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On the Media: A scrappy newsman is shown the door

John Schwada is not just another pretty face on TV news, which may be why Fox 11 let the dogged journalist go.

August 13, 2011|James Rainey
  • Family and friends snap photos of John Schwada, left, and radio newsman Pete Demetriou after the Los Angeles City Council passed a proclamation making Friday, Aug. 12, 2011, John Schwada Day.
Family and friends snap photos of John Schwada, left, and radio newsman… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

Back in the early 1990s, when I crammed into The Times' tiny City Hall bureau each day, John Schwada sat a desk away. My colleague had a well-deserved reputation for delivering ribald one-liners, quoting Shakespeare, dressing with a panache above his ink-mottled station and, especially, for busting the chops of politicians who busted the rules.

Schwada reveled in the journalist's dual identity. His long tenure made him a virtual insider, but he had no hesitation to nail real insiders who went astray. The regulars at Los Angeles City Hall seemed to mount a perpetual garden party. Schwada liked to bring the skunk, as politicians like Mayor Tom Bradley and Councilman Richard Alatorre could attest.

Schwada moved to Fox 11 in 1996. Even in the glossy, twiddle-twaddle world of local TV news, he sustained a measure of no-nonsense truth-telling — up to and including his reports on Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's recent free-ticket indulgences — which is why it's been so dispiriting to see Fox management show the veteran reporter the door.

Fox 11 General Manager Kevin Hale told Schwada last month his contract would not be renewed. Hale declined to comment. But a source familiar with management's position said it wanted someone more "versatile," capable of anchoring and adept at the innumerable "live shots" that fill the news, particularly with the addition of a 5 p.m. show.

I'm afraid what that really means is that it's cheaper and easier to put another pretty and compliant youngster in front of the camera. Cutbacks have been a leitmotif in local newsrooms for years. The first to go are often the deeply sourced, locally schooled veterans. So what if it takes the newbies a few months, or years, to understand the difference between San Bernardino and San Fernando?

My old City Hall comrade has already been talking to other stations in town and, hopefully, will land at one of them in short order. In the meantime, incongruously, the rapscallion who spent much of the last three decades flicking jabs at city leaders has been wrapped in their warm embrace.

The Los Angeles City Council gave him a proclamation Friday, declaring it "John Schwada Day." Schwada told me he had hoped to be carried about on a golden divan, trumpets heralding, palm fronds fanning. Not quite. But Councilman Bill Rosendahl and others said a lot of nice things. "I hope you continue to haunt us for many years to come," Councilwoman Jan Perry said.

The sixtysomething Schwada has had way more than his share of big scoops over the years, beginning in his days at the old Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. He showed how Councilman Robert Farrell funneled more than $350,000 in city contracts, campaign funds and perks to a program run by his ex-wife. He exposed improper campaign spending by the Eastside's powerful Alatorre, leading to one of the biggest fines in California election history. His most famous scoop might have come in 1989, when he caught Bradley, the five-term mayor, in a serious ethical lapse, pushing the city to deposit money in a bank that employed him as a consultant.

You couldn't detect Schwada's political persuasion from his stories. "You have to report it, but it doesn't mean you have to hate them," he told me. "I think they could understand there was no animus behind it…. I saw Alatorre the other day. He's like 'Hey, John.'"

Schwada (and that's how he answered his phone: last name only, delivered tersely) brought the same scrappiness to the workplace. He could be irascible and competitive with co-workers. When he thought union reps were selling out on a contract, he and a colleague heaved a bag full of bloody cow bones at the alleged stooges. The indelible message — "Don't throw us a bone."

A couple of years ago, when Fox 11 laid off nearly 100 people, Schwada protested that some of the best and brightest got the boot, while the slothful (a few, he said, with "boozy breath") remained on the payroll. He decried the "reckless, stupid decisions that not only diminish the integrity of journalism but also its bottom line." And he wrote all of this on his blog — on the station's own website.

Back in the day, The Times had to chase some of Schwada's City Hall scoops. But when the underdog paper folded in late 1989, The Times quickly scooped up its sometime tormentor. John covered the city for the San Fernando Valley edition and helped establish a column about civic affairs.

One day the somewhat notorious former Councilman Art Snyder — finally out of City Hall after a couple of failed recall attempts, a drunk driving arrest (but no conviction) and troubles with campaign laws — dropped by to see John. They huddled in the corner, speaking in hushed tones. You could almost feel news passing through the normally stagnant air.

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