The ambiguous LA Times/Occidental rift

It's in many ways a "they said, he said" story with no easy answers

Last month, the Los Angeles Times dismissed Jason Felch, a 2006 Pulitzer Prize finalist for investigative reporting, in the kind of rare, career-killing public takedown that gives any journalist pause. The Times published an editor’s note correcting a December 7 story by Felch about Occidental College’s handling of a number of alleged sexual assault cases. The editor’s note went on to say that Felch had disclosed—though only after questions arose about his reporting—that he had had an “inappropriate relationship” with a source on the story.

It was “a professional lapse of the kind that no news organization can tolerate,” the paper’s editor, Davan Maharaj, said in the statement.

Those following the fallout have tended to side either with Felch or with the school. Some journalists, including Felch, argue that the reporter was fired unfairly. Meanwhile, some supporters of Occidental College, a small, private liberal arts college in Los Angeles, are almost giddy with schadenfreude at Felch’s dismissal.

I’m an alumna of Occidental College and of the Los Angeles Times. When the Felch scandal broke, I wasn’t sure whether to ally with Team Oxy or Team Investigative Reporter. Now that I’ve looked into the story, I understand that it is more nuanced than either side thinks. It’s in many ways a “they said, he said” story with no easy answers. That makes the strong partisan reactions seem self-serving, to say nothing of the spin I got from interested parties in both camps.

To complicate matters, though many of the key players agreed to speak with me, none—including a number of journalists—would do so on the record. This, to me, is inexcusable: Members of the media should practice the same transparency we demand in our sources. And there is a difference between sources who legitimately deserve protection and those who wish to avoid accountability.

I’ve pieced together both sides of the story, including a lot of details not reported in other accounts. Here, in all of its ambiguity, is what went down:

Felch’s December 7 front-page article was undoubtedly damning; it reported that Occidental had failed to disclose numerous alleged sexual assaults that took place in 2012. Under a federal law known as the Clery Act, colleges and universities must disclose information about crimes that take place on and immediately surrounding their campuses. Each fall, these institutions must publish statistics for seven categories of major crimes. One of those categories, forcible sex offenses, includes forcible rape and forcible fondling.

Occidental’s 2012 statistics, published in October 2013, include seven allegations of forcible sex offenses.

Felch, however, seemed to uncover 27 additional sexual assault allegations that the college hadn’t made public. That number astonished even some school officials; sources told me they wondered how they had missed so many.

In January, the college hired a strategic-communications firm, which reviewed the Times’s coverage. In March, the school made a convincing case to the Times that the story had been inaccurate.

Clery reporting can be complicated. The statistics detail the year the incidents were reported, not necessarily the year they happened. It’s also important to note that Clery statistics disclose reports, not necessarily proven cases, of sex offenses.

Of the 27 complaints, sources close to the matter said that 18 did not meet the Clery definition of a sex offense. Some fell under the lesser aegis of harassment; others fell into different crime categories and were reported in those. Six more reported incidents happened outside the physical boundaries of the campus and did not need to be included in the Clery reports. The final three occurred in 2011 and were reported that year.

The paper’s correction left some of my fellow alumni feeling vindicated—especially those who think Felch never tried hard enough to get his facts straight. Felch has said that he sought a comment from the college before the story was printed. But Jim Tranquada, the school’s director of communications, said Felch asked only general questions, and not about the 27 alleged missing reports. “I was never given the opportunity to comment on that specific number,” Tranquada told me. “The first time I saw that number referred to was when the story ran.”

A few on Team Oxy believe that Felch, who wrote or co-wrote several articles about sexual assault at Occidental and other colleges, was out to sabotage Oxy’s reputation. At the very least, other alums believe, Felch was biased. That theory was only strengthened by the revelation of Felch’s affair. (The name of Felch’s former sexual partner has not been made public, although multiple sources identified her to me as a victim’s rights advocate and an employee of the college.)

“Until the Times disclosed that, it had felt like we were seeing an agenda being pushed,” said Christopher Calkins, chairman of Occidental’s board of trustees.

But then there’s Team Felch.

Former colleagues noted that Felch (who was not at the paper when I worked there) could be prickly and aggressive in defending his reporting, and that the paper’s editors didn’t always manage him well. Still, around the newsroom and even among those he not always flatteringly covered, Felch was considered intelligent and talented. I heard, from Tranquada and others, that the college did not ask for Felch to be fired.

“He was one of the best, most diligent, and brave reporters I knew,” said Felch’s former editor, Julie Marquis. (Marquis, who had overseen Felch’s work, left the Times in November, before his December story ran.)

And though the Times’ editor’s letter says otherwise, Felch has said he stopped relying on his source for information when the affair started.

So his conduct seems less about agenda-pushing than about journalistic hubris.

Felch would not speak to me on the record. So it remains a mystery why he didn’t come clean to his editors as soon as the affair began. Doing so might have saved his job.

Sleeping with a source is not explicitly banned in the Los Angeles Timesethics guidelines, though they do call for staff members to inform a supervisor about potential conflicts of interest. Had Felch’s editors known about the relationship when it happened, they could have taken action, perhaps pulling Felch off of the Oxy coverage or removing his source from future stories. “That’s the way you deal with stuff like that,” said David Cay Johnston, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former reporter for The New York Times and the president of Investigative Reporters & Editors, as well as a former LA Times reporter (and CJR contributor).

So am I on Team Oxy, or Team Reporter? At this point, I am on neither.

Because what has been lost in all of this is the story of those seven alleged sexual assaults, the ones that were reported and do fall under the Clery Act. The college says it has not been contacted by the police or district attorney’s office regarding any ongoing investigation or prosecution of those incidents. This does not, however, mean the assaults didn’t take place.

Now, the media-scandal story has overshadowed the fact that sexual assaults are an ongoing problem at my alma mater and on other campuses.

Last month, I learned, Maharaj visited Occidental College, reportedly with publisher and CEO Eddy Hartenstein, to personally apologize to the college’s president, Jonathan Veitch. And while the Times has assigned another veteran reporter, Teresa Watanabe, to cover the college, some activists wonder if the paper will now soft-pedal its reporting.

“We have students being raped and sexually assaulted,” said Caroline Heldman, who chairs Occidental’s politics department and co-founded the Oxy Sexual Assault Coalition. “My biggest concern is that we’re losing sight of the fact.”

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Lauren Lipton is a freelance journalist in New York. Her work appears regularly in the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and many other publications. She is a graduate of Occidental College and was a Los Angeles Times staff writer in the early 1990s.