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Extreme reactions to 'Prison Glass'

December 16, 2008 |  1:15 pm

Pamela_griffin "Masterful piece of research and writing, " wrote Leah Sullivan of Pasadena.

"What in the world are you people doing?" asked Jim Schupp of Los Feliz.

Readers reacted in the extreme to the "Through Prison Glass" series, a highly detailed examination of a hardened criminal, his crimes and his decades-long relationship with an intelligent, accomplished woman. Readers who followed the three-part series wondered what would happen to the couple and why she stayed in love with him. Readers who didn't follow the story had their own questions: Is The Times a place for storytelling? Was this a story worth telling, and did it belong on Page A1?

In all, more than 200 readers praised the storytelling; some 100 others complained about The Times' publishing what many called a "human-interest" story on the front page (on Nov. 30, Dec. 2 and Dec. 4). Both sets of readers had one thing in common: Many called themselves longtime readers and subscribers.

Three editors -- two who oversee choices for the front page, and one who edited the series -- responded to the readers' concerns.

"Well-written character studies of unusual people have been part of the fabric of the L.A. Times for 40 years. We realize that not all of them will appeal to all readers, but this one did strike a chord with many," said Craig Turner, weekend editor. And from Executive Editor John Arthur: “We present these stories as significant parts of the front page because they are beautifully written and tend to involve readers."

More from readers, editors and the reporter follows.

Schupp's e-mail summarized many of the criticisms: "I accept as necessary your downsizing moves. But when you minimize and summarize real news into thumbnail sketches, e.g., California Briefing, World Briefing, and at the same time, devote precious page after precious page to the antics of a female lawyer and her justifiably incarcerated spouse, there's something very wrong with your judgment. Please, use what's left of the L.A. Times to give us the news we need to know. Leave the lawyer's troubles to the Enquirer."

Reader Sullivan was among those who commented favorably: "When I saw the first installment of your article on the front page, I was angry. I felt it belonged more appropriately on the front page of the California section. But your story cracked open a new portal into life for me, and it is so earnestly and beautifully crafted that I am wholly and unequivocally grateful for the privilege of having access to it."

Arthur acknowledged that "some readers would find neither character in the series particularly sympathetic and would consider the story overplayed." However, to those who say they think only "important news," or hard news, belongs on A1, Arthur points out it's not either/or: "No important news was knocked off the front page or reduced to a brief to accommodate it. We added space to the paper for the series."

Deputy Managing Editor Marc Duvoisin edited the series, which he saw as a "very unusual and utterly absorbing slice-of-life" story. In his response to readers, Duvoisin said: "The newspaper is a buffet, a smorgasbord, a browsing experience," and editors don't expect every reader to read every story and section of The Times. In this case, says Duvoisin, "a great many respondents expressed the sentiment that they crave this kind of deep engagement with original journalism."

(Staffers, too, being human, were split. Even while some on staff said they weren't reading the story, others followed the series eagerly: Duvoisin was chastised by others on staff when he gave away the ending in a news meeting days before the final installment was to be published.)

For every reader who complained, there were two who sounded like Rebecca Segal of Studio City, who called the series "amazing" and Mozingo a gifted writer. Segal also wrote: "I could hardly breathe as I got to the end of the three-part article about Pamela Griffin's steadfast love for such a seeming monster. I hope the L.A. Times will have you write more historical/human interest stories like these."

The unlikely pairing of lawyer and prisoner came to the reporter's attention when Mozingo attended the Aryan Brotherhood racketeering trial that started two years ago. ["Jury gets Aryan Brotherhood case"; "Prison gang trial reveals a treacherous world"; "2 men guilty of role in five deaths."] As Mozingo covered Robert Griffin's RICO case in Los Angeles, he realized that the prisoner charged with being part of a murderous gang was married to a banking attorney from Omaha.

Mozingo says he was naturally drawn to hear how the two of them ever got together, and he wanted to interview Pamela Griffin. As the story described, though, Griffin was was intensely involved in the case, having taken a six-week leave from her job as a senior counsel for a company that processes credit card transactions, and didn't want to talk. Later, when she was ready to talk to the reporter, it was initially only on the subject of prison informants. It took Mozingo most of a year to persuade her to open up on her personal life.

The notes appended to the story describe the months the reporter spent to shore up and verify all the details, looking through court cases around the state, visiting San Quentin, Folsom and Pelican Bay prisons, interviewing federal prosecutors and agents, corrections officials, sheriff's detectives and former Aryan Brotherhood associates.

Ultimately, says Mozingo, "I thought it was fascinating tale that would prompt readers to think about the nature of love and human bonds, while raising some significant legal issues and introducing them to a world many probably never imagined."

From the readers:

On the one hand....

Patrick Meighan of Culver City, in an e-mail: "I just got done reading the third part of your series on Robert and Pamela Griffin.  I feel compelled to let you know that I really enjoyed the story.  You gave us a very engaging and human look at a very extraordinary situation. Just a really great read.  I've got no idea what kind of reader response you're gonna get on this series (and I'm pretty curious about that, actually), but I, myself, just wanted to thank you for the interesting story, well told."

From Maureen O'Mara of Nuevo, in an e-mail: "Congratulations, you have really shown that fact is more riveting than fiction. A gripping story, rather like the old serial stories one had to wait for, week to week. Terrific writing. Thank you."

Sue Z Smith of Los Angeles, in an e-mail: "I just finished reading the last installment on Robert Griffin and thoroughly enjoyed your excellently written series. I was appalled and transfixed throughout. In particular, your description of the murder of that one convict (with the pencil in the eye) was horrifyingly unforgettable and provided an ever-present chilling subtext to the romantic words exchanged between Griffin and his wife. Richly researched and so well done, from A to Z. Bravo! Great journalism."

Linda Dominic Ashe of Costa Mesa, in an e-mail: "Thank you for such insightful, nonbiased, interesting, heartfelt articles.  It's hard to write about such subjects without sounding judgmental, holier-than-thou, or cliched, but you pulled it off. Really well done."

Christine Goonetilleke from Irvine, in an e-mail: "So it's 6:45 this morning and I'm driving my 16-year-old, brunette, I might add, cheerleader to school in Irvine this morning. She always says, 'Don't talk so much in the morning, I'm tired,'  but I see what I can sneak in before I ruffle her feathers. I tell her about your story about Robert being in prison and Pam the lawyer. She perked right up and asked me about the prisons and what kind of rooms they live in. She asked me about Pam the lawyer and corresponding by letters.  She asked me what an informant was. I couldn't believe she didn't know but I guess this in Orange County, not the streets of New York. So I get my coffee and have a free hour before anyone will bother me at work.  Where is my story?  I have to wait till tomorrow? I don't want to cheat and look it up. Do they get to life happily ever after? I'm in limbo here. If I have to wait I will... Good writing, am enjoying learning about a world I know nothing about.... Thanks, hey anything to get my daughter to actually talk to me is good!"

On the other hand....

From Sid Skolnik of West Hollywood, in an e-mail: "Front-page multi-article series on subjects such as a hardened, convicted felon and  his confused wife are more suited for fans of tabloid TV, the raunchier the better,  than for subscribers to what we are told is the Southland's newspaper of record."

Patrick Randall of Newbury Park, in an e-mail: "Great job in promoting crime on the front page. We can only hope your continued coverage of gangs and criminals on the front page will inspire kids of Los Angeles to murder their way onto the front page."

Richard W. Feldman of Los Angeles, in an e-mail: "Sensationalistic reporting belongs on the back page of a tabloid, not on the front page of the L.A. Times."

Kate Budlong of Manhattan Beach, in a phone call: "I’ve been wading through 'Prison Glass' Sunday and Monday but not today because I cannot really see what a big soap opera has got to do with anything at all. I don’t see what the purpose of this is. We’ve got some crises which are at the bottom of the page, underneath the fold.  A recession, new cabinet members, India in turmoil and other stuff, and we got to read a huge headline:  'A fight to free her soul mate'? You had 24 actual pages in the front section, of those, 13 pages were advertisements. Of the 11 remaining, three full solid pages devoted to this story? Come on guys, get your priorities straight."

Loretta Bonnemere in San Dimas, in a phone call: "I've been a subscriber for 30 years and I resent the direction The Times is taking. The article 'Through the prison glass' really offends me as being a front-page story.  It should be a features story at best, or in the California section. We have too many hard-news stories…it shouldn’t be on the front page."

Photo: Pamela Griffin at home in Omaha reading a letter from her husband, Robert, incarcerated at Pelican Bay. Credit: Annie Wells / Los Angeles Times