to say, oh never mind:
This letter is to inform you of the removal of three articles from the Los Angeles Magazine website, www.lamag.com, which you have referenced and/or linked in your reporting. We request that you remove any and all links to the three LA Magazine articles referenced below.
The letter then cited the original article and two follow-ups - one reporting that Wagner was placed on administrative leave in the wake of the piece, and another recounting that an independent investigation had cleared him of any conflict of interest.
The email went on to say:
Links to the articles posted by your organization will no longer redirect the user to the articles because the articles have been removed from the Los Angeles Magazine website.
Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter.
Nobody's sayin' nothin'. Beyond the email, Actual Facts about exactly what triggered LA Magazine's extraordinary decision to retract from the internet, and from history, such an ambitious, aggressive and assertive article, were hard to come by.
Wagner was not available for comment, the magazine did not respond to an email request for elaboration and our effort to reach Kriegman was unsuccessful.
It's not hard to construct a plausible scenario for what took place, however.
A bit of background:
Kriegman's story turned wobbly within hours of being posted on the magazine's web site, starting with a critical look at the piece by Newsmakers (our reporting included an in-depth video interview with the writer), which first reported some holes and glaring factual errors in the piece, in addition to noting that some of it merely rehashed original reporting by Josh Molina at Noozhawk. You can read our original take here.
A few days later, Nick Welsh applied the coup de grace in the Independent, revealing that one of the foundational claims of the piece, purportedly showing Wagner had ensured that one of the lucrative licenses was awarded to a former business associate, was simply wrong,
After the LA Magazine piece came out, Wagner immediately denounced it as a "salacious hit piece," and very quickly engaged legal counsel who sent a weighty demand for retraction to the publisher.
Wagner had come to Santa Barbara several years earlier, following former SBPD Chief Lori Luhnow from San Diego upon her hiring here. Among his other duties, he was assigned to guide the process of awarding the retail pot licenses.
When LA Magazine published Kriegman's investigation, Luhnow (who also was trashed in the piece), had recently retired, and Wagner by then was reporting to acting chief Barney Melekian.
Melekian put Wagner on administrative leave and engaged a private law firm to look into the conflict of interest claim suggested by Kriegman; that investigation cleared Wagner of wrongdoing, but he nevertheless soon left the department and returned to San Diego.
It seems likely that the deletion of the offending articles is part of a broader legal settlement between the magazine and Wagner, the terms of which apparently are confidential, given that nobody's talking about what's behind the sudden and surprise move.
Newsmakers will comply with the request to remove links to the offending pieces from our own stories, but otherwise our extensive coverage of the controversy will remain in our archive, which you can check out via these links:
Our report on Nick's crucial takedown of the piece is here.
Our interview with Montecito Journal editor Gwyn Lurie, who originally commissioned the piece but decided against publishing it, because of major problems she saw in the reporting, is here,
Bottom line: We don't know what else may be included in a legal settlement, of which LA Magazine's full retraction appears to be part, but this development alone represents a huge victory for Wagner, after being enormously slimed and, along with his family, going through the public humiliation of being falsely accused of being a sleaze.
Congratulations and mega-kudos on getting your good name back, Anthony.
Images: Anthony Wagner (SBPD); Mitchell Kriegman (Newsmakers frame grab).