Los Angeles Times’ Jason Felch Firing: TheWrap Uncovers 8 Awkward Questions

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The investigative reporter’s firing reveals a tangled web of relationships around the controversy

It’s disturbing when a Pulitzer-nominated investigative reporter is summarily fired by a newspaper, but especially so when the reasons for the firing fail to add up.

In a swift move that has shaken the L.A. Times newsroom, reporter Jason Felch was fired a week ago after Occidental College officials chose to challenge a front-page story he had written three months previously about sexual assaults that the college allegedly failed to report.

Also read: Los Angeles Times Fires Reporter After Errors, ‘Inappropriate Relationship’ With Source

On Friday, L.A. Times editor Davan Maharaj briefed investigative reporters about the Felch mess in order to figure out lessons learned and “to assuage concerns,” TheWrap has learned.

An initial look into the circumstances of the firing reveals a tangled web of  relationships around the controversy, some of which raise questions about the internal politics of the L.A. Times.

Felch was fired, we were told, because he had an affair with one of the sources on his story. Felch does not deny the affair, but insists that it began after the publication of his Dec. 7 disputed story. He confessed the affair voluntarily, not expecting it to lead to his dismissal.

Also read: Los Angeles Times Rejected Dylan Farrow’s Op-Ed Prior to Publication On Kristof’s NYT Blog (Exclusive)

Meanwhile TheWrap has learned:

  1. Felch’s story should have been edited by projects editor Julie Marquis but she suddenly quit in mid-November without explanation.
  2. Instead, Felch’s story was edited by education editor Beth Shuster. The story was not submitted to Times lawyers. Felch’s stories were as a matter of course meant to be read by a masthead editor, but TheWrap has learned no masthead editor read this story before it was published.
  3. TheWrap has learned that managing editor Marc Duvoisin recused himself from the story because his own son was a senior at Occidental College, and indeed was present at a scene described in the article. DuVoisin’s son was among the athletes recruited to push back against the campus activists advocating for greater accountability over sexual assault. Duvoisin himself is an active member of Occidental’s community. That normally would have left Davan Maharaj himself to read the final draft, it is unclear why Maharaj did not do so.
  4. Felch’s erroneous report was based on statements in a confidential federal complaint, which the paper has but has not shared with Occidental. When Occidental challenged the article in March, Felch claimed he was never given the opportunity to hear those challenges, and says he still has not been made privy to the specifics of his error(s).
  5. The newspaper contends that Felch knew Occidental’s specific objections. According to an individual with knowledge of the matter, Felch conflated the calendar year with the academic year. “He knew what they were contesting in the story. And he was given the opportunity to defend it,” the individual said.
  6. Occidental College hired crisis PR expert and ex-LA Times investigative reporter Glenn Bunting to handle the matter. Bunting, based in San Francisco, gave it to his Los Angeles chief Ralph Frammolino. Frammolino, oddly,  is Jason Felch’s former reporting partner, having worked jointly for years on the Getty Museum’s unprovenanced antiquities, for which they were nominated for the Pulitzer, and wrote “Chasing Aphrodite” together. The two fell out over the book and are no longer friends. Occidental said Frammolino was not involved in handling the PR crisis. Felch says this is a lie and that he refused to deal with Frammolino.
  7. After Bunting used a slideshow presentation to demonstrate that the 27 unreported sexual assaults did not fall under the law’s disclosure requirements, Felch was questioned by Davan Maharaj and an L.A. Times lawyer about the source for the federal complaint, which had been sent to the Department of Education, and how he arrived at the number 27. Felch had disclosed his affair to Shuster previously, and wrote a memo about his process.
  8. LA Times masthead editors realized after hours of discussion that the story was completely wrong and should not have been written. They took the extraordinary measure of retracting it, according to the individual with inside knowledge of the matter.

He was fired shortly thereafter.

The L.A. Times declined to comment and directed TheWrap to their editor’s note. Felch provided this reporter with his previous statement, but declined to comment further.

What does this all amount to? Overly close journalist-source-PR relationships over a story that actually matters – the question of unreported sexual assault on a leading California campus. Should Felch have paid the price of his job? Why isn’t an editor being held accountable for it? What about Maharaj and his review of the article? There’s more here than meets the eye and not enough to satisfy this journalist’s curiosity about a curious unfolding of events between two powerful institutions.

For the record: A previous version of this story misstated when Felch disclosed his affair. It was before Bunting met with editor Davan Maharaj. TheWrap regrets the error.