Sunday, July 17, 2005

Dennis McDougal Book, Privileged Son, On Rise And Fall of Chander Dynasty, Is Good

Written from Whittier, Alaska --

During my Alaska trip, I've been reading, and have just finished the book, Privileged Son, on the rise and fall of the Chandler dynasty at the L.A. Times, by Dennis McDougal, a former Times writer in the Business section.

The book was published by Perseus Publishing in 2001, and what I had heard of it had not been too complimentary. It was said that McDougal made some mistakes.

But I think this is a good book, quite revealing about what what went wrong at the Times, and landed the paper in mediocre Chicago Tribune hands.

The only really noticeable mistake McDougal makes is to say it is a time disadvantage for the L.A. Times to publish in the Pacific Time Zone, that the Eastern newspapers have more time to fashion their stories. This is not true. L.A. Times writers have three hours more to fashion their stories due to L.A. at any moment being three hours earlier than New York. This is an advantage for Times reporters in Washington and even more of an advantage in Europe, which is nine hours ahead of L.A. time. I used to take advantage of this whenever i was on Olympic or political stories in the East or in Switzerland.

The key thing that McDougal explores is what happened to Otis Chandler. Was he pushed or did he fall from running the Times and Times-Mirror?

The author has had extensive interviews with Chandler and I think it's fair to say he was cooperative, as were other members of the Chandler family.

It's been established, I think, for some time that other members of the Chandler family, particularly his sister, her husband during the key period, Dan Frost, some of his cousins, etc., were more right wing than Otis. His powerful and outspoken mother, Buffy Chandler, was able to keep them in line for a time, but when she grew old and retired to her home and that control lapsed, the other members of the family gradually asserted themselves. This was not good, because they knew nothing about running a newspaper.

Could Otis have fought to prevent this? Possibly, but about the time the family began to assert itself, hiring outside and often less competent managers, Otis fell in love with another women, Bettina Whittaker, who didn't really have great interest in the paper. He left his first wife and married her. And, in the meantime, Otis himself was distracted by hunting, by other outside hobbies such as his automobiles, and finally by some ennui with his role at the paper. Also, Otis did not have great confidence that any of his three sons pr twp daigjters could effectively fill in for him as Times publisher, and his oldest son, Norman, who in my view might have grown into the role, had a brain tumor that finally killed him at 49. The publishers who filled in for Otis simply were not of all that high a caliber.

McDougal has done a good job here outlining all this, and, while he is not a great admirer of Otis the human being, he's not unfair to him either.

There is some question whether the sale of the Times to the Tribune was legal, since there had been a provision in Harry Chandler's will that the paper could not be sold while the last member of Otis's generation was still alive. But at the time of the sale in 2000, no one rose to object. No member of the family who had preferred stock and might have brought a legal suit against the sale was objectionable to it. They wanted the money from the sale. So the sale came to pass without challenge, when it might have been challenged, although McDougal does not get into this.

McDougal is very good at what a duntz Mark Willes was when he became publisher and CEO of Times Mirror.

McDougal says that for all intents and purposes Otis was forced out by Bob Erburu in 1985. Erburu as CEO turned out, most would agree, to be a disaster. He simply was not a good manager and Times-Mirror, which had grown into a national power, gradually fell into greater and greater trouble. Bit Erburu, who I should mention has always been very pleasant to me personally, was not half as bad as Willes turned out to me. Erburu meant well but made some mistakes.

I believe that in the long run, the Times should be sold back to local interests. I'm going to look into this when I return from a protracted Alaska trip in September, although it goes without saying I don't have the wherewithal to hope to buy the Times myself, even assuming the Tribune would be willing to sell.

In the meantime, I recommend the McDougal book.


Anonymous David Baldwin Panagore said...

HAving spent my early August reading Privileged Son I can not but agree to strongly recommend it. Sources in palces may be thin but they are more than made up for by McDougal's understanding the newspaper game. His nuanced characterization and depth of feeling for his subect allows him space to be critical and direct in his assessment.
The three hour delay must really hav rankled you to make that your first comment. Humbley I disagree that yourt point and his are mutually exclusive.

8/20/2005 3:27 AM  

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