The Journalist Citizen: Matt Ferner [People Issue 2019]

Set to replace Liam Neeson: Ferner’s particular set of skills make him a nightmare for people like you (Photo by Michael Ziobrowski)

A prominent criminal-justice-reform advocate and journalist, Matt Ferner graduated in 1995 from Corona del Mar High School, a Southern California institution that has educated members of the nation’s wealthiest families. But Ferner wasn’t a chauffeured, trust-fund brat who had access to his parents’ yachts, jets and limitless credit cards. He grew up a skateboard enthusiast in a working-class family uplifted by the presence of a grandmother and mom who not only gave him unconditional love, but also showed him the value of compassion, curiosity and a commitment to truthfulness.

Excuse me while I channel my inner, sniveling Sean Hannity. . . . Can Ferner be portrayed as a loon? After all, he spent years working as one of my younger courthouse competitors while a national correspondent with the Huffington Post. We’ve repeatedly raced each other to obtain exclusive information. He’s beaten me on stories; I’ve trumped him, too. With that angle disclosed, any Hannity-esque smear job won’t work.

The slender, 6-foot-6 Ferner is an accomplished reporter and one of my most decent journalism colleagues. Though then based out of his Beverly Hills news organization’s headquarters when Orange County’s notorious jailhouse-snitch scandal began percolating, Ferner advised his bosses that this local scandal had national criminal-justice-system implications. Thankfully, they—in particular veteran investigative journalist Ryan Grim, who is now with TheIntercept.com—agreed.

Ferner, 41, says covering this region’s notorious informant scandal stunned him after he’d arrived on the scene in early 2015 to watch People v. Scott Dekraai, ground zero in the controversy. He’d covered police misconduct but hadn’t fully comprehended the extent of systemic corruption that taints an entire police agency such as the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.

“I couldn’t believe that so many deputies could get away with lying,” he says, adding, “And they have badges and guns—and they are the administrators of our justice system. To this day, it has shaken me.”

Other troubling stories shaped Ferner’s views. He witnessed Los Angeles Police Department cops fabricate a reason for killing an unarmed Ezell Ford as he walked on a sidewalk in August 2014. Eyewitnesses told Ferner the cops had no legitimate reason to take Ford’s life and had falsely portrayed him as a gang member in hopes of justifying the homicide. “So, I wrote the story, and it just exploded,” Ferner recalls.

In 2017, he obtained reports and photographs depicting how Dade County, Florida, jail deputies placed mentally ill inmate Darren Rainey in a torture room, subjected him to scaulding-hot water for hours and left him dead like “a boiled lobster.”

“They literally cooked him,” Ferner says. “None of those deputies was punished. Those kinds of stories changed my life.”

Happily married with two kids and living in Orange County near Irvine, he decided last November to leave daily reporting after a decade with the Post to become director of media strategy at the Justice Collaborative, a national nonprofit group aiming to combat criminal-justice-system inequities. “I’m super-excited,” Ferner says. “I want to be part of a movement that stops mass incarceration and the kind of violence used on Ford and Rainey.”

CNN-featured investigative reporter R. Scott Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; obtained one of the last exclusive prison interviews with Charles Manson disciple Susan Atkins; won inclusion in Jeffrey Toobin’s The Best American Crime Reporting for his coverage of a white supremacist’s senseless murder of a beloved Vietnamese refugee; launched multi-year probes that resulted in the FBI arrests and convictions of the top three ranking members of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department; and gained praise from New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing entrenched Southern California law enforcement corruption.

One Reply to “The Journalist Citizen: Matt Ferner [People Issue 2019]”

  1. As a retired retired Los Angeles County Deputy Sheriff, I along with countless others, consider law enforcement a noble and thankless profession.

    The down side other than death and injuries attributed to the job is having the minute (in law enforcement) few who lie, cheat, steal and kill, giving the majority percentage of good cops a bad name.

    With that being said, I among others, appreciate Matt Ferner’s exposure and investigative journalism of those who taint the badge of Law Enforcement.

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