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Small paper in Beverly Hills has big voice

Critics say Courier unfairly wields influence in Beverly Hills. Owner says he's a voice for the people.

August 06, 2013|By James Rainey and Martha Groves
  • "We are the Beverly Hills Courier,” says publisher Clif Smith. “We are not the Beverly Hills Inquisition.”
"We are the Beverly Hills Courier,” says publisher Clif Smith.… (Kirk McKoy, Los Angeles…)

The Montage Beverly Hills' Parq Bar — in the city's Golden Triangle business district — offers a luxe refuge. Friends meet for $50 tea service, and deals get done over bottles of Veuve Clicquot.

But two prominent civic figures recall a far-from-soothing encounter at the Parq a few years ago, when they met with Clif Smith, publisher of the town's oldest newspaper, the Beverly Hills Courier. Smith had scarcely settled in before he demanded that the head of the Chamber of Commerce be fired and then suggested that the city manager should go as well.

If he didn't get his way, he said, he would use his small but influential newspaper to make sure that then-Councilwoman Linda Briskman lost her reelection bid, according to Briskman and former Councilman Mark Egerman, who were there.

Briskman and Egerman said they told Smith they had neither the power nor the inclination to meet his demands. Within weeks, a full-page Courier story tagged the duo as part of the city's "ultimate insiders' club," which favored city bureaucrats and big developers over "the people." Briskman lost her council seat, falling 119 votes shy of a third term.

"Influencing public policy by threats is not the role of a local newspaper publisher," said Briskman, who blames the Courier's campaign for creating "enough questions in the minds of those who were less informed that there might be reason to doubt my integrity."

In a recent interview, Smith acknowledged calling for the ouster of chamber chief Dan Walsh and added that he could not recall but "might have said [City Manager Roderick Wood] probably should go."

"If we spot a problem, we try to bring it to the responsible people quietly and give them a chance to address it," Smith said. "We are not here to throw rocks at our community. We are here to support our own community."

Beverly Hills might be best known for pampered TV housewives and refined shopping on Rodeo Drive. But it's also the home of bare-knuckle politics and a publisher who tries to influence events, both from behind the scenes and in the news pages of his newspaper.

Smith delivers his opinions on civic matters in the heavily Democratic city through tart editorials that lean libertarian.

He rails against plans to tunnel beneath the Beverly Hills High School campus for the Westside subway. He bristles at "out of town" publications, such as the Los Angeles Times, that sponsor community events he sees as the province of his paper.

Smith, 61, is not a Beverly Hills resident. He lives in Pasadena. But he practices law in Beverly Hills and said that, because he has a deep affection for the city, he has strong opinions.

When then-Mayor Willie Brien had his photo on the cover of the rival Beverly Hills Weekly last summer, an item in the Courier suggested it was a favor because the council had directed an extra $20,000 in city advertising to that paper. Josh Gross, the Weekly's publisher, said that his paper got far less than the Courier contended and that Brien was on the front page because he attended the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Orlando, Fla. "We always put them on the cover when they go," he said.

One appearance Brien made on the cover of the Courier last year was less than flattering. He and then-Councilman Barry Brucker had their photos run alongside that of a former school superintendent who had been convicted of misappropriating funds. The two officials said the layout attempted to taint them by association, when their only connection to the superintendent was voting to hire him roughly a decade earlier.

Critics assert that Smith and the Courier have stifled debate and discouraged promising community activists from seeking office.

"It pains me to see what has been going on in that city, where people who have been friends for years are now on opposite sides," said Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. "The city is divided."

In the run-up to the March election, the Courier aggressively took on Brien, a popular councilman who is a top executive at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, a onetime youth sports coach, a former school board member and grandson of former U.S. Chief Justice Earl Warren.

One front-page Courier story alleged that Brien "worked against the interests of the city and its school district" by not strongly opposing the proposed subway tunneling under high school property. After Brien appeared at a subway groundbreaking ceremony with then-Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the Courier headlined: "Mayor Brien Turns on Beverly Hills, Praises Metro Tunnel Project."

At a Beverly Hills Rotary Club meeting, Yaroslavsky, a proponent of both the subway and Brien, accused the newspaper of "yellow journalism." As Smith watched, Yaroslavsky, who has represented Beverly Hills for nearly two decades, drew a rousing ovation.

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