Thursday, March 31, 2005

L.A. Times Editorial Page Continues to Fail to Follow Through on Villaraigosa Endorsement

As the Los Angeles Mayoral runoff campaign continues, the Los Angeles Times editorial page, under the unsteady leadership of Michael Kinsley, continues its perplexing failure to follow through on its earlier endorsement of City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa.

In what looked like a savvy move at the time, during the primary campaign, the LAT endorsed both Villaraigosa and former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg for spots in the runoff, wisely rejecting the reelection of the inept present mayor, James Hahn.

So, then, when Hertzberg failed narrowly to make the runoff, and Hahn did, running behind Villaraigosa, one would have thought the reasonable course would have been for the Times to say, "Well, one of our choices made it to the runoff, Villaraigosa, and he is our choice in the runoff."

But Michael Kinsley is the man who criticized President Bush throughout the 2004 campaign, even endorsed John Kerry in a Time magazine column, but then failed to endorse anyone in the actual election on the Times editorial page. This made the Times and Kinsley himself look weak and ridiculous, not to mention hypocritical.

Now, judging from the latest mayoral editorial in the paper Tuesday, March 29, the Times has more good to say about Hertzberg than either Villaraigosa or Hahn, and doesn't even mention that it once supported Villaraigosa.

Villaraigosa is probably going to make it in the election this time, and the Times may yet endorse him. But its failure to do so thus far raises the question whether somewhere, like the Tribune Co. offices, there is reluctance to see Los Angeles overcome its resistance to a Latino mayor.

The Tribune Co. continues to intensify its weakness in Los Angeles by making it clear it is not willing to take steps to show that it wants the Times to continue to be a respected paper.

Now, in the mayor's race, the Times continues to appear irresolute. Even its regular political coverage of the race is less voluminous than in past mayoral contests, reducing respect for the regular political writers.

However, the coverage there has been makes it clear that Hahn is waging a somewhat racist campaign, trying to suggest that the Latino Villaraigosa is too dishonest to be mayor. It's not as bad as the Yorty campaign against the black Tom Bradley in 1969, but there is a little odor about it, and Times editorials should have denounced it.

Come on, Kinsley, stiffen up. Show some courage for once, and go along with your original course: Villaraigosa for mayor.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

A Sunday Los Angeles Times Was Marvelously Entertaining

Reading back issues of a newspaper after a trip can be greatly enlightening, giving you a longer range perspective on how the paper is doing.

Apropos of that, I'm pleased to say that the Los Angeles Times Sunday paper of March 20 had marvelously entertaining features which show certainly that some things are being done right at the paper. for all its recent circulation and editorial problems.

To start with Sports, quite beyond the coverage of the NCAA basketball tournaments, columns by Bill Plaschke and T.J. Simers displayed these outspoken journalists at their best.

Plaschke appropriately announced that he would not be voting, when the occasion arises, for steroids suspect Mark McGwire, once known as the home run king, to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

McGuire recently refused to tell inquiring Congress members whether he had used steroids, saying what was in the past should remain in the past.

Plaschke was right on the money when he proclaimed in the column that in 1998, when McGuire was hitting a then-record 70 home runs, "I was certain I was witnessing the last glowing moments of professional sports chivalry." But, he now says, "In the wake of his capitol offensive performance last week, it now seems to be the march of a cheat."

Frankly, I would go even further than Plaschke. Unless McGuire can clear up the suspicions he has done so much to create, I would formally strip the baseball records of his 70 home runs. After all, Babe Ruth, Roger Maris and Henry Aaron never used steroids. But Plaschke is getting to the right position on preserving the records.

Also, I had to admire Simers for taking on, chapter and verse, the new season tickets policies of Dodger owner Frank McCourt. McCourt, who has stripped some longstanding Dodger loyalists of their perks, adding seats in front of theirs, now is trying to strip all season ticket owners of privileges if they don't buy additional preseason tickets, and he has cancelled shuttle service from Union Station and may have limited privileges at the Dodger Stadium Club, although the Dodgers characterize that as a printing error.

We will see if Simers is correct in predicting the Dodgers, who let some talented players go between last season and this, will not be all that successful on the field in the season just about to start. But his explicit defense of the longtime season ticket owners against the cheap Dodger owner does him honor.

In fact, considering Simers' attitude, I wish Times Editor John Carroll and Managing Editor Dean Baquet had taken Simers with them when they were summoned to the Burbank Airport last spring to hear Tribune Co. CEO Dennis FitzSimmons announce they had to cut back the L.A. Times in many respects. Simers may have been more appropriately outspoken on that occasion than Carroll or Baquet. In fact, knowing him, I'd bet on it.

This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of what was right about the March 20 paper, but the Travel section and a special travel issue of the Los Angeles Times Magazine also distinguished themselves that day.

I wrote yesterday that all too often the New York Times is appropriately more skeptical of private enterprise and especially the big corporations than the L.A. Times. But Steve Friess did a marvelous job in the March 20 L.A. Times on separating the wheat from the chaff in terms of Las Vegas attractions.

Choosing some that were worthless, Friess also gave some worthwhile alternatives. Anyone going to Las Vegas for more than the slot machines would benefit from reading this pointed article.

Also enjoyable was travel writer Susan Spano's piece on sleeping well while traveling. At one point, Spano writes, "A sense of personal security is conducive to sleep. That's why women especially are advised to make sure front-desk clerks at hotels are discreet when making room assignments. I've lost count of the number of budget hotels I've stayed in, from French Polynesia to Maryland's Eastern Shore, where I felt it wise to wedge a chair against the door."

The Los Angeles Times Magazine had several good travel articles, but I felt the one on traveling in Greenland by Thomas Curwen was particularly entrancing. Curwen was especially entertaining in describing Greenland food, and, for once in the Times, the map that went with the article was very attractive and well done.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

New York Times Does Better Job of Critiquing Private Enterprise Than L.A. Times

It's pretty routine: The New York Times does a better job of critiquing private enterprise, specific entrepreneurial companies, than the Los Angeles Times, especially in its business section.

Monday, March 28, the NYT had a detailed article on how financial companies like Citibank have been ignoring a federal law that requires them to give special notice and limited interest rates to members of the U.S. active Armed Services and their spouses. Even some courts have been flouting this law, which restricts foreclosures.

A couple of weeks back, the New York Times had yet another of a series of articles raising questions, especially about the Union Pacific Railroad, on how many grade crossing accidents are not the fault of vehicle drivers but of the railroads.

And, day by day, the NYT gives massive, detailed coverage to continuing cases involving criminal violations by various CEOs of huge conglomerates.

In all these areas, the L.A. Times is providing much less scrutiny. The LAT confines most of its more serious investigative pieces to malfeasance by government agencies. Its articles on the Union Pacific have been painfully weak. It has had little or nothing to say about the mistreatment by financial institutions, insurers, etc. of military personnel.

I want to stress, this is not solely a problem since the Tribune Co. bought the L.A. Times. Going back as far as I can remember, the LAT Business section has been loathe to look very skeptically at private firms. As I've mentioned before, it never did a serious story about the business operations of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Comiittee more than 20 years ago.

I used to be critical of private companies as a consumer affairs columnist in the California section, and Steve Lopez does quite a few such articles, and Michael Hiltzik does it in business occasionally. But by and large, the L.A. Times does not cover big business with nearly so critical an attitude as it does government. This is one of the ways in which the paper is not as liberal as some outsiders think.

Now, with Russ Stanton becoming new business editor, will this change? I'd be surprised if it did. There is too long a lacking tradition here, too much to overcome.

Meanwhile, the New York Times continues to set a standard the L.A. Times should emulate.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Weak Chicago Tribune Article Fails to Adequately Explore Tribune's Problems with L.A. Times

It's hard to expect that most journalists are going to be able to successfully write about the critical problems of their own companies, but the article in the Chicago Tribune Sunday, March 27, by writer James P. Miller about the difficulties the Tribune Co. has encountered with its purchase of the L.A. Times is much weaker than most.

The article goes on at great length about declining circulation and advertising at the LAT, but it is not even factually accurate about those.

The article mentions a 5.6% decline in circulation to 902,000. In fact, the Times circulation drop has been closer to 20%. Times circulation was close to 1.1 million when Tribune Co. bought the paper in the year 2000.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported a 14% drop in advertising at the L.A. Times. The Tribune article does not use this figure.

The Tribune article, as one would expect, is heavy on quoting the Tribune CEO, Dennis FitzSimmons, the clumsy executive who followed up on the Times' winning of five Pulitzers last year by flying to the Burbank Airport, summoning Times editor John Carroll and Managing Editor Dean Baquet to the airport and telling them, without going downtown himself, that they had to cut back severely in staff and other expenses. Since then, there has been a severe loss of morale and general downward spiral at the Times, which recently lost its sixth publisher in just the last 16 years. Even Mark Willes, it should be remembered, went to New York Newsday himself, and visited with the staff on scene, before killing those Newsday editions the next day.

FitzSimmons is going to have to recognize at some point that Californians do not take well to being under colonial rule. They like to have their own newspapers with their own editorial positions. Under the Tribune, The Times now has an editorial pages editor who has boasted of not voting or living full time in California. There have been reports that it was the Tribune Co. that kept this man, Michael Kinsley, from endorsing John Kerry for President last year, in hopes that the Bush Administration would support a media monopoly for Tribune newspapers and television stations, an action the Administration then, after the election, failed to take.

Miller in his article talks about all the difficulties the Times has caused the Tribune, but he scarcely mentions the acquisition of other Times-Mirror papers, such as the Baltimore Sun, Newsday and the Hartford Courant. I was told on an Eastern trip last week that dissatisfaction at those papers with Tribune ownership is as bad or worse than it is at the Times. Chicago executives are too parochial to successfully run newspapers in Los Angeles, Baltimore, Long Island and Hartford.

The Miller article does refer to a tax case dating from machinations of the Willes regime that could eventually cost Tribune Co. up to a billion dollars in federal tax liability. That would be enough to make any company uneasy.

FitzSimmons, I fear, is fooling himself if he believes, as he tells Miller in this article, that the problems are going to go away.

No, they will get worse, as long as the Tribune refuses to sell the Times back to California interests. It must make such a sale, or the deterioration of its prospects will continue. But who would want to buy the Times back until its possible tax liability was cleared up?

As the Irish used to say, ultimately successfully, what is needed in the end is home rule. I'm sure it's coming eventually. Let's hope the bloggers haven't taken over the world from the mainstream newspapers by the time that day arrives.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Questions About Rainey and Shaw Articles on Journalistic Subjects

The L.A. Times seems to have no compunctions these days about criticizing New York Times reporters in print, as we see in an article LAT Media Writer Jim Rainey has today, Sunday, March 27, about Judith Miller of the NYT.

In his article, Rainey drops into a class Miller is lecturing on the Berkeley campus and asks her whether she differs with her editors on the subject of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Let me suggest uncharitably that Miller has often in her career proved to be a more courageous reporter than Jim Rainey, nor, to my knowledge has Rainey answered any questions about whether he differs in his point of view with LAT editors, such as whether he allowed himself to shill for LAT Editor John Carroll over the question of wwhether Carroll, not editorial pages editor Michael Kinsley, is ultimately responsible for keeping liberal columnist Susan Estrich from appearing in the L.A. Times.

According to Rainey, Berkeley Journalism School Dean Orville Schell decided against putting any limits on Rainey's participation in the Berkeley class. Schell is the same educational official who wrote cravenly apologetic pieces about California Gov. Jerry Brown at one time. It would have been more appropriate in my view had Rainey been admitted to the Berkeley class only if he agreed to ask Miller no disruptive questions. After all, he too was a guest of the class.

Rainey is quite ready to suggest Miller may have been too ready to accept official assertions that Iraq under Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

There is no characteristic so true of many L.A. Times reporters that they are ready to assume N.Y. Times reporters have made various kinds of mistakes. I think Rainey should be loathe to join them until he shows more independence as a reporter than he has demonstrated thus far.

I'm going to say a shocking thing: Before the War on Terror is over, we may see Weapons of Mass Destruction appear. And at this time, we may come to have a higher opinion of official government sources.

Also, in the L.A. Times today, we have another column by David Shaw in which Shaw suggests that bloggers are not so deserving of conventional journalistic protections, such as keeping confidential sources secret, as he and the conventional press is.

This is very strange, since Shaw himself has written more than once of his belief that use of confidential sources altogether should be very much restrained.

Shaw also makes the possibly ridiculous suggestion that the L.A. Times is necessarily more reliable than unnamed bloggers, because his columns are subject to being read and edited by at least four editors, while the bloggers edit themselves.

When I was a columnist for the L.A. Times on consumer affairs, the main editor was Tim Rutten, and other editors read the columns beforehand but very seldom interfered. I wonder whether Shaw is subject to more scrutiny than I was.

The mainstream press has every reason to fear bloggers, since they have often proven quicker to raise questions and be skeptics than the all-too-often politically-correct L.A. Times.

Let me renew my suggestion that Shaw would make a better restaurant, food and wine critic than a media critic, judging from some of his columns on these other subjects.

Finally, in Sunday's Times, the comparatively new Sunday Opinion Editor of the LAT, Bob Sipchen, who recently got the paper's Outdoors section off to a bad start, invites readers to read a rejected column on a Times website and then decide for themselves whether it indeed should have been rejected as "pointless blather."

I hope the Times is paying the critic, KFI Talk Show Host John Zeigler, for the column he submitted, since it is making this other use of it.

One of the delights of writing these blogs is that I'm able to raise questions occasionally about such LAT writers as Rainey, Shaw and Sipchen, even though I may personally like them and often enjoy their writings.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Tim Rutten Column on Schiavo Case Constitutes Authoritative Catholic View

Tim Rutten's column in today's Calendar section, March 26, constitutes a useful, even admirable statement of authoritative Catholic views on the unfolding case of Theresa Maria Schiavo. In fact, Tim's religious-based view makes him an unusually valuable columnist for The Times and has for many years.

I cannot help but feel Tim Rutten would make a much better editor of the editorial pages, since his integrity, the honesty of his point of view would advance the esteem in which the L.A. Times is held.

For frequent supporters of the President, such as me, the spectacle of him rushing back from his Texas ranch to attempt intervention in a case which has been heard at length in the courts constitutes a serious mistake.

Now, we are endebted to Tim for pointing out to us the distinctions made in the Catholic faith under which right to life does not necessarily mean zealotry in treatment which may, as it seems to have done in this case, be inhumane.

New York Times Distribution Is Great

Written from Albuquerque, New Mexico

Stopping for an hour in Albuquerque Friday afternoon on the Southwest Chief, it took me just minutes to find a fresh copy of the New York Times just around the corner from the Amtrak station. During an eight-day trip back East and through 20 states in all, I never failed to find that day's copy of the New York Times.

Had the Los Angeles Times enhanced rather than grossly cut back its national edition, and paid attention to the demographics of the newspaper business, the LAT would be in a far different position today. The Wall Street Journal discusses this this week in an article on John Puerner's demise as publisher of the L.A. Times.

New York Times circulation has dropped in New York City, but its circulation nationwide continues to climb. The reason is aggressive distribution of the newspaper. In traveling widely since retiring, only in Montana and Idaho have I been unable to find the daily NYT here in the United States.

These are tough, challenging times for all of us. LAT has to keep up if it hopes to prosper.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

John Puerner Steps Down As Publisher of Times

Written From Chicago --

The news that John Puerner is stepping down, he says of his own volition, as publisher of the L.A. Times is a striking step. I stress right away, I don't know what it means.

Since Tom Johnson took over as publisher in 1989 under the Chandlers, The Times has now had six publishers, if memory serves, and is about to have a seventh. All in 16 years, less than one in every three years.

This fact, alone, shows the paper is in a kind of crisis, since with new publishers come new policies and often new personnel. The Times has suffered from the inconstancy.

From what little I saw of him, I personally liked Puerner. But I wish he had done more to keep circulation from sinking, and had asserted himself more in Los Angeles life. He should have argued more against the cutbacks when FitzSimmons summoned him to the Burbank Airport last year. Under Puerner, according to the Wall Street Journal, advertising sunk 14%, and circulation was down more than 200,000. On those results, he was the most unsuccessful of the six publishers who followed the glory years.

Good luck to the new man, Jeffrey Johnson. But under Tribune ownership, his fortunes may be problematic. It would be better, all things considered, for California interests to buy The Times. That's what this blog will continue to be dedicated to. The Tribune, I am convinced, doesn't have the assertiveness to keep The Times a great newspaper.

In the meantime, let's wish John Puerner well.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Going To Tabloids And Charging For Using Newspaper Websites

In the last couple of weeks, the New York Times has had comprehensive articles examinihg whether newspapers soon will be charging those who use their websites, and also whether they should be downsizing themselves into tabloids, which the Jersey Journal is about to do.

Winston Churchill once said that nobody but a fool ever wrote anything without getting paid for it, and on this principle I feel the nation's great papers, including the New York Times and Los Angeles Times should join the Wall Street Journal in charging users of their web sites at least nominal amounts. With circulation dipping, do they have much choice?

But I do feel that not everything by far ought to be included on the website. There ought to be some continuing advantage to taking the full paper. And, initially, the charge should be fairly small. Only in time, as the idea catches on, should the charge be slowly increased. In time, papers have got to spread out, as the NYT has done wikth its national edition. The LAT has gone the wrong direction, I believe, in slicing its national edition back to almost nothing..

As for tabloids, I don't believe in them. The LAT has already moved timidly in that direction, with a tabloid Calendar once a week. I don't think it's been wise.

In the long order of things, there is no way to maintain quality with a tabloid. Papers need space to present outstanding detailed articles, like the King-Drew expose.

Yes, holding back the future is hopeless. But it has to be channeled. We can't give up our future by doing too much.

Monday, March 21, 2005

My Own Working Policy Was Not To Spend Much Company Money Except On Phone Calls

The late Mark Murphy, when he was city editor of the L.A. Times, used to say that he could send me to Europe for what it would cost to send his educational writer Bill Trombley to Fresno.

And it was certainly true that I didn't spend any more of the company's money than necessary, with one or two exceptions.

I never stinted on telephone calls, and, especially when I had the Olympic assignment this often meant spending a lot of money, so much that Publisher Tom Johnson said he would never divulge to me how much I was spending on international telephone calls. often began the day with several calls to Europe.

And, initially on the Olympic assignment, I used to adhere to then-Times policy of flying first class over 1,000 miles. But later, when I took my children with me on many Olympic trips I used to fly to Europe with the kids on Laker Airlines, which cost The Times only $350, and the kids only $175 each.

Bill Thomas, Times editor, used to tell me he always stayed in a suite, for what he felt were good business reasons. I never did, except I did learn it was useful to stay in the hotel where the meeting I was covering was being held, and that sometimes cost something.

Still, during the 1968 presidential campaign, when I covered Eugene McCarthy in 35 states, the most I ever spent on a night's hotel room in six months of travel was $34 in the St. Regis Hotel in New York City and the least was $4 in a place in Bismarck, N.D.

I was penurious in entertainment expenses. Basically, I entertained very little. Sometimes, late at night I would buy an International Olympic Committee member a drink, almost never dinner.

This was not the entertainment policy of Bill Boyarsky, who routinely bought $100 dinners at a time when it was rare.

Boyarsky always thought this was well worth while for sound business reasons, and he may have been right. Maynard Parker, the late managing editor of Newsweek magazine, used to say that the more company money he spent, the faster he got ahead, was promoted.

And sometimes my expense accounts were unpopular with colleagues. They would tell me they were embarrassed when their expense account amounts were compared with mine.

Still, I wouldn't change my expenditures as long as I was with The Times. I changed when I started traveling on my own ticket, to some extent, and recently did spend quite a bit on exotic cruises in South America and Antarctica, and on routine trips to see friends in London and Paris. My children, however, in their careers, often hold business expenses down.

I learned a good spending lesson once when I spent $2,000 back in 1963 in Life magazine money to hire a charter to photgraph the sinking passenger ship, the Lakonia, when it was sinking off Madeira. We never found the ship, and my editors back in New York never stopped blaming me. It helped wreck my two years at Life.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

LAT Political Writer Dick Bergholz, One Of A Kind

When the late political writer Richard Bergholz was writing for the L.A. Times, he used to sit well in front at news conferences, and when the politician started talking, Bergholz used to shake his head from side to side. It was very disconcerting for the politician,

Bergholz could be intimidating, too, to both his editors and colleagues, but like a lot of people in our profession, he was unforgettable.

I remember, one time, during the 1976 Florida primary campaign, I caught a ride to the Tampa Airport with Reagan's campaign bus. As usual, Bergholz was the LAT correspondent with Reagan. I had been covering Carter. But I knew Reagan well, so I mentioned to him that I was going back to California that night and asked him whether there was anything I could take back home for him. Reagan never missed a beat. "Bergholz," he said very forcefully.

One time, when he was running for President, Lloyd Bentsen came out to California for the weekend. When he got back to Washington, he told the Times' congressional correspondent, John Averill, that he had encountered in the California press corps "the worst son of a bitch I ever met." Averill responded that it had to be either Reich or Bergholz. "Bergholz," Bentsen replied.

Bergholz had an infallible instinct for when a candidate was in trouble. When Reagan made the mistake once of producing a tax plan, Dick went after it hammer and tongs until Reagan dropped it.

But Bergholz wasn't always infallible about who was doing well campaigning. Most campaign managers didn't think all that much of billboards as a means of advertising, but Dick did. He used to measure how well a campaign was doing by how many of its billboards he saw. A campaign manager knowing this once followed Bergholz home and then had billboards placed all along the route he took. The next time Bergholz saw him, although he was usually not very complimentary, he told him enthusiastically that he could see how well his candidate was doing.

It was Carl Greenberg, Bergholz's colleague at The Times, who was the subject of Richard Nixon's "last" press conference in 1962 in which he declared that Greenberg always quoted him accurately and was the only fair political reporter he ever knew. Greenberg was mortified and Bergholz was glad Nixon had not complimented him.

Neither Greenberg or Bergholz ever accepted me as a political writer, and, once, when I introduced my wife to Dick, he turned on his heels and walked away, not saying a word.

But later, when he retired, Bergholz became friendlier to me, and he used to sometimes call me up with suggestions or questions. When Dick died, his family asked me to deliver his eulogy, and I felt honored, although I don't think the family was too happy with it.

As a representative of The Times, however, Bergholz was memorably honest, and we all were glad we had him.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Some Can Predict Elections, Not Me Particularly

When I was Southern correspondent of the L.A. Times in 1970, there was the dramatic Wallace-Brewer race for governor of Alabama, settled in the Democratic primary, but only after a runoff. We found out later that the Nixon Administration aided the Brewer campaign substantially, trying to knock Wallace out of the 1972 presidential race.

It was a tight election. Brewer led by a few thousand in the first round,
Wallace won by a few thousand more in the runoff. I spent weeks in Alabama that spring and found three political experts who were able to predict both rounds of voting correctly and with precision. They were Donald Strong, professor of politics at the University of Alabama, Bill Jones, Wallace's press secretary, and Ray Jenkins, editorial page editor of the Alabama Journal. I shamelessly piggybacked on the expertise of all three men.

In California elections, there were some able predictors too. Jess Unruh was one. His friend, State Controller Ken Cory, was another, and Lu Haas, aide to Senator Alan Cranston, was a third. They did not allow their Democratic affiliation to prejudice them. I could always rely on them to express their real views as long as I quoted them only as "insiders." Alas, all three are now dead. I miss them.

At the L.A. Times, none of us political writers when I was one were particularly good at predicting elections, and most of the time we didn't even try. I was right about Reagan winning the Presidency in 1980, but that was an easy guess.

The best people at The Times predicting elections were usually the editor, Bill Thomas, and the managing editors, first Frank Haven and then George Cotliar. The national editor, Edwin Guthman, was also quite good very often. Guthman knew, still knows for that matter, a lot about politics. He was the first man who told me when I was covering the Carter campaign for President that Carter would not be a strong president. He would use too many of his Georgia aides in the White House, he correctly surmised. Thomas, incidentally, told me in 1968 there was no such thing as a new Nixon. He was right and I was wrong. But Thomas was wrong later when he told me Gorbachev would change little in the Soviet Union.

There was a Miami Herald political writer, who I shall leave nameless, who was unfailingly wrong about elections. If he said one candidate would win, I could always safely predict the other.

Mark Barabak at The Times correctly predicted Gray Davis would not fare well in his campaign for a second term. He was right; Davis won by only five points, setting himself up for the recall. And although he is not my favorite political Writer, Ron Brownstein strongly hinted in print the night before the last election, he thought George W. Bush would win. That commanded my respect.

Friday, March 18, 2005

George Kennan Dies At 101

There are journalists and then there are great historic writers. There are polemicists and then there are diplomats. George F. Kennan was both a great historian and a diplomat. As the man who designed the winning strategy in the Cold War, he was one of the greatest.

The U.S. owes Kennan every medal it can devise. Some know how to win wars, but Kennan knew how to wage great victorious struggles without war. As the originator of the containment strategy against the Soviet Union, he showed how we could defeat the Russian dictatorship without great bloodshed on either side.

In Kennan's "Long Telegram" sent home from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in 1946, he contended that while Soviet power was "impervious to the logic of reason," it was "highly sensitive to the logic of force," and the effective threat of force would send Stalinist Russia into retreat.

Writing as Mr. X in the journal Foreign Affairs the following year, he stated, "Soviet pressure against the free institutions of the Western world is something that can be contained by the adroit and vigorous application of counterforce." That force should be exerted through diplomacy and covert action, not war.

Following that policy, when it was followed, led us to victory.

So read the obituaries. Honor the man who through his intellectual power gave us success.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

L.A. Juries Do Again What They Do Best: Let The Celebrity Off

This is truly what Los Angeles juries do best: Find a way to let the celebrity defendant off scot-free.

It happened with OJ Simpson. It happened with the prostitution case against Edwin Moses. And now it's happened with Robert Blake. And all the Los Angeles Times, the hometown newspaper, can do is react with bemusement, as its reporters appropriately did this morning.

The real key in the Blake case may have been his success, after 11 months in jail, in getting bail. Once the old actor got off on his own, found a lawyer who know how to defend him and was able to create a nice persona for himself, the outcome could have been no surprise. The fact that there was considerable testimony Blake had threatened to "whack" the wife he didn't want, and even speculated that as an actor he would be able to worm his way out of the crime, committed near his favorite restaurant, didn't count at all. The jurors found brilliant excuses for not believing any of it. After all, the two stuntmen testifying against Blake had taken drugs and might be "delusional," they said.

It also was a mark of success for Blake that he was able to portray his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley, as a thoroughly reprehensible woman, who seemed to have deserved getting plugged while she sat in the family car, after having inveigled the poor Blake into marriage and even refused to get an abortion.

Times reporters, in this case, the outstanding and underrated Jean Guccione, who deserves downtown billing, Andrew Blankstein and the writer of the color story, the jubilant Blake holding forth, Sam Quinones, all did a fine job.

In fact, the Times usually does a great job covering crime; we also saw it last weekend in the Atlanta and Wisconsin massacre stories. Stephanie Simon, the St. Louis-based Midwestern reporter for the Times was able to cover both the Wisconsin and Atlanta stories at virtually the same time. She is a treasure, who lives in St. Louis because her husband is a cartoonist there, but who could successfully cover World War III from a small town in Iowa.

As it has turned out, the crime stories where LAPD and Sheriff's officers shoot or beat some hapless member of a minority group, are the most serious crime stories the Times covers. They have had riotous outcomes, with occasionally half the city of Los Angeles wrecked.

The only victims in the Blake case were Blake and his wife. The wife ended up dead, and Blake says he has ended up broke, although I imagine, even at 71, he will manage to recoup. In a pinch, he could go on the speaking circuit. His is a very entertaining story.

I wonder whether there will be a Times editorial. The hapless writers of the editorial page can only be victims too, if they so much as seek to do justice to this one. After all, it is hardly a triumph for our vaunted jury system.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

AP To Provide Alternative Leads, To Enable Papers To Compete With The Internet On Early Breaking Stories

The Associate Press announces that on early-breaking stories it will provide clients with alternative leads, so they will have the option not to be scooped by the Internet. It's a sign of our times.

They haven't given any examples yet, so I'm going to do them a favor, providing some alternative lead suggestions for past historic events, showing how much more we will learn..

1. Lincoln Assassination. Main AP lead: "President Lincoln Shot at Ford Theatre in Washington by Assassin."
Alternative: "Crowd Annoyed at 'Our American Cousin' Play After Loud Noise Disrupts Laughter."

2. Dec. 7, 1941: Main Lead: "Japanese Attack Pearl Harbor, Sink Battleship Arizona and Other U.S. Ships."
Alternative: "Oil Leak From Boat Causes Environmentalist Furore In Hawaii."

3. 9-11: Main Lead: "Arab Terrorists Attack New York and Washington, Raze Twin Towers and Damage Pentagon, Kill Thousands."
Alternative. "Afghan-based Rebels Make U.S. Visit."

4. Roosevelt Dies: Main Lead: "FDR Dies of Cerebral Hemmorage."
Alternative: "Lucy Mercer Snubs Eleanor, Visits Prez In Warm Springs, Ga."

5. Nixon resigns: Main Lead. "Nixon Resigns Presidency in Watergate Climax."
Alternative: "Nixon Gives Triumphant Wave As He Boards Helicopter."

6. Eastwood, Swank, Freeman win Oscars: Main Lead: "Clint Eastwood and Young Paramour Hilary Swank Win Oscars."
Alternative: "Catholic Church Spurned In Euthanasia-based Drama."

7. Hindenburg Crash: Main Lead: "Nazi Dirigible Hindenburg Blows Up At Lakehurst, N.J."
Alternative: "Radio Announcer Sparks Controversy by Yelling About Humanity, Riling Crowd."

8. U.S. Atom Bombs Hiroshima. Main Lead: "Atomic Bomb Equivalent to 20,000 Tons of TNT Destroys Hiroshima, Japan."
Alternative: "A Hot Time In The Old Town Tonight Opposed in Dovish L.A. Times Editorial."

9. Hitler Invades Poland: Main Lead: "Germany Invades Poland."
Alternative: "Poland Attacks Germany."

10. Lexington and Concord: "American Minutemen Fire Shot Heard Round The World; Turn British Force Back at the Concord Bridge."
Alternative: "Redcoats Disrupt Colonial Arms Storage Plans in Gallant Raid Outside Boston."

Ah yes, this is going to be a great improvement.


Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Bryan Williams Not Making A Very Dynamic Impression at NBC; Daryn Kagan Does Better At CNN

Now that he's been the NBC nightly news anchor for awhile, Bryan Williams doesn't seem to be making a very dynamic impression. Maybe he requires a big story, which he hasn't had, to shake things out, but right now, Williams is, gasp!, no Dan Rather.

I don't know how his ratings look, however.

Ratings are not central with me, as with, I suspect, most news watchers. I like what I like, and that's all that counts with me.

In this vein, I do very much like CNN's Daryn Kagan, on the 7 a.m. morning news (California time). She is incisive, comes across well, handles many subjects in a few minutes, and is not above showing some emotion, which Bryan Williams seldom does by the way.

I particularly enjoyed the moment awhile back when a man Kagan was interviewing suddenly, on the air, asked her out. The way Kagan said she was "very busy" for the foreseeable future did her credit.

CNN is trying, but not all of its newscasters are effective. Kagan is, and I won't stop watching her newscast just because of a rumor she may become Rush Limbaugh's fourth wife. She can't have good emotional judgment on everything.

The New York Times reports today, March 15, that quite a few French newspapers, like American ones, have lost circulation. In the latest reporting period, Le Monde dropped 4.1% to 330,768, Le Figaro declined 3.1% to 329,721, Liberation slumped 7.8% to 139,479 and once-successful France Soir dropped 11.6% to 62,197, shockingly low for a Paris paper. Les Echos, a financial paper, and L'Equipe, the sports paper, were up, however.

I hope the L.A. Times would drop Michael Kinsley as editorial pages editor before hitting 62,197, but we can't tell for sure. The Times is down by several hundred thousand just since the Tribune purchase.

On my recent cruise to Antarctica, many passengers told me they thought, in the age of the Internet, many daily newspapers would shut down. I hope not!

Monday, March 14, 2005

CNN Shines In Coverage of Atlanta Courthouse Shooting And Aftermath

The CNN network, which has had its troubles of late, can take pride in its superb coverage of the Atlanta courthouse shootings by Brian Nichols, the manhunt for Nichols, and his peaceful capture, thanks to the heroism of his hostage, 26-year-old Ashley Smith.

The website posts an interview with Smith in its entirety this morning, March 14, and it is a dramatic account of how this gallant woman turned things around once she was taken hostage by Smith at her Duluth, Ga. apartment in the early hours of Saturday morning.

Nichols himself is a tragic figure. How did he go so far off the tracks, and how did this young woman bring him back and get him to release her and peacefully surrender? It is a dramatic story which we will hear much of in the coming days. The world, it is clear, needs more Ashley Smiths.

But, for CNN, this too was one of its proudest moments. The coverage was carefully done in what, of course, is CNN's home town. Even at the dramatic moment of capture, the CNN newscaster did not overly hype matters. Sources were carefully identified, and the newscasters weren't reaching.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution also had fine moments in its coverage, but when I went to its website Monday morning to read its account of the interview with Smith, I found I was required to fill in a massive amount of personal information, including my home address, e-mail, telephone number and a list of my personal likes and dislikes, before I could access its website. Finally, I gave up and erased all my information, quitting the website out of disgust and fear that once I became part of the Journal-Constitution's system I would be hearing from them constantly and forever.

When I went then to the CNN website, there was no required registration, no questions to answer. I got the interview with Smith right away and at full length. What an inspiration this woman is!

One lesson of this is that these websites make a critical mistake if they require a party to register and give so much information as a preliminary step. It should be possible to wait on registration until a party such as myself has contacted the website several times and proved a continuing interest. Under those circumstances, registration is desirable, and I would have been willing.

In the meantimes, let's hope we learn more about both Nichols and Smith. There are lessons to be learned from this story, unlike the sordid Michael Jackson case.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Endorsement of Bill Rosendahl In The 11th L.A. Councilmatic District

I'm proud to add to my endorsement of Antonio Villaraigosa for mayor an endorsement of the candidacy of cable tv executive Bill Rosendahl in the Los Angeles 11th Council district runoff.

Rosendahl will add intelligence and independence much needed in the Council and has broader real experience monitoring government than his opponent, Flora Gil Krisiloff.

Krisiloff is more the establishment candidate, having the endorsement of the outgoing councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski, now termlimited out, and others. Miscikowski did a good job as councilwoman, but that does not legitimately entitle her to choose her successor.

I think the interests of new blood are important in these races.

Years ago, as a Times political writer, and before the unwise term limits were widely instituted, I used to debate endorsement policy with Bill Thomas, then the editor of the Los Angeles Times.

Thomas, as he explained it to me, felt that unless there was good reason to remove an existing officeholder, he would generally endorse him or her for reelection.

I had a different philosophy. I felt that unless the officeholder had established a commanding reason to be reeelected, it was better to endorse a challenger, provided they were responsible and honest. "It's time for a change," was an important operative slogan for me, since I think government often benefits from a new point of view and I think, in time, establishment-oriented candidates have less value.

Rosendahl is honest and conscientious, to my knowledge. I think he has proven, on Century Cable, his fairmindedness. I hear he did not make the best of impressions when he showed up to the Times editorial offices for an interview. But, given the lack of talent that now characterizes the leadership of those pages, that may not be a bad thing.

Los Angeles needs new blood. The electorate should vote for Villaraigosa and Rosendahl.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Rainey Article on Estrich-Kinsley Row Shows John Carroll Stands Behind Kinsley

Jim Rainey's workmanlike article in the L.A. Times Calendar section Friday, March 11, on the unseemly row between Susan Estrich and the Times' frequently absent editorial pages editor, Michael Kinsley, tends to show among other things how much editor John Carroll stands behind Kinsley.

Carroll has unnecessarily injected himself into this dispute, and, I wonder whether Kinsley will long survive as editorial pages editor when Carroll does retire. I would think not.

The Rainey article, among other things, mentions that Estrich opposed in a written article the publication by the Times, just five days before the 2003 Recall election, of accounts that Arnold Schwarzenegger had sexually harassed several women. She called it a smear.

The sexual harassment report has been verified, although questions persist about its timing. It came so close to the election that it appeared to some readers to be a smear.

Now the interesting thing about this is that Carroll wrote a vehement defense of publishing the sexual harassment report. Carroll has a long memory, and it would not surprise me if the real origin of Estrich's estrangement from the L.A. Times is her opposition to Carroll's position on the sexual harassment issue.

Carroll was responsible for hiring Kinsley. I remember how he walked around the paper the night it was announced to defend his choice. He is very close to Kinsley, who has not turned out well thus far as editorial pages editor, and it would not be surprising if he had discouraged Kinsley from any thought of running Estrich as a columnist, or even running further op-ed page pieces by her.

It is quite unusual for any newspaper to run an article about internal matters such as discussed by Rainey in Calendar on Friday. Again, I wonder if Carroll suggested the article. Or whether Kinsley might have put some pressure on Carroll to defend him along the way of this dispute.

Meanwhile, the New York Times reported Friday it is moving its outstanding columnist, Frank Rich, to the Op-Ed page and will expand Op-Ed page presentations to two pages on Sundays in the NYT's Week in Review section. Rich's lengthier essays are a real contribution to the NYT.

Kinsley has been responsible for weakening the LAT's Sunday Opinion section, with lighthearted pieces, his own hapless weekly column and many, many cartoons. So as the NYT improves its presentations, it has ever less real competition from Kinsley's editorial pages. That's too bad.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Coverage of Michael Jackson Trial Is Overdone

In driving back and forth to the Bay Area in recent days, I was impressed more than ever how excessive the coverage of the Michael Jackson trial is on an ongoing basis.

This is a sordid story of little or no edifying value to the American people. It's a stark violation of the New York Times motto: "All The News That's Fit To Print." Specifically, it is entirely unsuitable to children to listen to the extremely explicit account of trial testimony. I can only imagine what their longrange reaction may be.

Even the New York Times and Los Angeles Times are giving this trial far more attention than it's worth. But network and cable radio and tv news is even more egregiously excessive. I cannot tell you how often, while driving south yesterday, March 10, I heard that Jackson had shown up to yesterday's proceedings an hour late, under threat by the judge, and in pajama bottoms.

Undoubtedly, it is necessary for the Michael Jackson trial to take place, since charges have been made and they must be adjudicated.

But it would be most desirable if there was virtually no attention paid to the whole mess by the media. Generally speaking, it skips many such trials when the people involved are little known.

And, parenthetically, I might add, the whole focus on celebrity trials of every description has about it an air of the spectacle of feeding Christians to the lions in the Roman Coliseum in ancient times, or the Salem witch trials. These squalid episodes also drew pruriently-minded crowds reviling in every gory detail, although fortunately in those times there was no universal television.

I have no idea, and little interest, in knowing if Jackson is guilty of the crimes charged, or if this is a continuation of money grubbing by people interested in exposing celebrities to paying blackmail. Let the court system sort that out.

But yesterday's story, taking up an inordinate proportion of each hourly CBS national newscast, was lengthened unnecessarily by speculation that Jackson may now be in financial difficulties, unable to raise $150,000 he is said to need to defend himself, pay his staff, and so forth. Essentially, who cares?

When I was on my recent Antarctica cruise, many of my fellow-passengers expressed their disgust with the news media for purveying such trash at every turn. I was hard put to disagree with them. It is clear that the media is casting itself in a bad light with such a welcoming attitude toward the most distasteful coverage.

Somehow, it must be cut back and it would be far better if the media itself did so voluntarily..

Thursday, March 10, 2005

LA Times, Yet Again A Weak Sister, Fails To Immediately Endorse Villaraigosa In The Mayoral Runoff

The runoff campaign between Mayor James Hahn and City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa is most likely going to be a close, hard-fought affair, and it is disconcerting, to say the least, that in its first editorials since the primary election, the L.A. Times has failed to follow up its endorsement of Villaraigosa (and the third-running Bob Hertzberg) in the primary with an endorsement of Villaraigosa in the final.

Once more, it seems like Michael Kinsley is proving to be a weak sister. As his battle with Susan Estrich tends to show, Kinsley is not a real liberal but an ersatz liberal. In the Estrich affair, she may have hinted at blackmail in coming after him so hard for a column, but the fact is he was not ready to add more women to the Op-Ed page. Just as in the presidential campaign when he lambasted President George W. Bush, only to refuse an endorsement of Sen. John Kerry, Kinsley thus repeatedly shows a persistent unwillingness to (1) make up his mind decisively to follow through with his supposed liberalism, and (2) keep it made up.

This has to be alarming for Villaraigosa, because he is going to need The Times influence to stay ahead of Hahn. His edge the last time in the primary was 30% to 25 and he lost to Hahn 54% to 46. Now, he's ahead by a little more, 33% to 24, but this does not guarantee him victory. Last time, 2001, there was a 14% swing toward Hahn between the primary and the runoff. A 14% swing this time would put Hahn back in the lead again.

There is also some sign that Villaraigosa is not as persistent as Tom Bradley was, in his second go-around in 1973 against Sam Yorty, in chasing after the white vote. Villaraigosa, just like Bradley, cannot afford to be a shrinking violet.

Between the time I returned from Antarctica last Friday, March 4, and turned my telephone back on, and the election, I received four calls at my home urging me to vote for Hahn, three calls urging me to vote for Hertzberg, and zero calls for Villaraigosa. This after I had voted for Villaraigosa by absentee. I am a registered Republican. I got one Republican call for Hahn.

Villaraigosa must not in the runoff give up on votes like mine, even if, as I totally expect, the Hahn folks try to turn the runoff into another white man's race against a minority candidate, stressing the telltale racist issue of accusing Villaraigosa of being soft on crime.

Make no mistake about it: A key issue in this election will be whether the Los Angeles electorate will be able to overcome its prior resistance to electing a Latino candidate mayor, just as a third of a century ago, a key issue was whether it could (which then it did) overcome its resistance to electing a black mayor.

Yet The Times analysis article beginning on Page 1 of the A section today, March 10, by Matea Gold, scarcely even mentions, and then, only far down, that Villaraigosa is Latino. I can guarantee you that out-of-town political writers at the New York Times and Washington Post won't make such a mistake, since Villaraigosa's ethnicity is going to be so important in determining the outcome of this election, even if Hahn is a weak mayor. In fact, I notice that the New York Times article on the outcome of the primary, by John Broder, in the very first paragraph calls Villaraigosa a "charismatic Latino." I suspect that Gold at the LAT, who speaks Spanish and has much experience on the East Side, might have done the same, but was reined in by the always politically correct editors who dominate the political desk.

Under Tribune ownership, the l.A. Times is having a tough time summoning up much courage on local issues. Despite his initial conclusion that Hahn should not be reelected, and that Villaraigosa should make the runoff, Kinsley now appears to be waffling, perhaps on the advice of John Carroll, who has little sense of California politics, or their ultimate masters at the Chicago Tribune Co., who as Chicagoans may not have the stomach to back a non-white candidate.

I endorsed Villaraigosa myself Feb. 5, because I felt Los Angeles needed a more intelligent, dynamic mayor. I see no reason to change my opinion and hereby endorse him again. The runoff is going to be a test of his skills, but also of the fortitude of the Los Angeles Times.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

A Truncated Metro Fails To Use Its Own Writers When It Should

When Los Angeles Times editors changed Metro into the California section, they promised to expand the number of pages and deliver a more comprehensive package. But now, like other sections of the paper, the section has fallen too often victim to Tribune cost-cutting. On many days, it is inadequate. What The Times needs is a California, not a greedy Chicago owner.

I was reminded of this Sunday, March 6, when the California section ran a stringer on a significant story -- the future of the Monterey peninsula. Not so long ago, The
Times would have sent its own writer to do this story, and it wouldn't have been nearly so short.

What happens to the Monterey Peninsula is an important environmental story in California, and this should have been taken in hand by the paper's new environmental editor, Frank Clifford. He has excellent writers who would have cared about the Monterey Peninsula.

The stringer they got, Irwin Speizer, was highly celebrity conscious, putting undue emphasis on Clint Eastwood and Arnold Palmer being among the owners who want to further develop the peinsula, cutting down 17,000 of its venerable Monterey pines, while conserving others, to make room for new housing and commercial development along the cherished 17-Mile Drive.

Speizer barely mentions that Peter Ueberroth and other bigtime businessmen also own the development that now would be expanded, if it gets the necessary approvals.

Ueberroth explained to me the last time I saw him last year that in exchange for the required approvals, his firm was willing to guarantee the rest of the trees and other undeveloped areas in perpetuity. Some of these assurances should have been mentioned in the story. A more detailed account of how the new development would affect the scenery and existing private property also should have been included.

I hope under Tribune ownership, The Times won't start using Yosemite National Park as another locale for stringer stories, or the San Francisco Bay, the Redwoods or Death Valley. I hope it remains a paper with statewide, not just Los Angeles-Orange County interests.

Make no mistake about it, the present Times is in decline. Under Tribune ownership, it is like a colony. I visited the Falkland Islands last week. There, 4,000 willing citizens are prospering under British rule. We, however, are not prospering under Chicago rule, and if Antonio Villaraigosa is, as is now expected, elected mayor, maybe he can pursue new owners for Los Angeles' newspaper as well.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Howard Rosenberg Asks Why LAT Has Inadequate TV Criticism

He won a Pulitzer Prize as the Los Angeles Times television critic, so no wonder Howard Rosenberg, now that he is retired, thinks the newspaper ought to continue to offer serious television criticism.

That was one of the points Rosenberg made when he addressed the Old Farts, the association of retired Times employees, on March 2, and it is a good point. It's just another sign of how the paper has sunk under Tribune ownership, despite the efforts of local editors. At one point, the Times did hire a successfor to Rosenberg, but she went off to the New York Times before she got into the saddle. The latest successful is just a shadow of Rosenberg, offering little of what he did.

Now, it seems, major television articles in the Times' Calendar Section often come under a Special to the Times byline, indicating that freelancers are being hired occasionally to give the biggest newspaper in one of the world's biggest television centers a veneer of television coverage and criticism. No wonder that Rosenberg, and many of the rest of us, wonder what's going on.

Just last Sunday, March 6, Ned Martel, not a Times staff writer, was given space beginning on Page 1 of Calendar to interiew Jonathan Klein, latest president at CNN, to discuss a favorite Times topic: how CNN can try to overtake Fox News, its rival, which the Times, with its liberal slant, hates.

There is no network the Times Calendar section loves more than CNN, but this article fell short in making its case, because the nightly news anchors so enthusiastically discussed by their new boss often fall short of the viewer appeal the Fox anchors have.

Regardless of Klein's view, for instance, that Anderson Cooper, one of the CNN anchors, is in the words of the article's writer, "the most impressive in the CNN news suite," I would beg to differ, since, to this viewer at least, Cooper looks very green behind the ears, and doesn't even look like a newsman, for goodness sake. I tune eleswhere or turn off the set whenever I see him.

Judging from Klein in this article, the new CNN president seems impressed that CNN is fleshing out the day's news, when, in fact, its newscasters often spend too much time on just a few subjects while skipping others that are worthy of attention. CNN's nightly wordinesss, indeed, is exceeded only, when one if abroad and gets to see it, by CNN International.

Aaron Brown, another CNN newscaster, is down 20% in viewership this year. I wonder if that trend has been overcome by a simply awful change in the format of his show, which now has him giving no news summary and going straight, on most nights, to a feature. I strongly suspect poor Brown, one of the most humane men in the business, may not last long in his present post. His Fox rival the same hour, Greta Van Susteren, is up 24% in the meantime.

What we need now from Times Calendar is a fair, insightful look of whyFox is such a success. It may be that its undoubted conservative ideological slant is more in tune with majority views. But whenever such an article comes, it should come from the Times own television critic. It ought to get a bigtime one like Rosenberg and quickly.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Calling Terrorism Terrorism When It Clearly Is Terrorism

Daniel Okrent, the outstanding public representative at the New York Times, on Sunday, March 6, made some much-needed observations on the importance of calling terrorism terrorism and terrorists terrorists when terrorism is involved.

Many newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, have fallen into the all too-easy politically-correct habit of labeling all such deeds as having been committed by "militants."

But Okrent makes the point there is a time to call things for what they are.

"In some instances," Okrent writes, "The (NY) Times earnest effort to avoid bias can dessicate language and dilute meaning. In a January memo to the foreign desk, former Jerusalem bureau chief James Bennet addressed the paper's gingerly use of the word 'terrorism.'

"'The calculated bombing of students in a university cafeteria or of families gathering in an ice cream parlor, cries out to be called what it is,' he wrote. 'I wanted to avoid the political meaning that comes with "terrorism," but I couldn't pretend that the word had no usage at all in plain English.' Bennet came to believe that 'not to use the term began to seem like a political act in itself.'"

"I agree," Okrent wrote. "While some Israelis and their supporters assert that any Palestinian holding a gun is a terrorist, there can be neither factual nor moral certainty that he is. But if the same man fires into a crowd of civilians, he has committed an act of terror, and he is a terrorist. My own definition is simple: an act of political violence committed against purely civilian targets is terrorism, attacks on military targets are not...

"Given the word's history as a virtual battle flag over the past several years, it would be tendentious for The Times to require constant use of it, as some of the paper's critics are insisting. But there's something uncomfortably fearful, and inevitably self-defeating about struggling so hard to avoid it."

Amen. It all recalls something that happened at the Los Angeles Times shortly before I retired there last June.

I had written to the paper's foreign editor, Marjorie Miller, with a copy to editor John Carroll, making the point that The Times frequently called attacks against Israelis the work of "militants," while attacks elsewhere in the world were frequently called the work of "terrorists." The Times, I contended in the note, should avoid making such "odious distinctions" based on who was being attacked.

Within days, the paper dropped most use of the word "terrorist" and started referring to everything as the work of "militants," regardless where they happened, Israel or elsewhere, and regardless of the exact nature of the act.

I was somewhat pleased at the time, thinking my point had been made, even though neither Miller nor Carroll ever responded to my note.

Now, however, I think Okrent has made the right point. The LA Times should start, when it is appropriate, using the words "terrorist" and "terrorism" more frequently, as should others in the mainstream press..


Sunday, March 06, 2005

Barbara Demick's Friendly Interview With A North Korean For The LAT Raises Questions

When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called the North Korean regime of Kim Jong Il an "outpost of tyranny," she was only stating the obvious. This is a government that has repeatedly committed terrorist acts of sabotage, kidnapping, political imprisonments of large numbers, and now threatens the world with nuclear weapons. There has been reliable evidence it has sold nuclear technology to others.

So what is the Los Angeles Times, often a notoriously weakkneeded newspaper on foreign affairs, doing running a friendly interview on Page 1 with a North Korean businessman in what writer Barbara Demick characterizes as "an effort to clear up misunderstandings," by giving the North Koreans a chance to characterize themselves as a place "just like any other?"

Demick has already defended her piece as routine. She told a reader quoted by the Powerline blog, "I'm sorry if my story was seen as an endorsement of the North Korean point of view, but believe me, it wasn't." She insisted she had given the anonymous North Korean a chance to make "repellent" remarks in order to give him "enough rope to hang himself."

But there was nothing in the article as it appeared March 3 in the Times that seemed to be the writer hinting at any skepticism about what she was hearing.

Demick also made the point that if she got an interview with Kim Jong Il himself, she certainly would have been glad to quote him.

Well, of course. But this wasn't Kim Jong Il. It was an unnamed source sitting in a North Korean-owned restaurant in Beijing. A source who, by the way, expressed delight that North Korea now is claiming to have nuclear weapons.

This could end badly, folks, and for the Times reporter to let her source get away with blaming the U.S. for the situation without a word to indicate the known facts--that North Korea welched on an earlier agreement to abandon nuclear weapons in exchange for help with development of peaceful nuclear energy--has to be regarded as a dereliction on her part. And the paper's editors are just as guilty for editing her story in such a way as to not question blatant misstatements.

Demick is quoted too by the Powerline blog as saying she has done previous stories critical of the North Koreans, thus implying she deserves dispensation in this case.

Dealing with the tyrants of the world by allowing their mouthpieces to try to win over Times readers by extolling their good intentions and saying they are no different from peaceful peoples elsewhere in the world is not my idea of how The Times should be standing up for freedom, the very system under which the paper prints.

What next? An article with a neo-Nazi saying Hitler meant well, or an interview with a friend of the Muslim terrorist al-Zarqawi saying he is showing his humanity when he beheads people? The Times editors need to consider just how they appear to their own readers when they print articles like Demick's.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Kinsley Deserves Credit For Opposing Hahn and Making A Two-Way Choice In The Mayoral Primary

I've been clear in criticizing Michael Kinsley's tenure as editor of the editorial pages at the L.A. Times, and just last week, from the remote Falkland Islands, I used the recent Susan Estrich-Kinsley row to call for Kinsley's ouster.

But when I returned home Friday, and began reading back issues, I noticed two fine editorials on the Los Angeles mayor's race, and, to give even the devil his due, it is time to compliment Kinsley too.

In calling upon the voters to reject the reelection bid of the inept Mayor James Hahn, and, then, a week later, endorsing two former Assembly Speakers, Bob Hertzberg and (City Councilman) Antonio Villaraigosa for positions in what looks like an impending runoff, Kinsley made a responsible choice and one that certainly serves the electorate. (In my own case, however, in a Feb. 5 blog I endorsed only Villaraigosa in the primary, sent him a $100 campaign contribution and have already voted for him, by absentee ballot).

It seems clear from the Feb. 20 Times editorial that Kinsley will eventually choose between his two favorites if they do get into the runoff. He sensibly just wants to hear more debate between the two.

Because of its decision in the 2004 presidential race, when The Times marched right up to the Rubicon, and then only dangled its fishing line, refusing to endorse John Kerry after criticizing President George W. Bush for years, I had feared Kinsley would duck the mayor's race too. But he didn't.

Now, if only Kinsley started coming to Los Angeles more often, like moving here permanently, and ceased his petty criticisms of critics like Estrich, I think he would be acting as an editor of The Times' editorial pages, should. Also, of course, he might become a little less of a bitter-ender against every current American foreign policy initiative.

In the wake of the assassination of former Lebanese Premier Rafik Hariri, the Kinsley-run editorial page held back from urging Syria to quit Lebanon. So far, not only President Bush's Administration, but the French, Russians, Saudi Arabians and Egyptians disagree with him. They think Syria should go.

Kinsley might also drop his undistinguished Sunday column and redirect the Opinion pages on Sunday away from the insipid cartoons he seems to favor.

Nonetheless, he deserves credit for taking a stand in the mayor's race. Now, he can complete the coup by registering to vote here instead of the State of Washington. That might give him a solid future in Los Angeles.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Antarctica and Lindblad Cruise Observations

I'm back today (March 4) from my cruise on Lindblad's MS Endeavor to Antarctica, South Orkney, South Georgia and the Falkland Islands with a few observations on the trip, before getting back to the L.A. Times and other journalistic issues.

First, I should make the earnest point that the 22-day cruise, as virtually all such ventures, went only to the fringe of Antarctica. We never got to the Antarctic Circle. The furthest south we went along the Antarctica Peninsula that juts toward South America was 65 degrees 11 minutes south, and had we gone further I was assured by ship personnel who certainly seemed reliable, we could well have been stuck in the ice for the Southern Hemisphere winter that is even now approaching. As it was, we saw a lot of ice and some of it was even alarming, such as when an iceburg turned over right in front of the ship, and winds once reached 100 mph.

So I tell you this not to be making claims of being too great an adventurer. Compared to the polar explorers, or the researchers who are in Antarctica today, we don't rate at all.

But that said, this was still a tremendous cruise, enjoyed by almost all the 110 passengers aboard, mostly Americans with a few British, Australians, Swedes and others. South Georgia, with its millions of seals and hundreds of thousands of penguins, was probably most enjoyable, because it is a little warmer than Antarctica, 40 degrees in late February rather than 25-30. It snowed three of the six days we were along the Antarctic Peninsula.

Shorter cruises are offered by Lindblad and other lines out of Tierra del Fuego to Antarctica, but if you're going so far, it certainly makes sense to take a wider cruise to South Georgia and the Falklands.

Last year, I took a cruise from Valparaiso, Chile, around Cape Horn to Buenos Aires on Silversea, touted repeatedly by Conde Nast Traveler as one of the top, if not the top, luxury cruisers. But when I reached Ushuaia, Argentina, in Tierra del Fuego, "the Southernmost city in the world," I noticed the smaller scientific vessels tied up to the dock and that seemed a better bet than Silversea, which, frankly I found disappointing, with its over-fancy food, obsequious service and failure to keep the passengers timely informed, such as of our 6 a.m. arrival at Cape Horn.

Conde Nast is in error, I think, to rate Silversea so high and Lindblad further down. The Lindblad cruise was simply superior. Its food was essentially just as good, the comfort of its accommodations only a little less palatial, and (and this is what really counts) the service from its crew and the lectures and movies from its naturalists far superior to any I've received in the past from Silversea, Princess, Cunard and other cruiselines I've sailed with.

The weather in Antarctica and the other places we went to, the infamous Drake Passage, etc., was not tropical, to say the least. It was cold and usually rough. Some passengers got seasick, although a dramamine or two on a very few occasions kept me well clear of any discomfort or nausea. Some passengers said they had expected more blue skies. We had just two really nice days toward the end of the voyage in the Falkland Islands. But if you want to go to Antarctica fringes and are willing to bear the expense, which is considerable, then you should be prepared for bad weather and not be too surprised and disappointed by it.

Lindblad recommended the purchase of substantial winter clothing, and even sent along a complimentary red parka to every passenger. I bought most everything they recommended except the long underwear (about a $700 investment), including boots, and found they kept me fairly dry and quite warm. We had about 25 land excursions, landings by zodiac on some mightly spectacular shoreline, sometimes in a full gale, and they were a highpoint of the cruise, and numbered many more landings than most cruiselines offer. The Zodiac drivers of Lindblad are without fear; not a single passenger fell overboard.

From an information point of view, I think cruise director Tom Ritchie was superb. He and Captain Leif Skog told us nearly everything, except they left the news that we had passed through a 100 mph hurricane one night to the end of the voyage. They had ropes up all over the ship so we could hang on while walking around, and some meals were punctuated by crashes in the kitchen.

An added dividend of the cruise was Lindblad's experimentation with an undersea camera that can show the sea life thousands of feet below the ocean surface, a real revelation.

I'm high on Lindblad, as you can see. It's doing far better these days than the Tribune-owned Los Angeles Times. It's an honest, well-informed, well-meaning company and I hope its forthcoming merger with National Geographic, also a good organization, doesn't do it any harm.

We stopped in Stanley, capital of the Falkland Islands, one day and it was inspiring to hear about the war Britain fought there in 1982 to keep its few thousand citizens from falling prey to an Argentine invasion. I bought a wonderful little book by Falkland Islander John Smith, his 74-day diary of what it was like to live in Stanley during the Argentine occupation of that duration. The Falklands war was yet another sign that no one should ever underestimate the determination of the British to protect their freedom and the freedom of their protectorates.

I found, incidentally, during the voyage that there were certainly people aboard who were critical of U.S. and British policies in the War on Terror. But there were also people in considerable numbers who believe in those policies, as I do. We all had some good discussions.