The Resnick touch

Posted on | December 17, 2009 | 3 Comments

476px-Hogarth-satire-on-false-pespective-1753THE National Academy of Sciences today announced the constitution of an expert committee to review protections afforded fish covered by the Endangered Species Act in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, including Chinook salmon, Delta smelt and green sturgeon.

The assembling of these learned souls at the behest of US Senator Dianne Feinstein and California’s billionaire farming couple Lynda and Stewart Resnick brought to mind an incident that perfectly describes the reach of the Resnicks into institutions that we the people might fondly imagine to be incorruptible.

That incident was the 2002 sacking of journalist David Karp from the Los Angeles Times.

Calling Karp a journalist is an understatement. He is to fruit what David Attenborough is to critters. If a farmer grows a fruit in California, or the US for that matter, it’s a safe bet that David Karp has eaten it and as he steadily compiles an anthology of American fruit for WH Norton & Co., he’s probably written about it. Most recently, it was his work that alerted the nation to the citrus blight “greening.” His appetite and knowledge are so well known they even inspired a New Yorker profile.

Back in 2002, Karp had spent months working on an authoritative treatment of pomegranates, which at the time were not a notable crop. Yet in preparing to launch the (then) new fruit beverage Pom Wonderful, Lynda Resnick had planted 6,000 acres of them in the Central Valley, almost quadrupling the national harvest.

Two or three days before the cover story for the food section was to run, a panicked clatter of feet was heard running from ad sales to the third floor office of then-managing editor Dean Baquet. Lynda Resnick, the ad rep told Baquet, claimed that Karp promised her the right to embed a display ad for Pom Wonderful directly into his article.

This is not done. Independence of editorial departments from advertising is what puts the news in newspapers. The Los Angeles Times, particularly, was sensitive to the charge. Two years earlier, the Staples Center scandal had led to the purchase of the paper, then owned by Times Mirror Company, by the Chicago-based Tribune Company, which in a showy flourish had imported a first-class cabin’s worth of high-minded Easterners, mainly from the New York Times, to run its flagship Western paper.

So, when Resnick’s call came, the editor of the Los Angeles Times, his deputy, the features editor, his deputy and the food editor were all recent appointees, and to this writer’s eye, most were stunningly ignorant of  Western issues. In this instance, they either didn’t know or care what they had in David Karp, or what fruit meant to California. Without one of them so much as asking Karp if the Resnick accusation was true, Karp was sacked.

As it turned out, it was untrue. All Karp had told Resnick was the projected publication date, a common practice.

I know this because as a then-staff writer for the Times, I was based in the food section and had a front row seat. One by one we were called in and told that Karp was gone. “It is out of my hands,” said the food editor. She then promptly gave Karp’s slot to her former deputy from the New York Times, whose tenure as a freelance columnist with the Los Angeles Times for the next several years was most remarkable for the writer’s refusal to even once visit Los Angeles.

I registered my protests over the Karp sacking, as did other writers and readers, the latter of whom I’m told even delivered a petition with more than 300 signatures. One of the things I regret most sharply in a long career in newspapers is not having quit on the spot.

It was out of my hands, I told myself.

Irony of ironies, the New York Times then snapped up David Karp and a version of his pomegranate opus ran in that paper in October, 2002. The upshot: New York got an expert in California fruit, Los Angeles got a New York food writer who wouldn’t set foot in Southern California, Lynda Resnick got her publicity for Pom Wonderful and the Los Angeles Times readership kept steadily slipping.

The supposedly high-minded New Yorkers installed by the Tribune then proceeded to make a series of decisions so disastrous that, as readership steadily plummeted, they were either sacked or flounced back east, to the person blaming evil influences in Chicago for the paper’s ills.

As the Tribune Company itself fell into the hands of Sam Zell, for the last two years, a kind of old, pre-Tribune order resumed at the Los Angeles Times. The carpetbaggers from the New York Times were gone and, in 2008, David Karp was rehired and now again has a regular column on the fruit of California. It is a testament to his caliber and honesty that he is now welcome at both papers, left and right coast.

What does this have to do with Dianne Feinstein using her clout as Senate chair of the Appropriations Committee overseeing Interior agencies to force a review of fish protections, and therefore the integrity of the Endangered Species Act?

It is relevant because once again the Resnicks are using influence to bend the rules to their purposes. This time, instead of bullying a newspaper using a flagrant fabrication about a journalist, they are bullying a politician to have the opinions of scientists overturned for the betterment of their Central Valley ag and water banking interests.

Until the Resnicks got to Feinstein, Interior had stood firm behind the opinions of its scientists from Fish and Wildlife and Commerce calling for the fish protections. But Interior secretaries appointed by US presidents have little power compared to the appropriations committees that fund their agencies. So Stewart Resnick tapped Feinstein, according to press reports recipient of almost $300,000 direct and indirect donations from him. Feinstein in turn swiftly humiliated Obama’s Interior secretary by securing funds from her committee for the National Academy of Sciences to review the fish protections, in the process casting a pall of doubt over the validity of existing studies without a shred of evidence.

This is not guesswork. Feinstein attached a letter from Resnick to her demand to the Obama administration for the review. Stewart Resnick recently denied influence peddling, telling the San Francisco Chronicle, “I’m not saying we could not have done that, but I don’t think that’s the way it happened.”

For her part, the senator denied bowing to donor pressure and insisted that the National Academy was the only body whose opinion many constituents in a troubled farming region would trust.

In other words, it was out of her hands.

It’s not hard to see who will lose as the Resnicks again display their influence. The public loses. Our institutions are besmirched, science is politicized and hanging in the balance is the future of Pacific fisheries.

This is not to say that it will all go as planned. If the Los Angeles Times’s experience with the Resnicks is anything to go by, it tells us that corruption has wild and often unintended consequences.

To those august researchers being assembled by the National Academy of Sciences, as you proceed in reviewing the biological opinions of Commerce and Fish and Wildlife researchers, what is no longer a corrupt act but now a case of creeping rot is at your door. For all of our sakes, stand firm, lest California aquaculture become indistinguishable from a Hogarth cartoon.

Related articles:

For a full rundown of stories, go to Aquafornia, the newsfeed of the Water Education Foundation. Here is a representative selection, including this web site’s coverage of the events.

Senator needs to balance interests” — Sacramento Bee, December 14, 2009

Senator responds to water story” — San Francisco Chronicle, December 9, 2009

Major donor got Feinstein’s help on delta plan” — San Francisco Chronicle, December 6, 2009

“Just get it done” — Chance of Rain, October 1, 2009

Spin the Bottle — Mother Jones, October 2009

Shopping at the science store — Chance of Rain, September 23, 2009

Sen. Feinstein urges outside review of Calif. water restrictions” — New York Times, September 23, 2009

Farm baron gets high-level help Contra Costa Times, September 19, 2009

Gaming the water system — Contra Costa Times, May 25, 2009

The Resnicks: Farming’s power couple — Contra Costa Times, May 23, 2009

Pumping water and cash from the Delta — Contra Costa Times, May 23, 2009


3 Responses to “The Resnick touch”

  1. On the Public Record
    December 18th, 2009 @ 5:37 pm

    This is a fabulous post. This is exactly the sort of story that blogging should bring to light. Thank you for writing it up.

  2. John Bass
    December 19th, 2009 @ 12:23 am

    I agree with OTPR that this is a beautifully written piece.

    A well-researched and written post, but what does it say about democracy and Democrats? Not good things, but lots of entangled things. All of a microcosm.

    On the one hand, San Joaquin
    Valley/Los Angeles absentee investor-farmer-types who are Democratic supporters. Check out their political affiliations.

    On the other, San Joaquin Valley private property, suck out all available groundwater because we can, Hannity’s three-inch-fish-not-worth-saving, man-made-drought Republican types.

    Things are complicated. Being pushed to the positional edge isn’t all that useful, except in the company of friends.

  3. EmilyGreen
    December 19th, 2009 @ 9:52 am

    Thank you both.

    John, You make good points to which I can only respond: Things were complicated at the Los Angeles Times when Lynda Resnick called, too. The only place they were not complicated was on a decision by decision basis, where right from wrong was clear to those of us who still made corrupt choices.

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