How the OC Register’s Top Editor Bowed to Pressure From a Prominent Politician

OC Supervisor Todd Spitzer (left) and OC Register Editor-in-Chief Rob Curley. (Photo credit Nick Gerda/Voice of OC and unknown)

On Good Friday last year, Todd Spitzer, then chairman of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, carried a loaded gun into a Wahoo’s Fish Tacos and made a citizen’s arrest — slapping handcuffs on a young man who wouldn’t stop preaching to him about God.

It was a classic “only in Orange County” story. Not only are citizens’ arrests extremely rare, it’s unheard of that one would be made by a prominent politician in one of the state’s largest counties — a man who will very likely run for district attorney in 2018.

CBS’s Los Angeles affiliate broke the news in September by posting recordings of the 911 calls Spitzer had made during the incident. In no time media outlets throughout Southern California were all over the story, including The Orange County Register.

The first version of the Register article, written by Meghann Cuniff and posted on Sept. 3, was nearly identical to accounts published in other outlets. But Spitzer took issue with the article and immediately began to lobby Editor-in-Chief Rob Curley to make changes to it.

Nearly two months later, Curley succumbed to Spitzer’s pressure and made an addition to the article that cast Spitzer’s actions in an entirely different light. The addition, which was not accompanied by an editor’s note or any other indication that a change had been made, outraged Cuniff and has been characterized as an act of journalistic malpractice by media ethicists.

The original summary of events, as reported by the Register and several other outlets, went like this:

Spitzer was having lunch at the Wahoo’s in Foothill Ranch when the man, 32-year-old Jeovany Castellano, came up to his table and began preaching. Spitzer told him he wasn’t interested and to go away — but the man kept on preaching. With the situation intensifying, a restaurant employee intervened and asked Castellano to sit at another table.

Castellano did as he was told; but, Spitzer claims, continued to stare at him and at a dinner knife on the table.

Having had enough, Spitzer left the restaurant and called 911 from the parking lot and demanded that police respond to the situation. He then went to his car and retrieved his handcuffs and a fanny pack that contained a handgun. He went back into the restaurant, approached Castellano and cuffed him.

A Swift Backlash

The reader reaction was not kind to Spitzer. Many of the commenters to Cuniff’s story expressed dismay at what they considered the actions of an unhinged individual.

“Mr. Spitzer, it is not ok for you to legally handcuff someone who is irritating to you,” wrote commenter Clint Worthington. Another commenter wrote: “From this article, I can’t say which one of these guys is scarier!”

Spitzer was incensed with the reader backlash and focused his ire on Cuniff, who, since taking over the county beat nearly a year earlier, had taken an investigative approach to Spitzer’s actions as supervisor.

He emailed Curley demanding corrections. After weeks had gone by, Curley finally agreed to a meeting with Spitzer. And following that meeting, nearly two months after the story had been first published, a new paragraph appeared in the article.

The change centered on Spitzer’s actions when he came back into the restaurant after getting his gun and handcuffs. Here is the key passage from the original version:

Spitzer called 911, identifying himself as a county supervisor. He told the dispatcher that he was eating lunch when “a stranger comes up to me and wouldn’t get out of my face and I asked him to leave me alone.”

“He’s like, harassing me. He needs to be talked to … I’m concerned for my safety,” Spitzer said, according to a recording of the 911 call.

With deputies en route, Spitzer went to his car and retrieved his gun and handcuffs. Then, Spitzer said, Castellano gave him permission to put on the handcuffs. Spitzer also searched the man.

Here’s how that passage reads in the updated version of the article, which first appeared on Oct. 29:

Spitzer called 911, identifying himself as a county supervisor. He told the dispatcher that he was eating lunch when “a stranger comes up to me and wouldn’t get out of my face and I asked him to leave me alone.”

“He’s like, harassing me. He needs to be talked to … I’m concerned for my safety,” Spitzer said, according to a recording of the 911 call.

With deputies en route, Spitzer went to his car and retrieved his gun and handcuffs.

“After I returned … Castellano got up and assertively came again toward me,” Spitzer said. “He had been seated in the booth with the manager telling him to leave the premises. It was only then that I asked him to stop and sought his permission to search him because he was scaring patrons who were leaving and I became very concerned for our safety.”

In the first version of the story, there is no mention of Castellano coming toward Spitzer when he returned to the restaurant with his gun and handcuffs. And Spitzer is only concerned with “my safety.” In the new version, Castellano “assertively came again toward” Spitzer, and was “scaring patrons who were leaving and I became very concerned for our safety.”

With that change in the story, Spitzer goes from someone who could be seen as overreacting to a harmless proselytizer, to someone who was protecting himself and others in the restaurant from an aggressive individual.

But the records don’t support this characterization.

In lobbying for the change to the published article, Spitzer claimed in an email to Cuniff that statements by him and Castellano to police, as well as his comments to Cuniff, back his claim that Castellano assertively came at him prior to the handcuffing. However, Voice of OC reviewed statements in police reports, dashboard camera video and Cuniff’s audio recorded interview with Spitzer, and found nothing that corroborates Spitzer’s new account.

‘Unethical Overreach’

Journalism is often referred to as the “first draft of history,” and in the online era, corrections, clarifications, and other updates to articles that have already been published are commonplace. But it is considered a cardinal rule that those changes — if they in any way cast the article in a new light — must be accompanied by a note to readers explaining how and why they were made.

Media ethicists interviewed by Voice of OC say Curley violated that rule.

“This is clearly an unethical overreach by the editors. They inserted a quote that casts a more benign light on this incident, or on Mr. Spitzer’s activities based solely on his word, with no further reporting, with no corroboration by any witnesses,” said Marc Cooper, a recently retired professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism.

“It certainly suggests from the outside an unhealthy relationship between this local official and whoever the editor was who made the decision to alter the story.”

Curley declined to speak on the record about the issue and told a reporter he would be sending a statement. The statement never came. Spitzer also did not return repeated calls for comment.

Cuniff, who has since been laid off by the newspaper, was reluctant to comment but ultimately did because, she said, Curley’s change was “so unusual.” She said she strenuously objected to including the quote.

Cuniff said she met with Curley and other editors after Curley’s meeting with Spitzer. She said she was told Spitzer had concerns that certain details from his account were left out, and that she needed to turn over a transcript of her interview with Spitzer to determine whether a correction or clarification was necessary.

The reporter did as she was told and figured that, if a clarification was needed, it would be handled appropriately. She was shocked when she saw the new version of the story.

While Cuniff told Voice of OC she understands that “you can’t win every single” newsroom battle, she also says she “emphasized that this was totally wrong, this was totally inaccurate and I questioned why we would be letting somebody retroactively edit the story like that and add stuff that’s just not true.”

Cuniff provided Voice of OC with an email exchange between her and her editors that indicates it was Curley who decided to make the change. It also shows that Cuniff emailed Curley and other editors with her objection to the addition. After receiving no reply, she emailed another plea, this time only to Register editor Dan Beucke.

Beucke wasn’t Cuniff’s editor on the Wahoo’s piece, but he was involved because he was her editor on a story she was working on at the time regarding a Spitzer campaign fund. Spitzer’s complaints were holding up Cuniff’s ability to report on that story. She was told she couldn’t speak to Spitzer about the fund until his complaints were resolved, she said.

“I really just want to move on from this, but I also don’t think we should let Spitzer insert errors into the story six weeks after it publishes,” Cuniff wrote in an Oct. 30 email to Beucke.

Beucke responds: “I asked, was told Rob [Curley] wanted to add ‘his full response.’ … Moving on.”

Beucke, who now works for the Los Angeles Times, declined to comment.

Records Conflict With Spitzer Account

Cuniff also provided Voice of OC with the audio of her interview with Spitzer. During his retelling of the story, Spitzer details blow-by-blow what happened, and even highlights what he claims were inaccuracies in the police report by Deputy Danielle Stow, including the fact that Castellano was looking at a dinner knife and not a butter knife as reported by Stow.

But when it comes to that crucial moment just before Spitzer handcuffs Castellano, Spitzer only tells Cuniff that Castellano was “standing there.”

And when speaking to the deputy immediately after the incident, he had an even foggier recollection. Here are Spitzer’s comments as recorded by the dashboard camera in Stow’s patrol car:

“So then, something happened. I can’t remember what,” Spitzer said. “I don’t know if there was a second time, I was like this is bullshit because I went and got my cuffs. I was just like I don’t know what he’s got, so I decided to hook him up.”

Another witness account also makes no mention of Castellano coming at Spitzer. Wahoo’s corporate trainer Sergie Osorio, who was on the scene, told Stow that Spitzer decided to handcuff Castellano because Castellano kept looking at him.

It’s Castellano’s stares that unnerve Spitzer the most, according to his own interviews with Cuniff and Stow. He told Cuniff the incident began when he had a “weird sensation” and realized Castellano was looking at him.

Regarding Castellano, Osorio said: “[He] was very solid, very calm, and at no point did I saw (sic) him being threatening or anything.”

Ken Doctor, a journalism expert who writes about new media, said the Register should have handled Spitzer’s complaints by writing a new story. That would have allowed the Register to vet Spitzer’s new account with reporting from other records and include the scrutiny in a new article.

Doctor also said the timing of the addition – almost two months after publication – was “very unusual” and raised other troubling questions.

“Six weeks doesn’t seem like news, it seems like it raises the question of pressure by a prominent official,” Doctor said.

Cooper pointed out that it would have been difficult for the Register to explain why it made the addition because there was no vetting of the quote done to justify whether it was a necessary update.

“You and I both know even at a fourth-rate news organization, the editor would take five or ten minutes out of his life to try and corroborate the statement with another source,” Cooper said.

Editor David Washburn contributed to this report.

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Jeovany Castellano. Also, after publication of this article, media expert Marc Cooper informed Voice of OC that he recently retired from USC’s Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism.  

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: @adamelmahrek