Friday, December 31, 2004

L.A. Times Editorial Page Ends Year with More Whining

The Los Angeles Times editorial pages, after being completely overwhelmed by the New York Times editorials and op-ed page articles on the tsunami disaster, ends the year this morning (Dec. 31), as one might expect, with another whining editorial on the results of the Presidential election.

Let me say it clearly: It is time to send Michael Kinsley packing.

In the editorial, "The Year of Karl Rove," once again the Editorial Page is jumping all over the Bush reelection campaign without mentioning that the L.A. Times did not even have the courage to endorse a candidate in that campaign.

Of course, we do not know if Kinsley wrote the editorial. Judging from his weekly column, he can't write. But he is responsible for what appears on the page.

I'm going to uncharitably assume therefore that in blaming the results of the California legislative elections, with no partisan change in a single seat, also on Rove and the Bush Administration, Kinsley is totally ignorant of the redistricting process in California. He apparently doesn't realize that the Democrat, Mike Berman, drew the redistricting lines, as he has for many years.

It is shocking to Kinsley and company that Rove and the Bush Administration stood for something in the recently-concluded campaign, "disregarding the textbook notion that successful presidential candidates need to relentlessly tack toward the center."

Kinsley and his ilk should accept some of the blame themselves for the Bush victory, since their screeching got many people's backs up and helped solidify the President's support. Even with the screeching, however, Kinsley, still didn't have the courage to support Sen. Kerry, which most of those doing the screeching did.

Kinsley should be dismissed -- and without delay for the good of the newspaper.

Happy New Year!


Thursday, December 30, 2004

News Media Perform Service in Tsunami Disaster

It hardly seems that only five days have passed since news began spreading of the calamity in South Asia and the Indonesian archipelago, a huge earthquake followed by the most deadly tsunami in recorded history.

Yet, without being too self-congratulatory about it, I think we can take some satisfaction in the role of the news media in conveying sensitive reports about the terrible losses and inspiring worldwide giving to the victims of the disaster.

The Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, many other newspapers, the great networks, have all posted the addresses and contact points for a host of relief agencies. Now, it is up to us to respond.

For myself, I'm going to begin with $500 gifts each to Doctors Without Borders and the American Jewish World Service. You may have your own favorites. Different people will give different amounts, but any amount will do some good.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Remembering The Rainfall Tables

A headline on Page one of the Dec. 29 California section says, "Record Rainfall Pounds L.A." But in the days that the LAT was California-owned, this story would have been on Page one of the A section, and, years before that, before the paper became so sophisticated, there would have been detailed rainfall tables from all over the Southland, showing not only how much rain had fallen in each locality in the storm, but how much had fallen thus far in the season.

When I was a boy growing up, everyone loved the rainfall tables. They were quintessentially Californian, showing the only weather that really counted in California.

Later, they were dropped. Maybe, because they were too much work. Now, even when there's a record rainfall, the stories are sketchy as to how much rain has fallen outside a few places.

And years ago, every Jan 2, The Times had a Southland magazine that was available to be mailed to friends back east. It was a great booster of Southern California, with pictures of the Rose Parade and so many features as to how well we were doing.

All those things are now part of the past, when The Los Angeles Times really was a California paper, proud of this state and disdaining cold, distant and unimportant cities like Chicago.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Time Magazine's Person of the Year Choices Have Become Politically Correct

Time Magazine's Person of the Year choice for this year, President George W. Bush, may have been inevitable, and its issue announcing him is vastly entertaining. But overall, one cannot escape the impression that in recent years the Time editors have become less inspired in their Person of the Year choices.

Compare Time in the period since the War on Terror began with the period of the runup and beginnings of World War II.

In the five years, 1938 through 1942, Time's choices were inspired: Hitler for 1938, Stalin for 1939, Churchill for 1940, Roosevelt for 1941 and Stalin for 1942. All, it could be said, fulfilled Time's promise to name the man who had done the most to influence the world, for good or evil, in the particular year. And some of the quotations under the cover picture caught up the meaning of the whole year in a single phrase.

For Hitler in 1938, the caption read: "An Unholy Organist Plays A Hymm of Hate" and Hitler himself was shown hunched over an organ pounding away. For Churchill in 1940, the caption was, "Blood, Sweat, Tears...And Untold Courage." For Stalin in 1942, it was, "He Took All Hitler Could Give -- For A Second Time."

These truly summed up the year's in question. And, appropriately, four of the five chosen were foreign leaders, and, in those dreadful years, three of the five were Orwellian tyrants.

Compare these splendid choices with Time's choices for the years of the War on Terror, 2001 through 2004. We have Rudolph Giuliani for 2001, corporate whistleblowers for 2002, the American Soldier for 2003 and George W. Bush for 2004. During years of dramatic violent events throughout the world, all four choices are Americans, one of a President who may have arguably been more dominated by foreign events than successfully dominating them.

What is most wrong with Time's record of the last four years is the absence of Osama bin Laden. Surely, in 2001, he was the man who influenced the world most -- for evil, surely, but he should have been there.

Time's current editors simply aren't up to the World War II standard. Regrettable but true. And the lesson here is that as journalists, we have to look at the world as it is, not as we may wish it to be.

Time has dropped the caption under Person of the Year. Its editors no longer can face up to summarizing things as they really are.


Monday, December 27, 2004

Newspapers Provide More Detail, Much More Drama than TV in Tsunamis Coverage

Both the New York Times and Los Angeles Times this morning (Dec. 27) were able to provide much more detail, and even much greater drama, in their coverage of the South Asian (and now East African) tsunami disaster than anything on television.

Although Fox continued the pattern it established from the outset of more extensive TV coverage than CNN, Fox ideology began to intrude in an unfortunate way. For instance, this morning the network began touting the Bush Administration's relief efforts. But the $15 million in aid the U.S. has offered thus far is a pittance compared with the billions of dollars international relief agencies say are needed over a period extending forward many months.

As the death toll mounted by Monday noon to the latest estimate of 24,000, The Los Angeles Times and New York Times both used their press time figures of 13,000. So in that respect, TV had an advantage. But it was a slight advantage compared to the very detailed and even eloquent reports of Shankhadeep Choudhury and Paul Watson in the LAT and Amy Waldman in the NYT, both datelined Madras.

The NYT has long had a great tradition, going back to the Titanic sinking, of disaster reporting, and the paper performed brilliantly this morning, with a substantial and passionate secondary color article by the redoutable Robert McFadden, writing out of his base in New York, superior graphics and even an eloquent editorial.

"The underlying story of this tragedy," the NYT editorial concluded, "is the overpowering, amoral mechanics of the earth's surface, the movement of plates that grind and shift and slide against each other with profound indifference to anything but the pressures that drive them. Whenever those forces punctuate human history, they do so tragically. They demonstrate, geologically speaking, how ephemeral our presence is." A Daily Telegraph editorial in London was in the same vein.

The LAT editorial will have to wait for tomorrow. That comes from having a half-time editorial page editor like Michael Kinsley.

Both the NYT and the LAT used "waves" in their headlines, and the LAT used "towering waves" in its lead. Both to some extent are misnomers. Tsunamis are better understood as surges of vast quantities of water onto the land, which, when they drain away take many human beings and much property and debris along with them. It is not so much a crashing wave, as a sudden rise of water, sometimes preceded with a draining away of water from regular levels just before it begins. In this sense, the NYT's use of the phrase "walls of water" was better than "waves."

But The LAT, in a sidebar by science and medical writer Thomas Maugh, captured best the nature of tsunami. "Although a tsunami occasionally appears as a massive wave, more often it is like a fast-moving tide that keeps rising well past the normal high water level," Maugh wrote. He used the expertise of USC's Costas Synolakis, one of the world's more prominent tsunami experts.

TV pictures of the incoming water that were available conveyed the surge effect more than showing actual waves.

I particularly had to admire some of McFadden's lines this morning, sometimes not even using complete sentences to convey the immensity of the disaster. In his second paragraph, McFadden simply wrote: "Sunbathers and snorkelers at luxury resorts swept out to sea. Hindus drowned during ritual bathing. A battered orphanage and missing children, Entire villages washed away. Fishing boats smashed. Homes, churches, cars, buses, livestock gone. A lighthouse toppled. A prison wrecked and the inmates gone. And when the water receded, beaches strewn with the dead, bodies in treetops and a girl impaled on a fence."

This is inspired stuff, more graphic than anything on television, and it displays the good judgment of NYT editors in assigning a prime local writer to bring together and back up on-the-scene reports, just as the LAT did during the Gulf wars.

This story is only beginning. It's going to be on everyone's mind in the days and weeks ahead.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Fox Outdoes CNN In Early Coverage of Tsunami Disaster

Early coverage of the tsunami disaster emanating from the earthquakes off Sumatra has been much, much more comprehensive on Fox than CNN. It is not the first time that CNN is shown to be slow off the mark on a major breaking story, and it helps explain why Fox has the edge in the number of viewers most all the time.

On Sunday morning, Dec. 26, in the U.S. time zones, as the magnitude of the tsunamis sweeping from South Asia to the East African coast became clear, CNN led its hourly news updates with a few sentences of coverage, but did not break at any length into its regular news interview shows.

But Fox immediately began to give lengthy coverage to the tsunamis as the death toll reached toward and then exceeded 10,000. It stated right away that it considered this the primary story of the day and then acted to put information it was gathering on the air. It put considerable emphasis on the early reports of destruction and hundreds of deaths at the beach resorts in Thailand, noting that over the Christmas holidays there would have been thousands of Western tourists there.

Neither network, however, immediately brought to the screen the tremendous expertise of U.S. tsunami experts at the National Oceanic and Atmospherics Administration and its tsunami information centers in Hawaii and Alaska.

Wire service stories frequently described the tsunamis as tidal waves, which is not viewed by most scientists as a correct term.

Nonetheless, of the coverage that existed by noon Sunday, Pacific Coast time, Fox was far in front. I will take a look at newspaper coverage tomorrow.

Friday, December 24, 2004

NYT Columnist Thomas Friedman Points Out Iraqi Stakes

It is so uncommon in these grim days in Iraq that anyone in the mainline press points out eloquently the value in what the U.S. is doing, and what the stakes are, that Thomas Friedman's column Dec. 23 ( in the New York Times is especially worth noting.

"This is a war between some people in the heart of the Arab-Muslim world who -- for the first time ever in their region -- are trying to organize an election to choose their own leaders and write their own constitution versus all the forces arrayed against them," Friedman writes.

And who are those forces? Friedman quotes Michael Mandelbaum of Johns Hopkins as "so rightfully (pointing) out to me, 'These so-called insurgents in Iraq are the real fascists, the real colonialists, the real imperialists of our age.' They are a tiny minority who want to rule Iraq by force and rip off its oil wealth for themselves. It's time we called them by their real names."

If the Pulitzer Prize-winning Friedman is right, and I believe he is, then there is every reason to root for and admire our troops who are there doing their best in what is clearly a very difficult engagement.


Thursday, December 23, 2004

L.A. Times Business Section Should Be Improved

When I was in Buenos Aires last January, I went to a number of restaurants and quickly concluded that if the Argentine governmental leadership was as skillful as the country's cooks, it would be the best governed country in the world. Argentine beef is, of course, famous, but it was the salads that really impressed me: they are the best anywhere, and the dressings are fabulous.

It can also be said that if The Los Angeles Times Business section had improved as much as its Food section in the last couple of years, The Times would be a far better paper than it is.

Business continues to be a comparatively weak section under the new leadership of Rick Wartzman. It is soft on big business. Its coverage of energy, the public utilities, labor and management issues and consumer issues leaves a lot to be desired. It fails to handle any story with political ramifications effectively. Michael Hiltzik's column is an exception to all these observations. He is excellent. Kathy Kristof also has her moments. Most of the rest of the section is far weaker than the news sections of the paper. The best of The Times right now is foreign coverage. Washington and local are good. Business should be a priority for improvement.

One problem is that the best business stories, such as the ones this week on the troubles surrounding the nation's drug industry, run in Section A. We make fun of the New York Times for jumping stories off A1 into Business, on grounds it is inconvenient for the readers to leaf from one section to another. But the effect of the NYT policy is to allow business stories that run on Page One to jump into Business Day, thus strengthening that section on an almost daily basis.

I don't want to be too hard on Wartzman. Business had its weaknesses throughout the 39 years I was at the paper, and it takes a lot of effort to change a culture.

The culture of the Business section was reflected, I felt, in its failure to do so much as one serious story on one of the biggest business stories in Los Angeles in the 1980s: How Peter Ueberroth and Harry Usher were running the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee in the period leading up to 1984, how they were treating the commercial sponsors, their hardnosed budget policies and and their real financial outlook.

But frequently Business drops the ball on other big stories. Times coverage of the energy crisis, of the recent grocery strike, of the workers' comp crisis in the state have all been deficient. Its coverage of the markets is a little better, but not as critical as it should be.

Both the oil industry and the airlines, covered terrifically in the New York Times, fail to get sufficient attention or even average coverage in The Los Angeles Times. Joe Sharkey's consumer-oriented airline column and other coverage has no competition in the LAT.

It's time to change this culture. How long, for instance, is Business going to allow Steve Lopez to take home all The Times marbles in covering Worker's Comp?


Wednesday, December 22, 2004

AP Ends BCS Participation, An Ethical Decision

The decision by the Associated Press to refuse permission in the future for its football poll to be used in the B.C.S. selections represents a victory for journalistic ethics.

The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and, most particularly, the Charlotte Observer had done lengthy articles showing how suspicious changes in the votes in both the A.P. sportswriters poll, and the ESPN/USA Today coaches poll had allowed Texas to improperly vault past Cal into the Rose Bowl.

In the ESPN/USA coaches poll, despite the refusal of its organizers to divulge individual coaches' votes, it was established beyond much doubt that some coaches from the Big 12 and Deep South changed their votes in the last two weeks, thus giving Big 12 schools a much bigger bowl payoff --millions of dollars more--than the Pac-10 schools.

In the writers' poll, nine of the 65 voters changed their votes toward Texas and away from Cal, despite more impressive Cal performances and statistics indicating Cal's superiority as a team above Texas. The result is a second rate Rose Bowl on New Year's Day. Cal, the nation's fourth rated team, lost out on a prestigeous bowl altogether, being relegated to the obscure Holiday Bowl, to be played in San Diego Dec. 30.

The L.A. Times, to its credit, has recently not been permitting any of its sports personnel to vote in the AP poll.

In a letter Dec. 21 to the B.C.S. coordinator, the AP declared that the B.C.S. had "damaged and continues to damage A.P.'s reputation for honesty and integrity in its news accounts through the forced association of the A.P. poll with the B.C.S. rankings."

Chris DuFresne, L.A. Times sportswriter, did two fine articles on the highly suspicious character of vote changes in both the writers' and coaches' polls. The New York Times reporting was even stronger. However, it was an article by Mike Persinger, sports editor of the Charlotte Observer, that most pointedly divulged that millions of dollars hinged on Texas' receiving a Rose Bowl berth and that such pecuniary considerations were apparently decisive in the suspicious changes in both polls. Texas' coach and its fans openly lobbied for the selection of the apparently inferior Texas team. Some of the voting journalists and coaches cravenly gave in to this pressure.

By moving as it did, the A.P. finally showed itself more alert to ethical considerations than ESPN and USA Today.

It has not been a good time for ESPN. Its Heisman presentation show kept the winner secret until the last four minutes of the hour-long presentation, preventing any immediate analysis of the selection of USC quarterback Matt Leinart. Then, its broadcast Saturday night of the Gonzaga basketball upset over third-ranked Georgia Tech saw ESPN announcers describing Gonzaga as an unranked team, when, in the A.P. poll, Gonzaga was already ranked 22nd.

The B.C.S. may now be forced to allow a selection committee to rank its teams, as the NCAA does with its basketball selections Maybe, a selection committee wouldn't be as inclined to bias against West Coast teams, or wouldn't be as susceptible to Texas lobbying.


Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Braggadocio On The LAT Editorial Page

The lead editorial on today's (Dec. 21) Los Angeles Times editorial page begins:

"We like to think we're pretty gutsy on this page. We say what we think, we don't mince words, and darn the consequences."

This from the editorial page that spent much of the last four years blasting President George W. Bush and then did not have the courage to endorse his opponent in the 2004 Presidential campaign.

Courageous, no. Hypocritical, yes. And also silly to make such ridiculous claims in broad daylight.


Sunday, December 19, 2004

Tribune CEO Makes Vain Plea For Unity

An e-mail received by L.A. Times employees from Dennis FitzSimmons, CEO of the Tribune Co., has only exacerbated feelings of many employees that he and his executive associates in Chicago have mistreated The Times.

Addressed to "fellow-employees," FitzSimmons' message calls the Tribune and the papers it purchased from Times-Mirror one company and appeals for unity.

But this is the same man who flew to the Burbank Airport with another executive soon after The Times won five Pulitzers this year, didn't even go downtown, summoned Times Editor John S. Carroll and Managing Editor Dean Baquet to the airport, and summarily informed them they were going to have to cut staff and expenses?

Even Mark Willes had the courtesy, after all, to go to New York Newsday and meet with the staff the day before he killed off that paper. FitzSimmons isn't closing down The Times, but he has been stripping it of some of its proudest appendages.

In killing The Los Angeles Times National Edition and moving its Washington bureau from I to F St., amalgamating it with other Tribune bureaus, the Tribune Co. will be delivering a body blow to Times morale and prestige. It's a far cry from promises made when the company bought The Times that the paper would be improved.

"Fellow-employees?" This seems to be corporate-speak. Some believe it reflects a situation where the Chicago Tribune, unable to match The Times in quality, seeks to impinge on California interests in what may be a fit of jealousy. After all, Chicago cannot match Los Angeles in most respects.

The solution is for the Tribune to sell The Times to Californians who will care for the newspaper as much as Otis Chandler did. I'm sure Mr. FitzSimmons is normally a nice man with managerial talents, but in the case of The Times he and the Tribune Co. have been behaving badly.


Saturday, December 18, 2004

Disagreeing With Two Insulting Comments

One of the nice things about this blog is that both the author and those who comment can say anything they please. There is no censorship. But I will disagree sometimes with comments I regard as outrageous. Two have come in recently, both from persons who remain "anonymous," as is their right.

Early this morning, someone commented, "RE: Why the news media wants the United States military to fail.

"Because," the respondent writes, "the news media is made up of failures who hate--HATE--success. And if a few military personnel get killed, so much the better. The news media is made up of draft dodgers and traitors to the United States of America."

This is horseshit. The leading journalists in America are not failures, they are successes, with, in many cases, handsome salaries.

As for "draft dodgers and traitors," I know many people at The Los Angeles Times and other media who have served proudly in the military, whose children are serving, and who have rooted for the United States (and usually Britain and other allies) in numerous wars.

Just for the record, Times editor Frank Sotomayor's son, an Army company commander, served 15 months in Baghdad in dangerous transportation and supply assignments, winning a medal for bravery in a combat situation in the process. My own son, a Lieutenant JG in the Navy, decided to go into the service two days after 9-11. He is assigned presently in Washington. Both young men are well educated and have held non-military employment. They didn't have to go in to the military, but they did.

Even many Times colleagues who have been critical of the Iraq invasion by the U.S. military, which is their right as citizens of a free country, still admire our troops. I never heard anyone at the paper celebrate in any way when hearing that a U.S. soldier was killed.

This said, I do think that often news personnel tend to be pessimists, don't appreciate sufficiently that war is a long drawn out process, marked by many mistakes and disappointments. The big newspapers were often prematurely downhearted in the Civil War and other conflicts in our history, so present downheartedness is not new.

I think, as I said in an earlier blog, that it's important for all who work for newspapers and other media to realize that if the nation's enemies win in this situation the impact on American freedoms and traditions could be devastating. The press, as much as any institution in American life, relies on our freedoms as the very basis of its own livelihood.

Also, sometime ago, I had a message from another anonymous person who made the statement that The Times covers local news "only west of La Brea."

This is utter bunk, as anyone picking up any copy of The Times can establish for him or herself each day.


Friday, December 17, 2004

CNN Unwisely Changes Format of Aaron Brown newshow

So often, when newshows, magazines or newspapers change their format, big mistakes are made. Not enough account is paid to the fact that many watchers or readers are creatures of habit, and they are apt to resent these changes. The Saturday Evening Post never recovered from a remake, and others have been thankfully reversed.

Bill Thomas, when he was editor of The Los Angeles Times, told of getting on a transcontinental flight east one morning and noticing a reader leaf through the Sunday Times, then, suddenly throw it onto the floor with disgust. When he checked, Thomas found that a change in the crossword puzzle had deeply angered the reader. Wisely, Thomas undid the change the next week.

I don't know precisely when CNN revamped the Aaron Brown program, because I don't see it when I'm out for the evening or away on a trip. But sometime in the last couple of weeks, the powers to be at the cable news network suddenly began leading with a long feature rather than the top of the news. They probably explained what they were trying to accomplish the first night, but I missed the explanation.

It seems to be a mistake. The Brown program has lost focus. This is another case where CNN is too indirect, too scattered in its approach.

I freely acknowledge that Aaron Brown is one of my favorite newscasters, because he says what he thinks. He is constantly questioning. I like his humanitarian attitude and I share his outrage at the acts of some of our enemies in the war. He is not blase when some poor hostage is beheaded.

So I hate to see CNN mess around with him. I just assume he's not happy with these changes. He seemed very comfortable with the old format.

One of the changes in the program is good. At the end, Brown has been given more time to show the front pages of the next morning's newspapers. This is a good feature, and it is appropriately at the end.

CNN needs to lead its newscasts with the news, not a feature, even an indepth investigative piece. That should come later.


Thursday, December 16, 2004

Being Positive, Not Just Negative, is Good For Journalism

The world is grim enough these days, without the great newspapers making it seem worse. Yes, they have to report things honestly. But if they assume a whiny, preachy tone, such as is too often the case on The Los Angeles Times editorial pages, and sometimes on other pages as well, then it's no wonder many of their readers will opt out. And they are opting out. This is surely one reason the LAT has lost more than 200,000 subscribers since the Tribune Co. bought the paper five years ago.

Smart newspapermen are casting around imaginatively to find a way to publish positive as well as negative stories, on Page One and elsewhere.

Take the New York Times today, Dec. 16. Yes, it reports on Page One that a new defense missile failed to launch, and that many emotionally troubled soldiers will be coming back from Iraq.

But the story on the top left hand corner of Page One, under a two-column head, is about big retailers enticing Christmas business by offering opportunities for buyers to make a charitable contribution even while buying their loved ones presents. ABC Carpet & Home will deliver a water buffalo to a Cambodian village for only $135. And The Gap is selling teddy bears for $20, but a portion of the price is going to buy coats for poor boys and girls in North America.

In 39 years at the L.A. Times I could certainly be as negative as anyone. But sometimes when I wanted to be positive, particularly on a politician or a consumer product, I found there was tremendous resistance. It seemed more respectable at the paper to be negative.

Once, as a political writer, confidential police intelligence operatives tried to get me to slam San Francisco Mayor Joseph Alioto, then running for governor, because they said his campaign had invited Mafia members to a fundraising dinner. I checked it out, and it turned out that an Italian American civic organization, without any input from the Alioto staff, had not differentiated between mobsters and good citizens in inviting people to a $15 or $20 dinner, I forget which. But I decided not to use the item. The LAPD types were disgusted with me. But Alioto became my friend for life, and when he was an attorney for Al Davis and the Oakland Raiders there were times he was the only person with that organization who would talk to me.

Later, covering preparations for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, I surged along, on a daily basis, raising questions about the threat of The Games to Los Angeles taxpayers. Everytime I talked to David Wolper, producer of the Games' opening and closing ceremonies, he would ask me, "What is this? More negativity?"

I'm proud that I had some role in bringing in the Games at nominal cost to the taxpayers. But later I concluded that I stayed too negative too long. When I finally wrote a few days into the Games that they looked like they were going to be a fabulous success. Noel Greenwood, then Times metro editor, chastised me for being too positive. Yet the Games were a success.

The big newspapers have to seize their opportunities to be positive, even occasionally on the Bush Administration, when it does something right. Don't tell me, it never does anything right. We are hurting ourselves, more than George W. Bush by being so negative.

I was back at a college reunion in October, on the night of the second debate, and a good many classmates were watching the debate upstairs from a class party. Every time the President said anything, it seemed that three or four of my classmates offered an insulting rejoinder. The rest of the crowd mostly said nothing. I told a friend later that the insulting remarks were going to get a certain number of peoples' backs up, and Bush could benefit from the insults. In retrospect, I'm sure he did.

The same is true of newspapers. They can't scream all of the time effectively, just some of the time.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

"Loose Lips Sink Ships" The military must certainly be deceptive

With all due respect to the American media, which I've been part of since I was 14, 52 years ago., I can't readily understand the critique of the American military these days for fashioning deceptive announcements about its war operations and plans.

Would anyone in his right mind suggest that Gen. Dwight Eisenhower should have announced in advance his plan to invade Europe by sending troops ashore in Normandy? Or Gen. Douglas MacArthur should have announced in advance the Inchon landings?

War cannot easily be waged successfully without deception. And the press covering a war either has to be completely reliable in its agreement not to reveal future operations, thereby accepting censorship, or resign itself to be deceived quite a bit of the time. I think the latter may actually be preferable. It's foolhardy for officials to pass out sensitive information and put it off the record, unless they actually want it to get out, and this is true not only in war. Wasn't it John F. Kennedy who once observed that if he wanted to get something out everywhere in the press, he would call up a few reporters and put it deepest darkest off the record. He could be assured it would be out within hours. The number of reporters who adhere to a pledge to truly keep it off the record is severely limited. They tell their editors, their friends, their wives and lovers, and then, presto, it's out!

The embedding of reporters with military units in Iraq has frequently worked out well enough, and probably should continue. But I remember when I asked one Times reporter who had been embedded in a unit in the 2003 Iraq invasion, whether he was impressed with American officers, he replied, "They are very efficient killers." At least, I thought he was being honest.

There's always going to be a strained relationship between the media and the military. They have different missions to perform. The media must do its best to follow the war, but the military's job is to win the war, and the two missions are not particularly compatible.


Monday, December 13, 2004

David Shaw -- Giving Editors Too Much Credit

L.A. Times "Media Matters" columnist David Shaw gives editors in general too much credit in commenting Sunday, Dec. 12, on James Goldsborough's loss of his column in the San Diego Tribune. George W. Bush critic Goldsborough quit the Tribune after a column he wrote on Jewish voting in the recent Presidential election was killed.

Shaw writes (, "I've spoken with editors about (killing columns) often over the 30 years I've been writing about the media, and I spoke with several again this week in response to the situation in San Diego. All agreed that columnists are given wide latitude in what they write about, and none could recall ever having killed a column by a regular staff columnist."

This creates a false impression. Shaw should have interviewed more widely. The fact is that column-killing is not all that uncommon in the nation's press.

I resigned, as a consumer columnist, but not from The Times, in 2001 after then-City Editor Bill Boyarsky, backed by higher-ups, killed a column I had written about irregularities in UCLA's kidney dialysis center. In discussing the situation, Boyarsky told me that as a columnist on city and county affairs he too had had columns killed and had learned to accept it.

In 1985, the New York Times killed altogether the column written by Sydney Schanberg when editors didn't like his commentary on New York City real estate matters.

Shaw is an outstanding columnist on food, wine and restaurants. His columns on the poor quality of food at Dodger Stadium and the high prices in Paris restaurants are just two of his masterpieces. But sometimes on "Media Matters" Shaw can play fast and loose, all it seems with the apparent object of overglorifying journalism.

I remember one time when Shaw, who has long disliked the use of confidential sources by reporters, wrote an article saying he had interviewed a number of journalists and not one favored the practice. I immediately sent him a note reminding him that he had interviewed me on the subject and I had strongly supported the necessity of occasionally using confidential sources, in order to get out the truth about sensitive subjects.

Shaw replied imperiously that his discussion with me had been "not an interview but a conversation." When I complained about this to then-Times Editor Bill Thomas, he just laughed, but I didn't think it was so funny.

Certainly, I know that Paul Conrad occasionally had his cartoons killed by Times editors. Once, during the 1969 mayoral campaign between incumbent Sam Yorty and challenger Tom Bradley, Conrad did a cartoon showing Yorty, who was waging a racist campaign, peddling snake oil. The cartoon was approved for The Times' Preview Edition, but when Conrad added a flask to Yorty's back pocket, the cartoon was ordered killed in the regular editions.

Shaw tries to honor journalism. Unfortunately, editors' courage is not so high, although about Conrad's flask the editors might have been right.


Sunday, December 12, 2004

Cable TV News and Sports Have Their Shortcomings

ESPN was thoroughly annoying Saturday evening, Dec. 11, with its program on the Heisman presentation. Not until the 56th minute of the 60-minute show was the presentation to USC's Matt Leinart actually made, leaving virtually no time for any analysis, interviews, etc. It seemed all designed to keep the audience looking at the ads throughout to the exclusion of any considerations of news coverage. Like so much TV news, it was mostly hype and comparatively little revelation.

This is one of the most serious shortcomings of cable television news, and, to a somewhat lesser extent, network news. They spend much of the programs saying that this and that is "next." Then, they go on to multiple other topics before "next" arrives and sometimes, when it does, it's an anticlimax.

Reading a newspaper, in this respect, has it all over television, since the reader can easily go immediately to what he or she is most interested in and read all about it.

Not to mention how much more detail is in the newspaper, and how many more topics there are.

It's amazing to me what does NOT get onto 24-hour cable news. CNN is particularly bad at confining itself to just a few topics. The decent newspapers come the next day with a much more complete report. Even a major story, like the attack this past week on the U.S Consulate in Jidda, Saudi Arabia, was much more comprehensively handled in the newspapers than the scanty "live" reports on cable tv.

The morning shows on both CNN and FOX are poorly organized, even of the top stories of the day. I'd exempt Soledad O'Brien to some extent from the criticism, since she is obviously very intelligent. By and large, however, the morning paper is much more illuminating than cable news, explaining why the papers aren't dead yet.

And even Time and Newsweek, coming a week later, don't suffer all that much from being a week late, since they can often put things in careful perspective.


Friday, December 10, 2004

Steve Lopez, one of LAT's Best Political Writers

Steve Lopez's column of Friday, December 10, on the Board of Supervisors' ultimate responsibility for doing little or nothing effective about the mess at the King/Drew Medical Center establishes once again that he is one of the L.A. Times' best political writers, among his many other exploits.

Steve offers at the outset of the column to buy fish tacos at Senor Fish "for the first reader who can tell me the last time a Los Angeles County supervisor was run out of office." ( Well, I might immodestly claim the tacos, because, as a political writer, I had quite a bit to do with inducing then-Supervisor Ernest E. Debs not to run for a fifth term in 1974. Of course, Ed Edelman getting into the race also had something to do with pushing Debs out.

The King/Drew issue marks the second time in just the last week or two that Lopez has performed a political tour de force in his column. He's also been writing very incisively about the crisis in state worker's comp, and, as usual, he's not been over-impressed by the performance of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Lopez is not the only columnist in the country who often outshines the regular political writers, and one thing that allows him to do that is that he has permission to write subjectively. This is also the reason Time magazine often has superior political coverage. The objectivity to which the regular political writers are often compelled to adhere amounts to a straitjacket in which they are playing a game which prevents them from being straightforward and honest.

Of course, it's up to the reader to decide individually what the columnist's bias is, and whether it's a sound analysis.

When Otis Chandler, Bill Thomas, Ed Guthman and Mark Murphy were fashioning Times political coverage along independent lines in the 1960s, one of the key things they did was to allow the political writers of that day, Carl Greenberg, Dick Bergholz, Bill Boyarsky, me and the Washington writers more latitude to be interpretive. In effect, we became more like the columnists and were often free to say quite a bit of what we thought in the news columns.

Things began to change when Noel Greenwood became metro editor. He wasn't as interested in political coverage, for one thing, and he instituted more restrictive editing policies for a second. But this had its stops and starts. When Narda Zucchino was political editor, for example, I felt freest to write of any time in my political writing years.

Times political coverage now has become too bland. The regular writers are often held on too tight a leash, and the Sacramento bureau in particular has frequently been too rigidly supervised out of Los Angeles.


Thursday, December 09, 2004

Karzai Inauguration Doesn't Make Page One

On the inauguration of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, The New York Times began its editorial on Wednesday, March 8, "Yesterday was a proud and hopeful day for Afghanistan."

Yet this "proud and hopeful day" did not make Page One of either the New York Times or Los Angeles Times. The LAT story was preeminent on Page 3; the NYT story ran as the lead on Page 8.

My view is that the least we ought to expect from the nation's great newspapers is that they run such good news from the War on Terror on Page One.

After all, were the Islamic fundamentalists to prevail, these papers would be shut down, or heavily censored the very next day. Benefitting as much as they do from the freedoms laid out in the American Constitution, it is certainly appropriate for them to play our war successes, when they do occur, with the prominence they deserve.


Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Inadequate Tribune Report on Circulation

In its Third Quarter report to stockholders, the Tribune Co. gives a truncated explanation of circulation declines at its various newspapers without listing just what the new circulation figures are, nor making any commitment to expending enough time and money to reverse the trend.

The report declares:

"Internal audits at our major newspapers are largely complete and we have detected no evidence of circulation misstatements like those at Newsday. While these results are preliminary until verified by the Audit Bureau of Circulations, they confirm our belief that the unethjcal actions in New York were isolated incidents.

"Nevertheless, as outlined in our second quarter report, we've significantly tightened our circulation procedures across the publishing group. In the third quarter we took additional steps. We standardized circulation policies at all newspapers, increased the role and responsibility of our finance department in circulation activities, and further tightened controls over third-party sponsored home delivery programs.

"Our tighter policies were partly responsible for the declines in circulation reported by the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times for the six-month period ending Sept. 30, 2004. We are being conservative in our reporting. In Los Angeles, for example, we cut back on less profitable circulation such as third-party sponsored home delivery and single copy bulk sales. This reduces total circulation but improves the quality of our audience, which is very important to advertisers.

"As we anticipated, the nationwide implementation of Do Not Call (DNC) legislation has affected the telesales operations of our newspapers--another factor in circulation declines. To offset DNC, we've invested heavily in database marketing systems to improve our ability to grow readership and target high-quality circulation through direct mail and other methods."

This is the latest of various excuses given by management for the precipitate decline in circulation at The Los Angeles Times, now exceeding 200,000 daily since the Tribune bought the paper. Going unmentioned are the thousands of subscribers who have stopped taking the paper because they are offended by the leftward drift of its editorial pages.

To be fair, even Mark Willes--who had once announced an unrealistic goal of 2 million daily circulation for The Times--acknowledged during his tenure that it was proving to be a struggle just to keep Times circulation fairly even. He said he had been shocked, for example, to find out how many readers cancelled their papers when they went on vacation and then didn't renew when they got back.

But as soon as the Tribune took over, there was evidence that the new company was more than ready to see circulation decline.
The key moment, in my view, came when daily circulation was allowed to slip below a million. This was a psychologically important moment, and publisher John Puerner's reaction was not reassuring. He launched no effort to speak of to reverse the decline, and since then Times daily circulation has continued to slip, the latest figure being 902,000.

Falling circulation and falling advertising will surely be accompanied by further cutbacks in The Times, such as the closing of the National Edition and the cutting back of sports which has already occurred.
The statements about higher quality circulation are the same kind of excuse given by Life magazine just before it ceased regular circulation years ago. (It has since been revived in much shortened form).

The Times is not going to go out of business, but unless more vigorous owners take over, I fear the circulation decline will only continue, and the quality of the paper will inevitably slip.


Monday, December 06, 2004

Sunday L.A. and N.Y. Times Show Papers Are Vital

Why are newspapers so essential in American life? You could see why in reading both the Sunday Los Angeles Times and New York Times yesterday, Dec. 5.

The beginning of a five-part series in the L.A. Times on the multiple failures of the King/Drew Medical Center in South Los Angeles was journalism at its best. The leaders of the team writing these articles, Charles Ornstein and Tracy Weber, have been at work on this subject for more than a year. To the horror of the Times owners in Chicago, they may win yet another Pulitzer for a paper that in many respects puts the Chicago Tribune in the shade.

Two other articles in the L.A. Times Sunday also were, by themselves, worth the price of the paper: In the Times Magazine, David Feige told the story of young Seattle lawyer Jeffrey Fisher, who has argued two major cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and won both of them. In the Business Section, Kathy Kristof told of yet another scam on the public by the credit card companies.

I sometimes in this blog will be highly critical of aspects of The Times. Yet fairness requires that the editors primarily responsible for the news content of the paper, John Carroll and Dean Baquet, be given great credit for such offerings. Both are Tribune appointees who have resisted lamentable recent Tribune cutbacks at the paper.

The New York Times yesterday, meanwhile, carried a superb article by Adam Liptak and Ralph Blumenthal on how Rightwing ideologues on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit are defying the U.S. Supreme Court on death penalty cases. This article too performed a vital public service.

Henry Weinstein at the L.A. Times also has frequently written on the too-common lack of fairness in death penalty cases across the country.
The happy news is that the newspapers in this country often display the courage and give us the details that simply aren't available enough on cable television or even the big networks.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Times Moves From Right to Left

Before Otis Chandler became publisher of The Times in 1961, the newspaper was known as unfairly Republican. When Kyle Palmer was political editor, in fact, The Times seldom covered the Democrats. The story is told of a delegation of Democrats coming down to the paper and asking to see Palmer. He came downstairs and leaned over the rail that used to mark the entrance in those days, and demanded in a peremptory tone: "Now what do you want?"

Times have changed. For the most part, the news coverage remains fairly straight. But the editorial pages are now as sharply to the Left as they once were to the Right. And just as before, they cost the paper credibility.

Now, it has become representatives of the Jewish community who have come downtown to remonstrate with editors over Times editorial policy, persistently anti-Israel. But like the Democrats of yore, many of the Jewish leaders have concluded it is pointless to argue. Times editorial pages are devotedly biased and are going to stay that way for the foreseeable future.

Recently, since Michael Kinsley took over the editorial pages, the situation has gotten worse. Kinsley didn't deign to so much as congratulate President Bush on his victory, before going on to whine about his policies. Kinsley writes a weekly column that echoes Bob Scheer, but I don't think he conveys as much sincerity as Bob Scheer. Together, the two have hijacked the editorial pages. It wouldn't be as bad, if they had shrill writers from the Right as well. But the Rightists that are used are usually bland and respectable.

It's all costing The Times a lot. The late wise editorial page editor and later executive editor of the Riverside Press-Enterprise, Norman Cherniss, once declared, "You can't scream everyday and keep people reading." The Times editorial pages do scream too frequently. We are back to the pre-Otis days, only at the opposite extreme.


Thursday, December 02, 2004

Demise of the L.A. Times National Edition

Word today that The Times National Edition is being killed will be sad news to all who looked forward to The Times advancing itself as a great paper.

Due to demographic changes in the big cities, papers like the L.A. and New York Times have no real choice but to spread out their circulation and appeal to people all over the country who are interested in an elite paper.

As with the L.A. Times magazine, only a half-assed effort has been made to make the National Edition a success. Even in Northern California and Oregon, it was not circulated in many places where the NYT was sold. Their distribution, often piggybacking on local papers' efforts, is superb. The LAT seldom made even an attempt in places where many papers might be sold, such as Yosemite and Ashland, Ore.

Unless the Tribune owners are careful, by the time they call it quits and decide to sell the paper, it won't be worth nearly as much.

I knew many of the men and women who worked to make the National Edition a success. Honor to them. But the Tribune owners haven't been worthy of them.


Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Rather, Brokaw Retire; Leroy Aarons Dies

Honor and good wishes to Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw on their retirements. Both network anchors accentuated the positive about this country and the journalistic profession.
There's a good deal of talk about Rather making a mistake this fall. What I prefer to remember was his hard-driving good reporting over many years going back to the administrations of Nixon and Kennedy. Rather believed in this country, and he cried with joy when American troops entered Kuwait City in the first Gulf War. He was not afraid to show his emotions, which made him not only a better journalist, but a better human being. And I particularly remember that he spoke up for New York Times Executive Editor Howell Raines when Raines was railroaded out of that job by a weak publisher.
Tom Brokaw captured the respect and love of millions for extolling the heroes of America's "greatest generation" thosewho fought in World War II. Steady, incisive, and modest, all will remember fondly his great work.
Leroy Aarons, former editor of the Oakland Tribune, Washington Post West Coast correspondent , and a man who came out of the closet and led gay journalists to great advances within a too-often prejudiced profession, died on Sunday. He deserved the respect of us all. We'll miss him.