‘Embarrassment to journalism’: Brian Calle to direct media integrity center

Brian Calle, the former opinion editor at the Orange County Register, is known for holding roles in Southern California media groups including Big Hollywood, Fox 11 and LA Weekly. His appointment as the director of the new Center for Freedom of Expression and Media Integrity was announced in an Aug. 21 email sent by Lisa Sparks, dean of the School of Communication. Courtesy of WikiCommons

Brian Calle, the publisher and CEO of alt-weekly publication LA Weekly, was one of the owners who fired all five of the publication’s editors and all but one staff writer in Nov. 2017.

A faculty member since 2013, Calle has served as the vice president of the Claremont Institute, a think tank aimed to “restore the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority,” and has contributed to Big Hollywood – an entertainment news platform that belongs to Breitbart News.

He has co-hosted a weekly broadcast show on Fox 11, is the co-host of the LA Weekly podcast and is credited as a cast member of the 2014 film “Black Rose,” a product of Russian production company Czar Pictures, aimed to “promote a positive image of Russia and Russian citizens in the eyes of the global viewers.”

Calle, a Chapman presidential fellow and professor in the School of Communication, will serve as the executive director of Chapman’s new Center for Freedom of Expression and Media Integrity this fall. He will be joined by Director of Operations Michael Ross – an entrepreneur and faculty member since 2011 – and will oversee the planning and the execution of forums throughout the semester and a conference in the spring.

“I have a firm belief that civil discourse in society, generally, is waning,” Calle said. “Anything that brings people together to talk and discuss really complex and controversial issues in a civil manner is really important.” Ross will also be the faculty advisor for BridgeUSA, a new student-led organization “where students can engage with one another to better understand the various perspectives behind the current social and political issues,” according to an Aug. 21 email sent by Lisa Sparks, dean of the School of Communication.

Calle will be a “friend and unofficial advisor” to the organization. Based on a Federalist model, BridgeUSA meetings will embrace a “critique the perspective, not the person” approach, according to Ross Irwin, the University of California, Berkeley BridgeUSA chief development officer. About 30 students have expressed interest in BridgeUSA at Chapman, according to Calle and Ross.

BridgeUSA, a student-led organization that aims “to better understand the various perspectives behind the current social and political issues,” has or is in the process of establishing 23 institutions across the United States. Michael Ross, a Chapman faculty member since 2011, will be the faculty advisor for the university. Graphic by Emma Reith, art director

“I’m really excited about the center because there’s a national discussion around expression and Chapman is a natural fit to be a leader in that space,” Calle said. “If we can host discussions and debates on campus in a respectful and balanced way, we’ll do a service and a model for the rest of the country.” Calle, known in part for his role at LA Weekly since 2017, has been in the public eye since before his time as the publication’s CEO.

Calle served as the opinion editor of the Orange County Register from 2009 to 2017, and while occupying the position, was named by OC Weekly one of Orange County’s “scariest people” in 2016, alongside 2020 presidential hopeful Kamala Harris and former Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas. Calle told The Panther he found the label to be “quite funny” and “a badge of honor.”

After leaving the OC Register to become one of LA Weekly’s investors, Calle identified himself as one of the owners as the delayed release of the investors’ names – and the choice to fire the editorial staff – was scrutinized by some Los Angeles-based publications, including The Hollywood Reporter and the Los Angeles Times.

The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), an organization aimed to improve and protect journalism, called the decision to delay the release of LA Weekly’s investors “an absolute outrage.”

“The new owners of LA Weekly – and all news organizations – should be transparent about their identities,” the Nov. 2017 statement from SPJ stated. “SPJ demands it. The public demands it. Democracy demands it.”

The identities were later released, with Los-Angeles based lawyer David Welch named as one of the owners.

“(The president of SPJ) had emailed me too and I said we planned to announce who the owners were,” Calle said. “We announced who the owners were and that was the end of the story.”

Calle told The Panther that he was not surprised by the critical pieces, but pointed to LA Weekly not having “had any significantly critical pieces” written about it over a year.

When asked what motivated the layoffs, Calle pointed to the investors’ want to mantain “sustainable economic footing,” and mentioned the closings of alt-weeklies across the country, including the once-prominent Village Voice. Calle explained the move as a way “to create a sustainable entity that doesn’t go out of business.”

As a result of the firings, the BoycottLAWeekly movement was born by former LA Weekly columnist Jeff Weiss. Weiss categorized the movement as something that “will stand as long as Calle owns LA Weekly,” and described the publication as “an embarrassment to journalism.”

“The movement started in the hours and days that followed the firings. There were no exit interviews, they basically blindsided the staff,” Weiss said, before categorizing LA Weekly as “probably the worst publication in America” due to an alleged lack of “substance or merit.”

Weiss, like Calle, also spoke to the changing economic stability of the publication industry, but said that it “has been ruthlessly exploited by men like Brian Calle who uses it for his own insidious ends.”

The news media industry has seen a steady decrease in subscriptions and readership even before the introduction of internet-sourced news, according to Forbes, with only about 35 percent of family homes receiving daily and weekly news in 2010.

Weiss went on to create a new Los Angeles-based publication, The LAnd, which features work from some former LA Weekly writers. When asked about BoycottLAWeekly, Calle told The Panther that he “does not pay much attention to it.”

Calle returned to the public eye when he settled a legal dispute in July 2019 with David Welch, who is now former LA Weekly investor, and who accused him of “destroy(ing) the legacy of first-rate journalism.”

A lawsuit was filed in Aug. 2018 against Calle and other LA Weekly investors at the Los Angeles County Superior Court and cited breaches of both duties and contract and an overall disruption of LA Weekly’s “quality journalism.”

“The people who invested in LA Weekly have seen Calle, as a publisher of the once-venerated alt-weekly, betray their trust and undermine his own words,” Welch claimed, according to court documents reviewed by The Panther. “He has accomplished this through a combination of breathtaking incompetence, self-dealing and fraudulent intentions.”

The lawsuit claimed that Calle, who is also the publisher of the one-year-old Irvine Weekly, “corrupted the editorial content of the newspaper” and conflated editorial and business interests. Calle denied any purposeful involvement with LA Weekly’s editorial content to further business interests.

The lawsuit also claimed that Calle served as the chief marketing officer for California-based cannabis company Kurvana while CEO of LA Weekly, which resulted in a favorable review of the product in the July 26, 2018 publication. Calle denied any involvement with Kurvana and told The Panther that “many friends” of his work for the company, but he himself is not involved.

Calle did not comment on the lawsuit, but said he was happy with the results of the settlement that occurred last month.

When asked about the criticism he has faced within his career, Calle said that it was a result of “perpetuated misinformation (made) out of anger and frustration.”

“I’ve come to realize that when you take on high profile position, people come out of the woodwork to suggest what you might do and are comfortable saying things that may or may not be true about you,” Calle said, noting that he has come to terms with criticism.

Struppa, who met Calle when he was the opinion editor at the OC Register, told The Panther that an accusation of “something horrible does not implicate the reputation of somebody.”

“People get accused of stuff all the time,” he said.

Sparks, who announced Calle’s appointment to the directorial position of the Center for Freedom of Expression and Media Integrity, described him to the Panther as “a valued member” and “one of (the School of Communication’s) most engaging professors.” Weiss did not echo this sentiment.

“It’s my belief that he’s a con man, and a modestly successful one with Chapman administration,” Weiss said. “He’s probably the least respected journalist in Southern California. It’s a shame that Chapman would work with somebody like that.”