To forget, whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again, and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself — that was the ultimate subtlety; consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed.
–George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four
When she was a reporter at the Orange County Register, Jennifer Muir was an advocate of aggressive reporting and the public’s right to know. In stories that appeared in the Reggie’s “Watchdog” section, Muir ranged across Santa Ana, kicking ass and publishing the names of well-paid county employees and their compensation.1
But today Muir is highly paid herself. And as spokesperson for the Orange County Employees Association, the organization that represents some 200 Costa Mesa city workers, she has a different perspective: the public should mind its own damn business.
Responding to the release yesterday of the City of Costa Mesa’s “Public Employee Compensation Report,” Muir was apoplectic. “This gives the public a completely incorrect picture regarding compensation,” she told the Daily Pilot. “Arguably, releasing employees’ names along with their salaries only remotely serves any public benefit at all. Its most obvious effect is to further a political agenda that demonizes the city workforce and once again needlessly undermines the already fragile morale of employees who have now become accustomed to undeserved attacks by city-elected officials and executives, who should be their advocates.”
But this is Jennifer Muir version 2.0.
The older one—Jennifer Muir v. 1.0, the reporter who worked for the Reg until earlier this year—would kick 2.0 square in the babymaker. A little more than a year ago, in April 2010, Muir 1.0 published the names of the 25 county employees taking the largest cash payout of unused sick time.
About the same time, in “Questionable pension practices identified at county,” Muir 1.0 ID’d two county employees whose pay was increased just before retirement in order to jack up the salaries by which their pensions would be calculated.
In “County backtracks, releases deputy deal numbers,” Muir 1.0 was at it again, citing a Reg investigation that named the names of highly paid sheriff’s deputies.
We could go on. But you get the picture: Muir 2.0 will say whatever she must in her union’s war to preserve unsustainable salaries and benefits.
Typically that means she’ll suggest that Costa Mesa’s city council majority is an insane killin’ machine powered by a high-octane blend of testosterone and Republican ideology. That was certainly her claim after the March 17 suicide of city maintenance worker Huy Pham. For months Muir’s union and its allies in the media treated Pham like the protagonist in Weekend at Bernie’s. In their oft-told tale, Pham was pink-slipped by a city council hell-bent on busting the union by privatizing some city services, sank immediately into despair, climbed to the top of City Hall and jumped to his death. Fostered by the union and its allies, a myth grew up around the dead man: the impromptu candlelit vigils that followed his death coalesced organically into a movement to derail the men running the slaughterhouse inside City Hall.
For two months, Muir 2.0 and her allies repeated that theme: outsourcing kills people. And then, in late May, the Daily Pilot reported that the county coroner had found cocaine in the 29-year-old maintenance worker’s body. Suddenly, the causes of his death were, like so much in the real world, multivalent, multi-causal, multitudinous.
In June, when the city announced that it would investigate Pham’s death, the woman who did so much to turn private anguish into public spectacle urged the city to move along as if nothing happened. There was Pham’s family to consider, she said: “They just want Huy to rest in peace and hope that everyone respects that.”
But the investigation continued. And when Jon Cassidy, Muir’s former colleague at the Reg, published the details on August 5, Muir just completely misplaced her feces.
“This is an obvious attempt to once again discredit a young man who was a good son, a good brother, a good co-worker, and a conscientious worker for the citizens of Costa Mesa,” she told Cassidy.
Then, in a splendid bit of journalism, Cassidy revealed that Muir called “[a]fter this story was first published . . . to insist that the following be included with the above quotation: ‘Whoever leaked this information is in violation of the law. We are requesting an immediate investigation by the City Manager.’
“Muir could not name a law she thought was being violated,” Cassidy added. “Privacy laws do not apply to the dead. Pham’s personnel file is now public record under California law.”
Having worked at the Reg, Muir knows that, of course. Geoff West, the blogger behind “A Bubbling Cauldron,” has no such experience, and so his absolutely weird/broken reading of the city’s compensation report can be chalked up to a simple breakdown in logic.
“I guess I’m OK with the City providing this information,” West wrote August 9. “[B]ut as an old Human Resources professional, it bothers me that the confidentiality of employee compensation has been so dramatically violated.” Only in the Bubbling Cauldron can someone be OK with dramatic violations.
1. This wasn’t just a matter of Muir’s idiosyncratic interest in other peoples’ incomes, or some rainmanish obsession with numbers, but of well-established American law and culture. In the storm-tossed 1970s, following such debacles as Watergate and the Vietnam war, politicians responded to public pressure for greater government transparency. Building on the First Amendment, the federal government (in the Freedom of Information Act) and states (in California, the California Public Records Act) provided for almost unlimited access to public documents, including public employee compensation.