the tom girardi problem is also a local news problem
years of Los Angeles media decline has primed the landscape for someone like girardi to go unchecked. a guide to how editors kill stories.
A couple of years ago, I went to court to check on Tom Girardi. This time he wasn’t doing his usual Tom Girardi lawsuits. He was the one being sued. I was working at the Los Angeles Daily Journal (I left last year), which covered the insular Southern California legal world, and Girardi was accused by a litigation finance company of not repaying a $16 million loan.
Our editor sent me to the hearing, and it felt like nothing more than just an errand to spy on Girardi. I already knew our editor didn’t want any stories about Girardi that had the slightest whiff of negativity, so I never pitched them in the first place. I mean, Girardi was a big Daily Journal advertiser. A picture of his face hung in our editor’s office. They were pals. At least one of them thought so.
So already heavily jaded, I headed to the hushed atmosphere of downtown’s Stanley Mosk Courthouse, a militant archipelago where the gist of every interaction is “no.” It’s the largest trial court in the country. A rocket docket of civil cases disposed of in the most clinical, deadpan way. I’ve seen judges ruin entire lives, like it was no big deal, in the tone of Ron Swanson. Upstairs there is a cafeteria, somewhere in between a depressing food court mall from the 80s, and prison.
Girardi was orbiting the halls outside his hearing. He was on his flip phone, slowly dictating some statement like a psycho. I didn’t go up to him. I wanted to hang back. We had already broken up by then, anyway. Sometimes as a reporter you don’t have to disturb a scene and can just let the subject shoot itself in the wild. Girardi entered and I followed behind, ducking into the gallery like it was a church pew. Oh will they crucify big Tom today? I pulled out my notepad…
In short, the company suing Girardi said it was going to attach a lien on his multi-million dollar house. And the judge said both parties should go try and hash it out in arbitration. That was definitely news, and a foreshadowing of what was to come. This was a year and a half before the dam broke on Girardi embezzlement allegations, when a federal judge in Illinois would find that Girardi was stealing money owed to clients, who were family members of people who died in a plane crash.
But it wasn’t good enough to get in the paper, apparently. When I got back to the office, I was told not to write the story, which is funny, because they made me write way less substantial stories about third-rate ambulance chasers who secured minor slip-and-fall settlements. Who cares. I shrugged, whatever. I had a nice little field trip.
Anyway, Girardi eventually paid $10 million of the money owed to the company, and a judge ordered him to pay the remaining $6 million a couple months after that hearing. That story didn’t make it into the Daily Journal either. Actually, a lot didn’t.
If this were, say, 20 years ago, when the media landscape was much more robust, and newspapers had more staff and time to do investigative stories, maybe we would have seen more critical reporting on someone like Girardi. And maybe we wouldn’t be here today. The decline of media outlets, especially in Los Angeles, has accelerated over the last 10 years. They’ve either been gutted by private equity vultures or shut down completely. But I don’t think that’s the main factor here. Trade publications like the Daily Journal do better financially than general interest newspapers, especially a newspaper like the Daily Journal, where its subscribers are loaded attorneys who pay an annual $870 subscription. It’s one of the largest legal publications in the country.
A big problem is the Daily Journal’s editor was lulled by power. He just didn’t want to get a nasty phone call from Girardi. Girardi held a deep influence not just over the state bar, judges and other members of the legal elite, but also over the Daily Journal. The firewall between Girardi the subject, source, and advertiser became a blur. Most newspaper editors would have started loading the chamber if they caught wind that the biggest lawyer it ever covered was in trouble. But the Daily Journal watched the biggest story of its existence get scooped by reality t.v. blogs. It desperately thought of itself as part of that legal ruling class, and didn’t want to disturb it.
That’s part of the reason why the Girardi embezzlement saga didn’t really blow up until the very end or even got out of control in the first place. Organizations like the Daily Journal that knew the most about him didn’t report on him critically or in any in-depth way, ever. And sure, I’m guilty of maybe not pushing harder on the Girardi thing. But I came into an atmosphere where it was known that it wasn’t worth bothering even pitching a story critical of him. Over the past 10 years, the Daily Journal only ran a handful of stories about him getting sued by clients or other attorneys, despite him being sued over 100 times over the course of his career. And the stories it did run were about favorable rulings for Girardi.
Other legal publications were a bit more critical, to be fair. The Los Angeles Times was MIA for years, despite having seasoned legal reporters on staff, and didn’t pull the trigger until Girardi was already half a corpse. It makes sense that it took Matt Hamilton, a former Daily Journal reporter, to start writing about Girardi. The Daily Journal didn’t start covering the Girardi problem until weeks later when it was already a convenient media pile on. The paper has a podcast by Howard Miller, who was a big part of Girardi world, but his little weekly book report hasn’t said anything about what’s happened. Meanwhile, it interviewed ipad dad Paul Kiesel about court technology, a guy who is currently part of a wide ranging corruption probe. To be fair, reporters at the DJ have done some good stuff on Girardi recently. But the paper had the front row seat for 40 years and didn’t grab the mic.
What’s left at legal publications like the Daily Journal is a skeleton staff of overworked reporters who churn out a slew of tiny personal injury verdicts from attorneys with helicoptering public relations firms, or another article about why Ted Boutrous is fucking awesome. The paper’s editors cared more about the mirage of gender fluid illegals invading California’s borders than holding accountable attorneys who fleeced organization after organization into giving them awards. They were bent on writing copy defending big law and imperialist district attorneys who needed no help whatsoever. They looked in their backyard and were spooked by a world they didn’t recognize anymore. A world that never even existed.
A media organization’s obligation is to the public, not one oligarch attorney who takes the editor out to dinner and feeds him gossip. Girardi used the Daily Journal and then wiped that rag with his ass, and it said thank you. He’ll be gone soon, and whether he actually has dementia or not, a lot of people will be glad he’s dead. But local news, especially in Los Angeles, will always be there in some form. Will it ever be prepared to ring the warning bell on something like this happening again? Right now, it doesn’t look good.
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