Friday, May 06, 2005

It May Not Be All To The Good, But Columnists These Days Provide Most Of What's Best In The L.A. Times

Bill Thomas, when he was editor of the L.A. Times, did not particularly believe in columnists and sought with some success to limit the number the Times printed every day. In those days, it was a reporter's paper, and the editors often left what the reporter wrote pretty much alone.

Since then, a lot has changed at the Times. Now, the columnists dominate, and often the rest of the paper is fairly mundane. The effect of more editing is to water the paper down, since the assistant editors often don't have a lot of imagination, like many bureaucrats they are over-cautious, and their editing takes out some of the most interesting points in story after story.

The paper still has many fine reporters, and, occasionally, as this week's Richard Serrano stories about the Oklahoma City bombing, the most interesting thing in the paper is a news story.

But many days, it is a column, or more than one, that is the most interesting story in the paper. This is not all to the good, since many people whip through the news pages and then feel the paper isn't worth the money they're spending to buy it. This is part of the Times' circulation problems, it seems to me. The paper would be doing better with fewer editors and more offbeat news.

But still many of the columns are thought-provoking, and that honor goes this morning, May 6, to the Op-Ed Page column by Molly Selvin, an editorial writer for the Times..

Selvin would make a better weekly columnist, I'm sure, than Michael Kinsley. And it would give the editorial pages another much-needed woman columnist.

But putting that question aside, what Selvin had to say this morning was worth reading. She found on a weeklong visit to Washington, D.C., a pervasive atmosphere of security and fear among the security people who watched her every step.

At the U.S. Supreme Court, guards debated among themselves before grudgingly allowing members of Selvin's visiting party to even go to the restroom, and when Selvin stopped to look at a portrait of a former justice on her way back, a guard shouted, "No. You may not stop."

At the Justice Department, it was all very unfriendly. Selvin found that questions about the department's domestic spying activities were unwelcome.

She notes in the column that her group had arranged its visit to the department in advance and those in her party were considered VIP guests. "Just try dropping in at the Justice Department unannounced," she suggests.

I go to Washington quite frequently and after a recent visit I remarked to Doyle McManus, the Times Washington bureau chief, that just the security arrangements in the Capitol Hill area merited a story.

But none was done. I suppose Washington reporters have gotten used to the atmosphere in which they live, although just in the last week, a number of Washington's leading media representatives suggested there were entirely too many background briefings in the government, with nobody permitted to be quoted by name.

In this case, it took Selvin, an out-of-town visitor, to write what our Washington correspondents ought to be writing about themselves.

Selvin says in her column this morning, "Yes, the terror threat is real and yes, in California, it's hard to appreciate just how vulnerable those in Washington feel." But, she adds, "Courts and other federal agencies do themselves no favors with the hostile attitude now routine in Washington."

It may not be quite as new as Selvin suggests. I remember, as a Life magazine reporter more than 40 years ago, entering the Oval Office when President Lyndon B. Johnson was standing beside his desk. A Secret Service man stared at me so intently, I got the impression he was ready to go for his pistol in an instant. Yet I had been invited into the room.

But, of course, that was the Oval Office. The oppressive atmosphere has now spread widely in Washington.

Certainly, Selvin is right when she says the terror threat is real. It certainly occurs to many of us that the scoundrels ready to execute 17 proprietors in an outdoor market in Baghdad, as happened just today, would be ready to wreak havoc in the American capital if given the chance.

But stopping Selvin from looking at a portrait in the Supreme Court building? That's unnecessary, and the atmosphere she remarks upon should be of continuing concern to all in this democracy.


Blogger beastmeister said...

Good posting, except it went one paragraph too long. Our democracy is not in danger from security people doing their job.

5/07/2005 5:42 AM  

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