Friday, August 05, 2005

A Memorial To David Shaw

Written from Denali National Park, Alaska--

This is a little late because I've been at a wilderness camp in Denali National Park and had no Internet access to immediately pay tribute to a great friend and distinguished colleague, David Shaw.

David was one of the finest reporters of this era at the Los Angeles Times. You didn't have to agree with him on everything to realize that his contributions to the paper and to life in Los Angeles were unequaled.

For many years, David was the media critic of the Los Angeles Times, winning a Pulitzer Prize for that criticism in 1991. Fiercely independent, he put tremendous efforts into each of scores of long stories examining American journalism from every angle. Particularly distinguished were his pieces on abortion coverage, the McMartin school abuse case, the use of confidential sources, the efforts of other newspapers and the Times. He had the support and encouragement of Bill Thomas and Otis Chandler, making his work one of a kind.

In the 1999-2000 Staples crisis that ultimately destroyed the reign of Mark Willes as Times-Mirror CEO and resulted in the sale of the Times to the Tribune Co., David was chosen to write the definitive piece for the Times on the mess, and under the editorship of George Cotliar, retired managing editor, did a superlative job. David's coverage specifically reflected on both Willes and Times editor Michael Parks. Parks, I believe, would have been an outstanding managing editor, but lacked some of the skills he needed as editor in this critical situation. Shaw's piece will long be remembered as outstanding.

Later, under Tribune ownership, David shifted to a column on the media that ran in Calendar weekly, and also wrote for the Food section periodically on food and wine.

No one who went to such countries as France and Spain could wisely do so without asking for David's advice on restaurants. He knew the most expensive and the best values. The restaurants he touted were fabulous and David could easily have been, in my view, the world's most distinguished fulltime restaurant critic, except that he said he didn't want this, because it would have forced him to go to some bad restaurants. David could never understand why people even visited countries not distinguished for their food. In 1987, when I took my children to Australia, David remarked to me he couldn't understand the trip, because Australian food wasn't the best.

David's recommendations of restaurants in Spain, particularly in Barcelona, were followed, to our delight, by my son and I on a trip there, and we especially enjoyed a Tapas place called Ca Pepe, near the Picasso Museum. Later, I recommended it to many friends going to Barcelona and all who went there were delighted. When my mother had her 80th birthday, we picked a Los Angeles restaurant for the party that David had recommended.

But David was great not only on the great restaurants, but on such lousy food offerings as those at Dodger Stadium. His article on Dodger Stadium food was a masterpiece.

The first article by David I ever read was a tremendous piece on a Jesse Unruh campaign for the Long Beach Press Telegram. He would have been a distinguished political writer had he wanted. He had wonderful talents in so many areas. His personality did not find favor with some, but all in all, I believe he came to deserve all the admiration he customarily received.

There were times, as I said, when I disagreed with David, such as on confidential sources, but I always respected him as a great reporter.

And you had to like a man who felt strongly about so many things, including his love for Ellen Torgerson, her children, and others.

David died too young last Monday night at 62. When he first learned he had a brain tumor, just three months before, he had hoped it could be corrected. He told me that he hoped every day to return to work and continue his articles. Later, before I left on my Alaskan trip, his last message to me was that his doctors had found the tumor was faster growing and more dangerous than they had first thought. David was disappointed, but had not lost hope.

I responded that I would pray for David and keep him in my mind every day.

And that will be so for a long time. Journalism needs the David Shaws, who work so hard for so long, who never lose their interest, their focus, and their dedication to the public. David ran the course as one of the great members of the Times staff.



Anonymous Keith Fahey said...

I was reading an interview with a major media critic when the interviewer mentioned names of several reporters who serve as good newspaper watchdogs. I wondered why he didn’t mention David Shaw. So I Googled Shaw and was led to the L.A. Times obituary—er, to David Shaw’s obituary in the L.A. Times. He died last August, though I missed the news until December 13.

I’ve missed a lot of news since canceling my Times subscription on Super Bowl Sunday ’97, though it’s also true, to a large extent, I’ve missed nothing. Still, I felt sad to imagine Shaw gone. I’ve always imagined that someday we would have a frank discussion about the state of editing in major newspapers, and maybe how he escaped the draft in '65-68. (Just a curiosity; in the mid ’60s I laughed with those who found another way—the National Guard, graduate school, marriage—envying them even as I surrendered, just another wishywashy surrendering to the tides. Now I wonder if my generation’s obsession with the draft helped spark Shaw’s imagination on Max Rafferty’s WWII evasion, reporting that helped launch Shaw’s Times career.) Anyway, I’m more interested to see that other writers criticized Shaw for his failure to criticize editors, even if those writers have a different perspective from mine.

Rather than digress there now, I’d like to mention Shaw's work on the Staples scandal: when Times officials and Staples representatives entered into an agreement of sharing revenues from the “the sale of ads in a special issue of the Los Angeles Times Magazine devoted entirely to the new arena.” This clear conflict of interest—which somehow wasn’t clear to two Times’ publisher of the period—wasn’t even noted by Times editors or reporters until other newspapers broke the story, and then Shaw brought all his talents into a full investigation that helped restore Times credibility. In my non-reading ignorance, I was oblivious to the Staples scandal; and, if any local TV station made passing mention, I missed that headline too.

What makes that story important is that it apparently helped bring about the sale of the Times to Chicago’s Tribune Inc. I have many long-standing resentments against the Times, but I was aghast that this long-standing California institution was now no more than a farm club for the Tribune—now no more than Chicago TribWest even if the “Los Angeles Times” kept its misnomer masthead. Oh, some reporters and columnists may keep their local identity and passion for SoCal traditions, but could the paper? Could its corporate heads resist the pull to become shills for this invasive cannibal tribe?

I could not imagine how such a major SoCal family corporation had allowed itself to be swallowed up by another corp., and I could only imagine a deep shudder of revulsion passing through Times Mirror Squircle. So deep was my shudder that I was amazed that a great groundswell didn’t emerge at once to buy back the Times, maybe even to see reporters and employees form some kind of association to buy it themselves. Sure they would need major corporate investors as well, but the alternative of becoming stooges for eastern greedsters is surely more than natives—let alone this transplanted Californian—can stand. How I cringe when I catch occasional glimpses of LA’s Channel 5 flaunting its trifold entanglement on the 10 o’clock news.

Now events have proven what an unworthy steward the Tribune is. Even in my limited awareness I was stupefied that anyone would hire Michael Kinsley as editor of the editorial pages (what could that easterner know about Los Angeles?), and with the recent Tribune layoffs to trim expenses because Chicago accountants aren’t happy with an estimated 17 percent profit, a profit many corporations would be thrilled to get—

For pride’s sake, readers and Squirclers, get mad. Throw the bums out.

Keith Fahey

12/14/2005 11:38 PM  
Blogger Bill Geerhart said...

David Shaw's other lasting contribution to the history of print journalism is that he served as the model for the driven investigative reporter Joe Rossi on the CBS television drama "Lou Grant" (1977-1982).

7/08/2008 10:01 AM  
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