Thursday, December 01, 2005

LAT Iraq Coverage Has Been Good, But Baquet Should Take On Editorial Pages Too

In the midst of the firestorm generated by the Tribune Company's sacking of much of the L.A. Times' staff, the paper has been producing some of the most distinctive Iraq coverage in the country in its news pages, and it's evident that the editor, Dean Baquet, is on top of that situation, with, of course, the capable assistance of the Foreign Editor, Marjorie Miller.

To name one story, T. Christian Miller's piece on the West Point professor, a colonel and scholar of military ethics, who may or may not have committed suicide (or been murdered) toward the end of his Iraq tour of duty in Sunday's paper, (It was the off-lead on Page 1), and was absolutely riveting.

But that is not the only story in which the Times has been ahead of the New York Times and other journals. Solomon Moore's article on the Shiite militias infiltrating the police and going out to murder Sunnis was incisive, as was the fascinating piece by David Zucchino on three West Point graduates and their Iraq combat assignments,

The article on Wednesday's front page by Mark Mazzetti and Borzou Daragahi, "U.S. Military Covertly Pays to Run Stories in Iraqi Press," was picked up the following day by the New York Times on its Page 1, although in that case it seems to me that in the middle of a war against bloody terrorists, it's not so shocking that the military is trying to build a little advantage for itself anyway it can.

Only the editorial pages are filled with dull drivel on the subject of Iraq, but Baquet has nothing to do with them, and that's just the point I want to make today.

I was talking with a retired editor just last night about this, who asked me how I felt Baquet was doing in his fourth month since replacing John Carroll as editor.

My reply, with which he agreed, was that Baquet was doing fine in the areas of his responsibility, but he made a terrible mistake in giving up control of the editorial pages to the new publisher, Jeff Johnson. The man who I was conversing with said he too felt it was essential for the paper's editor to be in control of the editorial page, and he also questioned whether Baquet has given up too much authority over Calendar and other sections to the associate editor, John Montorio.

The Lord knows, Baquet has a lot to do in what is clearly a time of crisis for the paper. But the new publisher is already a disaster. He has no feel for the newspaper business, no feel for Los Angeles and no empathy with the staff. He is the opposite of Otis Chandler in his prime. His ambitions for the paper seem to be limited to what his bosses in Chicago want for it, which is very little indeed.

Just this week, Marc Cooper, writing in the L.A. Weekly, says of Johnson: "(He's) directly overseeing the staff massacres as well as micromanaging some of the dumber editorial moves...

"Before his media management career, Johnson was a trained bean counter at KPMG Peat Marwick -- the perfect stereotype of the new breed of newspaper bosses. Guys who, indeed, never demonstrated any passion for the underlying business. They might as well be, yes, cereal salesmen. Let Johnson continue on his current course and we won't be only wishing for a return of (Michael) Kinsley but also yearning for the good old days when former publisher Mark "Captain Crunch" Willes sold the paper out to the Staples Center."

So, it seems to me it's absolutely clear, Baquet should assert himself with the editorial pages. But how can he, when he has to report like Johnson to what Steve Wasserman suggests are the Philistines of Chicago, the ignorant CEO Dennis FitzSimmons and his strange crew at the top of the Tribune Co.

I was thinking about this, what could Baquet do, and it came to me that the former editor, Shelby Coffey, showed the way the first night of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, when he chased invaders out of the building by wielding some newsroom shears.

That's what we need now. Someone who will chase Johnson from the building and send him riding the rails back to Chicago where he belongs. And tell FitzSimmons, pending sale of the paper, to send us a man, not a bean counter.

This guy Johnson is making his choice of editorial page editor, Andres Martinez, seem even dumber than he looks.

Well, it is possible to have some fun with this. But when I heard yesterday that Bob Hilburn was leaving the paper, it struck me again that what we are seeing here is a tragedy, when the paper is losing many of its most brilliant staff members, and all because a bunch of sleazy know-nothings, who care only for an increased profit margin, but in fact are driving the paper to ruin, are in charge.

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