Friday, September 30, 2005

Press Suffers In Judith Miller Imprisonment

Written from Hanover, New Hampshire --

My impression is that the Judith Miller imprisonment has cost a lot in terms of press rights.

After 85 days, Miller's appaent source in the outing of the CIA agent Valerie Plame,
Lew Libby, aide to Vice President Cheney, gave her permission to testify. It probably doesn't mean he will be indicted, because the whole matter by this time is sufficiently complicated not to have any bad consequences for him. Too much remains unclear to bring any charges. And it's evident President Bush is going to take a walk on his pledge to fire the leakers.

But the overall effect is to compromise, and badly, the press assurance of confidentiality to sources of all kinds. How many tipsters will there be, if they realize they are going to be responsible for reporters going to jail, unless they give them permission to talk.

This was a tempest in a teapot, but its implications for the future are severe. I think it's likely certain kinds of information from official circles is going to dry up.

And there is now a precedent in the courts for throwing reporters standing on First Amendment rights in jail. This has weakened the constitutional protections journalists have always had, and given lawyers and judges, mostly dishonest, unscrupulous people, new domination for the press.

Altogether a bad deal.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Willes and Unterman Cost The Tribune Co. At Least $850 Million

Probably no nightmare in the history of Los Angeles is worse than the sale of the Times-Mirror newspapers, including the L.A. Times, to the Tribune Co. of Chicago.

It's certainly not been good for the Times, down more than 200,000 in circulation, threatened by persistent cost-cutting, suffering through catastrophes on the editorial page and repeated staff reductions.

But it's not been good for the Tribune either. Now, due to a federal court ruling that executives Mark Willes and Tom Unterman grossly mishandled the sale of two Times-Mirror Companies, including the quality book manufacturer, Matthew Bender, the Tribune owes a $850 million tax bill to the government.

Willes and Unterman, so clever while they were knifing each other under the table (Chief Financial Officer Unterman arranged the sale of Times-Mirror to the Tribune for the Chandler family, without letting CEO Willes know what he was up to), to think they could fool the government's tax auditors into thinking that they owed no tax on a taxable sale, are the bad boys in this drama.

Taken were the Tribune executives. Maybe, they will rescue themselves in bringing an appeal, but they have decided now to pay the tax bill pending further decisions, out of fear they will owe many millions of dollars more in interest if they go forward with an appeal and lose.

Willes walked away from the Times with a reported $64 to $100 million in severance when the newspapers were sold from underneath him, and even Unterman got a $1 million bonus for arranging the Bender sale. Two miscreants are smelling like roses while the poor Tribune, (we can feel sorry for them just once), is stuck with paying the taxes.

Would Tribune have bought Times-Mirror if it knew it would face such a large tax bill five years later? Probably not. And one of these days, like the Pharoah confronted with Moses and his plagues in ancient Egypt, the Tribune Co. executives will probably decide to let the Times go, selling the paper for a loss, maybe even to David Geffen.

Willes, inclined to boast always in the most silly way, thought he was getting Times-Mirror a $1.4 billion profit without having to pay any taxes. Now, a federal judge has told the Tribune it will pay the taxes.

Are Willes and Unterman smiling or ashamed? Unlike Richard Scrushy at HealthSouth down in Alabama, both have come away without victories in the courts, or even a glamorous third wife like Leslie Scrushy.

Could there be a lawsuit against Willes and Unterman by all those whose careers and fortunes were impacted by them?

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Retraction On Accusations Against John Roberts

The New York Times has printed a retraction saying that Chief Justice designate John Roberts was not the author of an anti-press memo in the Sullivan case during the Reagan Administration.

Accordingly, I withdraw my earlier blog today. I have suspicions of Roberts, and would not support his nomination. But, relying on the earlier NYT report, I was wrong in this instance.

The Tribune Co., by the way, has lost the tax case it inherited from Times-Mirror, and thanks to the dereliction of Thomas Unterman and Mark Willes, has to pay an $850 million tax bill. More about this tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Letter On The L.A. Times Sports Section Complains Of Cuts

I feel indebted to reader Jon Roe, who wrote a letter published last Saturday in the L.A. Times Sports Section.

"Apparently, there's some sort of cost-cutting austerity budget being implemented at The Times Sports Department," Roe wrote. "The one-sentence snippets in the National League "Roundup" on Wednesday were beyond belief."

Amen! Thank goodness, some readers are noticing that the Sports section has been cut back horribly under Tribune ownership.

This is California. A comprehensive Sports section is important in this state, and yet at the L.A. Times, they often have much too long a Calendar section, while Sports, which has been drawing less advertising it seems of late, is cut to the bone.

How are the newspapers going to survive the present downturn? I daresay the answer is not to cut back on Sports.

One problem is there are so many more sports these days, most of them commanding little loyalty from the readers. But when it comes to football, baseball and basketball, there ought to be no cuts. Years ago, I remember the Sunday football coverage, the results of all the college football games, was a delight. Now, many interesting games are left out altogether. and we seldom if ever see the tables of team schedules and results we used to get. Ivy League football, for one, has virtually disappeared, yet there are many Ivy League graduates in Southern California. Yet nothing schools like South Florida get good coverage.

Someone at the L.A. Times has to determine what's important to readers and what's not. The paper for the most part remains big; it's only a matter of giving back a few pages to Sports and many omissions can be rectified.

A modest proposal: The Chicago Tribune should be cut in half, and the space given to the L.A. Times. If the Chicagoans don't like it, let them eat cake!

Monday, September 26, 2005

NYT Public Editor Agrees Alessandra Stanley Should Apologize

When L.A. Times media columnist Tim Rutten insisted Alessandra Stanley, the New York Times' lead TV critic, should apologize for suggesting Fox News' Geraldo Rivera had "nudged" an Air Force rescue worker out of the way while covering the hurricane disaster in New Orleans, I was inclined to be skeptical. I called Stanley a "wonderful" TV critic and was content to leave it at that.

But, apparently, I was wrong.

On Sunday, the New York Times' public editor, Byron Calame, writing a column on the matter, determines that Stanley and New York Times executive editor Bill Keller have been highhanded in their dealings with Rivera and that Stanley should apologize for saying falsely that he had nudged the relief worker.

This is a tough-minded column and builds respect for Calame. It turns out he is up to his job, willing to take on even the executive editor when it is called for.

Both Rutten and Calame studied carefully the video that showed whether there was a nudge by Rivera, and both decided there wasn't. So both concluded that this was not simply a matter of the TV critic having the right to make up her own mind. The facts are the facts, Rutten and Calame write, and even normally an obnoxous character as Rivera is entitled to an apology, even if he does work for the (biased) Fox network.

Being nice to Fox can be annoying, because Fox isn't nice to anyone. But fair's fair.

Rutten went a little further on Stanley than Calame, citing an error rate of 11% in her critiques.

But Calame took on Keller as well, quoting the executive editor on why there was no apology, but then taking sharp exception.

Keller suggests in a message to Calame that "frankly," in light of Rivera's vitriolic reaction to the review, Stanley "would have been justified in assuming" that Rivera used "brute force" and not just a "nudge in the incident, or, as it turns out, non-incident.

Calame answers, "I find it disturbing that any Times editor would come so close to implying -- almost in a tit=for-tat sense -- that Mr. Rivera's bad behavior essentially entitles the paper to rely on assumptions and refuse to correct an unupported fact."

A ha! Not even Howell Raines would have been so imperious as Bill Keller.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Two Stories Saturday Are Either More Prominently Displayed Or More Direct in NYT Than LAT

The Lord Nelson used to say, "Never mind the meneuvers. Go straight at 'em."

The same thing can be said in the news business. When a big story breaks, when hard news belongs on Page 1, it ought to be stated as directly and prominently as possible. Featurized leads then are not the answer.

This is pertinent this weekend, because once again the New York Times has trumped the Los Angeles Times by covering hard news in a consistently prominent and hard way, and the New York Times is stylistically right and has served its readers better.

I'm speaking of two stories in particular, the deaths of 24 elderly citizens on a bus that was part of the evacuation from Hurricane Rita in a fire on a Texas highway, and the sudden resignation of Lester Crawford from the top post at the Food and Drug Administration just two months after being confirmed to the job.

In both cases, front page New York Times stories put the news starkly and simply.

On the fire, the NYT lead was: "HOUSTON, Sept. 23 -- A bus evacuating frail residents from a suburban Houston senior-living center burst into flames and was rocked by explosions on a traffic-choked highway south of Dallas early Friday, leaving behind a charred and grisly wreck and two dozen dead."

The headline was, "Bus Evacuating Senior Center Burns, Killing 24 Near Dallas."

Also on Page 1, the FDA resignation lead was, "Washingtion, Sept. 23 -- Lester M. Crawford, the commissioner of food and drugs, resigned abruptly on Friday, causing further upheavel at an agency that has been in turmoil for more than a year."

And the headline was, "Leader of the F.D.A. Steps Down After a Short, Turbulent Tenure."

In these cases, the Los Angeles Times story was either less prominently displayed or less direct. I suppose this might have been more the editors' fault than the writers.

The bus fire lead in the LAT, by Maria La Ganga and Elizabeth Mehren, said, "Houston --As Hurricane Rita barreled down on the Texas Gulf Coast, threatening the low-lying region and winds of more than 100 mph, nursing home operators faced a life-or-death decision: to evacuaste their frail and elderly charges -- or not."

The headline said only, "Leaving Poses Its Own Risk."

Not until the third paragraph was there word in the LAT that there had been a bus fire and 24 were killed.

In the LAT, the drug commissioner resigning did not make Page 1. It ran on Page A24. In fairness, the story by Ricardo Zaldivar was just as direct. The lead said, "Washington -- Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Lester M. Crawford resigned Friday, a move that stunned agency staffers, lawmakers, industry and the medical community."

The headline said, "FDA Chief Crawford Resigns 2 Months After Confirmation."

It should be noted that the New York Times, which is an inch wider in its pages than the L.A. Times, sometimes prints more stories on Page 1. On Saturday, the NYT had six main stories on Page 1 and nine reefers to other stories, while the LAT had six stories and reefers to six more.

Still, I believe the drug story should have appeared on Page 1. It could have replaced one of the two features on Page 1, not counting the featurized lead to the bus story.

The 24 killed on a burning bus was a fact that reflected on the evacuation plan for Hurricane Rita, and the fact that, after New Orleans, things went bad with this evacuation too, with a million more people taking to the roads than authorities had planned for, causing a desperate traffic jam and many vehicles to run out of gas altogether.

The New York Times has a much-deserved reputation for covering disasters more dramatically and comprehensively than any other newspaper. This goes back to the Titanic sinking in 1912. LAT coverage of the hurricane disasters in Texas, Louisiana and the Mississippi Gulf Coast has also been comprehensive, but probably less pointed and dramatic.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Time Magazine's Warning About The Terrorist Danger To Nuclear Plants

Readers of this blog know that I detested Time magazine's decision to give in to the courts and the government in the CIA leakage case, allowing Judith Miller and the New York Times to bear the brunt of defending freedom of the press.

But that is not to say that I don't admire Time for its splendid coverage in many areas.

Time has distinguished itself in recent weeks for its coverage of the hurricane disaster and the terrorist attacks in London. But in reading back issues of the magazine since returning from my Alaska trip, I have to say that the best single Time article over the time I was away was the one warning about the terrorist threat to nuclear plants in its June 20 issue.

"Are These Towers Safe?," Time asked in rhat memorable report, and the answer, depressingly, was a resounding no.

Time has a point of view in its articles, and I think that makes it a better journalistic product than the more "objective" newspapers, with their peculiar ground rules for coverage. It's usually better to have a point of view, as long as the readers can easily understand what it is, and then decide for themselves whether they agree with it. Time is able to come to a conclusion, and in this case its conclusion is that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, while beefing up the defenses of the nuclear power plants since 9-11, still has not prepared adequately for what the terrorists conceivably may be preparing to do.

An attack, for instance, at the Indian Point plant 35 miles north of New York City that was successful in causing a meltdown could cause 44,000 deaths within one year and 518,000 eventually from cancer, plus forcing an evacuation of millions of people from the New York area for years. The costs, in short, would be horrendous.

But, according to the Time report, the defense force for most of the nation's nuclear plants is not sufficient to fight off an attack by a force numbering no more than the 19 suicide jihadists who hijacked the planes on 9-11.

This was a thoroughly chilling article, carefully done. Yet I don't think it aroused all that much attention. In any event. as Hurricane Katrina showed, there can be warnings for years, as there were about the danger of a storm to levies in New Orleans, and yet the government does comparatively little to get ready.

In the case of the nuclear plants, and even nuclear waste dumps, the potential for catastrophe is so great, we simply can't afford not to get ready. An educated terrorist who gained access to a control room in one of these plants could take steps in just minutes leading to a meltdown, according to the Time report.

Time is doing here what the press does best, which is to deliver timely warnings. We live in such dangerous times, they should be given full credence and steps taken, even if they entail considerable sacrifice.

Friday, September 23, 2005

As Our World Becomes Unglued, The LAT Keeps Up

One need look only at Page 1 of the L.A. Times this morning to realize that the world, and our place in it, is becoming unglued in all sorts of ways, and that the Times is doing its journalistic duty, keeping its readers up with it.

Things aren't as they should be, or as most of us would like them to be. The rules are often broken, or ignored. Three separate Times stories on Page 1 make the point today.

Most striking is the report by Cara Mia DiMassa and Richard Winton that the L.A. County Sheriff's Office, which I found was a rinky-dink organization when I covered it a few years ago, may be dumping unwanted criminals and the mentally ill in downtown Los Angeles' skid row.

They are not the only law enforcement agency to be doing so, apparently, and the LAPD is understandably irate. But, of course, the LAPD has not been above breaking the law itself on occasion.

DiMassa, by the way, continues to enhance her career by getting involved in a wider and wider range of good stories. She is thoroughly taking advantage of the opportunities a career in journalism brings forth. And Winton, of course, is always good in his law enforcement beat.

Then, there's the story by Mary Curtius how President Bush and his political guru, Karl Rove, are pressing Congress to go along with their plan to let millions of illegals stay in the U.S. At a time when it would seem desirable to curb immigration to some extent, the President seems determined to bow to the special interests that want to employ people who make their way here. no matter how.

The President, by the way, does not seem too interested in finding out whether Rove unlawfully leaked the story about the woman being a CIA agent. While the New York Times reporter Judith Miller stays a political prisoner, that investigation seems to be going nowhere. It is always worth remembering that Miller was jailed by a federal judge, Thomas Hogan, who was ignoring the U.S. constitutional provision calling for a free press.

Finally, we have on Page 1 also today, the excellent Times foreign correspondent, Douglas Frantz, with another report on a real world class scoundrel, scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, and his outlaw country, Pakistan, and their plan to sell nuclear weapon technology to such other rogue countries as Iran and North Korea.

If Pakistan was truly an ally of the U.S., it could have seized Osama bin Laden a long time ago. He remains free,probably on Pakistani soil, and Pakistan and Khan remain world menaces. Thank goodness, Frantz and the Times are on the story.

(In an Op-Ed page article in today's New York Times, Seth G. Jones of the Rand Corp., notes that the Taliban is using a sanctuary in Pakistan to attack U.S. forces and the fledgling democratic regime in Afghanistan. He calls for a Pakistani crackdown, but the chances of this happening without massive pressure on the Pakistani dictator, Pervez Musharraf, a man who routinely finesses the question of the rape of innocent women in Pakistan, is highly unlikely.)

Unglued is the word. Page 1 in the L.A. Times also has reporting on the latest monster hurricane. But that, of course, is an act of God more than man, unless we are to assume that global warming caused by man has something to do with it.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Employment Cutbacks at New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer

Grim news comes from the New York Times and Knight-Ridder in the form of employment cutbacks at their newspapers, a reflection of sliding circulation and advertising. It pleases the corporate interests of Wall Street, but is bad news for America.

The New York Times says it will cut its work force by 500 employees, including 45 editorial employees at the New York Times and 35 at the Times-owned Boston Globe,

Meanwhile, Knight-Ridder says it is cutting 75 editorial employees at the Philadelphia Inquirer and 25 at the Philadelphia Daily News.

What these news companies do can only encourage the pessimists at the Tribune Co. to make further cutbacks at the L.A. Times and other papers they unfortanately obtained in the purchase of Times-Mirror in 2000.

Despite the growth of its national edition in recent years, and attempts steadily made to increase distribution by adding home delivery in more and more cities, the New York Times management now says it expects a slight overall circulation decline in the near future.

This reflects the growth of the Internet and cable TV, which seems to be sapping newspaper readership throughout the country. Wall Street, with its preoccupation with the bottom line rather than quality, encourages such developments.

The trends are only fortified by such columns as the one in the L.A. Times today by new editorial page editor Andres Martinez encouraging the speaking of Spanish and other foreign languages rather than English in the U.S. To the extent English is supplanted by the use of other languages, the mainstream newspapers can only suffer.

All of these developments are discouraging, because newspapers have the detail and sophistication to afford the nation a top quality news product.

Bill Keller, execitove editor of the NYT, said he hopes to accomplish the editorial cutbacks there by attrition and other voluntary means, but we've seen at the L.A. Times that buyouts in the long run can do as much or even more damage than layoffs, because some of the highest quality people take them.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Steve Lopez Advises Against David Geffen As An Owner Of LAT

Steve Lopez, I daresay, is not going to be fired, unless Rupert Murdoch buys the L.A. Times. He's just too valuable to the franchise.

Yet Lopez weighs in on the question of new ownership of the Times in his column today, and he's worried about David Geffen buying the paper, not to mention a few others that he's chanced to write negatively about in the past.

Lopez seems willing to let Dennis FitzSimons and his Tribune Co. continue to run the paper, despite FitzSimons' record of heavyhanded interference in the paper.

I think Lopez might feel differently had he been personally present when FitzSimons flew to the Burbank Airport last year, summoned editors John Carroll and Dean Baquet there and mandated staff and other cost cutbacks at the Tribune Co.'s most valuable property, the L.A. Times. I wish Lopez had been invited to this meeting. I'm sure he would have found FitzSimons just as undesirable as Geffen might appear to be.

But I'm very happy to see Lopez writing on the topic of a change in ownership this morning, and particularly his report that this has become a topic of conversation around the water cooler at the Times offices.

Any publicity on this matter is apt to be good publicity, because the more it is talked about, the better chance it may actually come about.

The more you think about local ownership, the better an idea it seems, as long as it's not Murdoch or Arnold Schwarzenegger, that is. The fact is, I think, that as owner of the L.A. Times, David Geffen would not be fighting the Coastal Commission to keep beach access closed around his beachfront home. He would tend to become more respectable.

I've disagreed with Lopez before. He was against the Iraq invasion when I was for it. (Well, maybe the less I say about that disagreement the better).

But, believe me folks, the more Lopez and Jim Rainey, and anyone else at the Times writes about the possibility of a sale, the more the idea will catch on. Particularly if the prospective buyer, like Geffen, is likely to build the paper back into the giant it was under the Chandler family.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

"Current" Is Not Up To "Opinion's" Standards In L.A. Times

When Dean Baquet was named new editor of the L.A. Times, it was announced at the same time that the editorial pages would report, not to him, but to Jeff Johnson, the new publisher. It's my understanding this was Baquet's wish, that he feels it better not to be involved in editorial policy.

But the apparent result is that the newly-renamed "Current," the old Sunday Opinion section, is not up to the standards of the rest of the Times.

Reading "Current" these days, it seems a terrible mishmosh of all kinds of articles, some of them downright frivolous.

This past Sunday's two lead articles, about retirees, would have been better placed in the old View section. They were not so much on public policy, as simple features.

Also, following the squalid example of the ousted editorial pages editor, Michael Kinsley, "Current" continues to use Joel Stein, the so-called humorist who at Time magazine and now the Times seems obsessed by pornography, judging by how much he writes about it.

For many years, the Opinion section was a distinguished part of the L.A. Times under such editors as Tim Rutten and Sue Horton. These editors must be having bad dreams about what the section has now become.

Jeff Johnson has made some good moves, in my view, as publisher, so far, but he may be ill-suited to be the ultimate responsible party for "Current." Like it or not, this should be Baquet's responsibility.

Kinsley purged the editorial board of the Times, and this may now be having lasting effects. Looking at "Current" reminds one that the results of Stalin's purges in Russia were lasting weakness for the Soviet Union, and it is going to take the Times editorial pages quite awhile to overcome the Kinsley effects.

Kinsley was, as I've written before, an ersatz liberal who had inconsistent views. He lambasted President Bush, but he failed to support John Kerry for President, He also failed to support Judith Miller, the New York Times reporter who is now a political prisoner of the U.S. justice system.

Under Kinsley and now after him there has been something of a turn to the right on the Times editorial pages. We are reminded of that again just this morning with the editorial calling on Democrats to vote to confirm the latest rightwinger to be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, John Roberts.

The exceptionally weak and poorly-reasoned editorial this morning calls Roberts "an esxeptionally qualified nominee, well within the mainstream of American legal thought."

This is, in a word, horseshit. Nothing Roberts said in testimony last week would justify such a conclusion, since he devoted himself to refusing to answer all direct questions about his views. And to advise the opposition Democrats not to be an opposition is crazy.

"Current" is awful. Now, the editorials are moving to the right, right up there with Colonel McCormick, the late director of the Chicago Tribune. Maybe, it's no wonder that Baquet doesn't want to be involved.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Best L.A. Times Story Over The Summer Involved Schwarzenegger

In perusing back issues of the L.A. Times over the summer, while I was on my Alaskan trip, my feeling is that the most outstanding single story in the paper over that period came Aug. 12 when Peter Nicholas and Carla Hall reported that a tabloid wooing Arnold Schwarzenegger for a business deal had paid $20,000 to a Malibu woman who had had a sexual relationship with Schwarzenegger, so she would not talk about it during the Recall campaign.

This fascinating story vindicated editor John Carroll's judgment to print the story toward the end of the Recall campaign that spoke of Schwarzenegger's untoward moves on several other women who talked to Times reporters.

The Times was chastised in some quarters for printing that story just five days before the election. But Carroll wrote an article explaining his feelings that the story had to be printed, if the Times was to keep faith with its readers.

The Nicholas-Hall story strongly indicates that there was even more to the situation than the Times learned before the Recall, and, parenthetically, since the campaign I've been informed by another woman who worked on movie sets with Schwarzenegger that it was well known in Hollywood that Schwarzenegger repeatedly hit on women while working on his movies.

This woman told me that when she went to work on a Schwarzenegger set, she was warned by friends not to get anywhere near Schwarzenegger.

Incidently, there is perhaps some circumstantial evidence that Carroll's retirement over the summer may have had something to do with the decision on the part of the new publisher, Jeffrey Johnson, to end the employment of Michael Kinsley, Carroll's choice as editorial page editor.

The late David Shaw, before he discovered he had a brain tumor in May, checked out a rumor that Carroll was planning to leave the paper in protest against Tribune cost cutting. But when Shaw asked Carroll whether this was true, Carroll responded it wasn't, that nothing that had happened up to then (last spring) convinced him it was time to leave.

So what happened between the time Carroll told Shaw he had no intent to leave and his decision to retire over the summer?

It seems to me it could have been Johnson replacing John Puerner as publisher and then informing Carroll he wanted to get rid of Kinsley. Johnson also probably consulted Tribune higher-ups before ousting Kinsley.

Certainly, Carroll was high on Kinsley. I remember his going around the paper the night Kinsley's original appointment was made in 2004 telling staffers how proud he was to obtain Kinsley's services.

Later, Carroll supported Kinsley strongly in his row with columnist Susan Estrich. In fact, I have speculated before that Kinsley may have been following Carroll's wishes when he refused to run Estrich columns on the Op-Ed page, since Estrich had publicly crossed Carroll in the controversy over the Schwarzenegger women story.

Carroll has not been precise in his explanation for his retirement. I am not on close terms with him, so have not attempted to reach him to ask about the theory I've expressed here.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

David Geffen Makes An Offer To Buy L.A. Times

Stalin once observed, "Communism fits Poland like a saddle fits an ox."

Something of the same kind could be said of Chicago Tribune control over the L.A. Times. It is unthinkable that Californians would ever want their major institutions controlled by Midwesterners, especially from a city where I once ordered enchiladas and they came filled with potatoes.

So now we learn from the Times' media writer, James Rainey, that entertainment chieftain David Geffen went to see Tribune CEO Dennis FitzSimons to make him an offer to buy the Times.

FitzSimons, the man who has persistently tried to cut back the size of the staff and the quality of the Times,often as secretively as he could, and really should not be in charge of the Allentown papeer, much less the Times, says he told him the paper is not for sale.

I wonder. They said Michael Kinsley would stay on the job, too, but he didn't. Eventually, I hope and expect, the Times will be sold back to interests who care for it. Geffen would be far more intersted in leading L.A.'s newspaper than FitzSimons and his minions.

Rainey, by the way, is not too willing to face the facts about Tribune ownership and its consequences. For instance, he erroneously declares in his Saturday article about Geffen that in five years of Tribune ownership Times circulation has fallen from 1,018,000 to 902,000. This is wrong. When Mark Willes was ousted as CEO of Times-Mirror Times circulation exceeded 1,100,000.

But please, we have to learn not to trust media writers like Rainey, who reminds me of the Times writer who said Tom Johnson was being promoted when he was removed by Bob Erburu as publisher back in 1989.

Rainey is the same media writer who kicked around New York Times writer Judith Miller at a Berkeley seminar before she was thrown into political prison by the U.S. justice system.

But then L.A. Times writers perhaps understandably love to pick on the New York Times and its writers more than they would their own ultimate boss, Dennis FitzSimons.

Also, on Saturday, the LAT media columnist Tim Rutten is out there slashing away at the NYT's wonderful TV critic Alessandra Stanley in her battle with Fox News' Heraldo Rivera over whether he nudged a relief worker in New Orleans.

There's certainly more to say about Geffen's offer to buy the Times. How much is Geffen offering? And what do Times readers think? Would they rather have Chicago run Los Angeles rather than the other way around?

Saturday, September 17, 2005

L.A. Times Gets Around To Confessing L.A. Not Ready For Big Disaster

At long last, the L.A. Times gets around today, Saturday, Sept. 17, to confessing that Southern California is not ready to cope with a big disaster, say an earthquake that could dwarf the size of the 1994 Northridge quake.

The article by the talented and careful Sharon Bernstein, running as the lead story in the paper, goes far to undo the damage done by the editing of David Lauter to a story I had in the Times last year. In that story, I tried to convey the notion of virtually all the quake experts in the state I interviewed that California was less able to meet the demands of a quake disaster than it had been 10 years before.

Lauter reedited that story into a positive mishmosh, and my subsequent written protest to sundry editors drew very little reaction.

Fortunately, in the newspaper business events have a way of inspiring corrective stories after a while, and that has now happened at the Times as a result of Katrina, the catastrophic hurricane that destroyed much of New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

As soon as the Times editors saw what happened down South, it dawned on them that they really owed the readers a frank report of how unready Southern California is for massive evacuations and everything that went on in New Orleans.

The result is today's Bernstein story. It is a factual summary of the present situation here, and to some extent also a corrective of a recent interview in which Tim Reiterman talked to the Michael Brown-like head of California's Office of Emergency Services and was told by him that everything was going great in California disaster planning.

Bernstein's story represents a good start, but it should only be a start. For instance, she mentions in one paragraph the state's woeful rollback of deadlines for improving the readiness of hospitals for a big quake. That deserves a story in itself, about how the hospitals' lobby conspired in state government against the ultimate interests of their own patients and staff. In New Orleans, people were left to die in flooded hospitals. It was one of the worst episodes reported from that city, and the fact is that Los Angeles hospitals aren't ready either.

It's now been 15 months since I was forced into earlier-than-I-wanted retirement from the Times, and yet the editors have yet to name anyone to take over the earthquake beat. Yet earthquakes are not only the quidessential California story for cultural reasons, but a dire threat to public safety that deserves extensive continuing coverage.

Elsewhere in today's first section, indeed, is what passes for the paper's science section these days -- a truncated partial page of stories that virtually all deserve much more attention. The Times' weekly science page was abandoned shortly after Miriam Pawel terminated the talented Joel Greenberg as its editor and moved him, without a word of appreciation for years of hard work, to a less consequential job.

Coming back from my long Alaska-Canada trip this week, I again noticed just what a good newspaper the Times can be. But it needs many more stories of the kind Bernstein gave it this morning, and it needs a restoration of the science page.

Maybe it's time to restore Joel Greenberg to the duties he was so eminently qualified to do.

Friday, September 16, 2005

L.A. Times Shows What It Most Needs, EDGE

If there's any way in which the L.A. Times has long been deficient, it's EDGE, the little ways a newspaper or other publication has of showing that it's sophisticated and critical, that it didn't just fall off the turnip truck.

And, this week, I'm happy to say, since I returned from my Alaska-Canada trip, there are some signs of Times EDGE, thank goodness. Maybe, Dean Baquet, the new editor, is partially responsible. At least, I hope he is.

Reading back issues, I see that Steve Lopez last Sunday was up to the challenge. His quote of Barbara Bush on the hurricane was very revealing.

Visiting the Houston Asrrodome, Mrs. Bush, Lopez reported, "said the evacuees -- many of whom lost everything and were still searching for lost relatives -- seemed to be fine.

"They were underprivileged anyway," Barbara Bush said, "so this is working out well for them."

This is just priceless. If there is any reason the Bush family is suddenly in real political trouble, this explains it, and I feel indebted to Lopez for bringing it to our attention.

Then, this morning, Friday, Sept. 16, I was glad to see two brief stories in the L.A. Times that also showed EDGE.

One, in the Business section, by Debora Vrana, had to do with California Treasurer Phil Angelides, a prospective Democratic candidate for governor next year, telling Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in a letter that the proposed purchase of PacifiCare Health Systems, Inc., ought to be opposed, because it calls for $315 million in payouts to the top executives involved.

"There is simply no justification for these excessive payouts -- which will go to the very same HMO executives who engineered this merger," Angelides told the governor.

Amen! The recent sale of Blue Cross of California was followed by such payouts, and also sharp premium increases to policyholders. But what is encouraging to me about this is that it appeared in Business, which in the past has been notoriously bland, often reluctant to run anything critical of the big corporations. If this policy does change, it means a far better Business section.

Then, I was also delighted to see, in Calendar, by Scott Collins, a story about the tift between Geraldo Rivera of the Fox News Network, and Alessandra Stanley, TV critic for the New York Times.

The issue: had Rivera, as Stanley alleged, "nudged an Air Force rescue worker out of the way so hius camera crew could tape him as he helped lift an older woman in a wheelchair to safety?"

Rivera, the often loudmouthed Fox commentator, is demanding a correction. So far, neither the NYT or Stanley has given him one.

This is entertaining, scintillating and obviously well worth the space it got in the L.A. Times. Such stories, if repeated a hundred fold, might succeed in reversing the LAT's circulation declines.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

L.A. Times Makes It Clear This Morning, Schwarzenegger Is Reeling

In three separate articles this morning, the L.A. Times makes it clear: California's Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is suffering very bad political fortunes. The implication is that his reelection next year is in jeopardy.

The paper's state political columnist, George Skelton, makes the apt point that normally the governor would wait to see how he fares in the special election on state policies set for November before announcing his intentions for next year. However, probably as a sign of his bad political situation, he is not waiting. He dropped a broad hint yesterday he is going to run.

Then, the Times has an article reporting that Schwarzenegger's standing among Latinos, who provided him many votes in the Recall election, has deteriorated. Unlike George W. Bush, when he was governor of Texas, this governor has not even appointed Latinos to his cabinet.

Finally, the Times analyses a surprise Democratic victory in a special Assembly election in the South Bay, in the first round no less.

Were he not such a macho movie star, I would think Schwarzenegger would be privately contemplating not running for reelection at all. California is a Democratic state, and the Democrats will be putting a lot into retrieving the governorship here. The attorney general, Bill Lockyer, has, unwisely I think, pulled out of the contest, but two Democratic officeholders, State Treasurer Phil Angelides and State Controller Steve Westly, are fixing to run.

Schwarzenegger won the governorship in an unusual election as a celebrity against the detested and unsavory incumbent, Democrat Gray Davis. The circumstances of the Recall are not likely to be even remotely repeated.

But he has not proved to be all that knowledgable or able a politician. Although he ran against the special interests, he has proved to be a creature of the usual Republican special interests. Confronted with a Democratic-dominated legislature, he has often dropped the ball in dealing with it. And, then, California's budget and other problems have proved to be fairly intractible, although a boom in the stock market would aright the state's finances by sending capital gains and income tax revenues soaring.

Meanwhile, the war in Iraq and, now the hurricane diaster in the Deep South, have soured Republican national popularity. Next year, 2006, looks increasingly like it will be a Democratic year, unless the war enters a more promising phase.

Under all these circumstances, Schwarzenegger would have to be a magic performer to win, and he is not proving to be such.

Times political coverage under the new editor, Dean Baquet, and the metro direction of Janet Clayton, may well prove better than it was in the Recall campaign.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Michael Kinsley At Last Off The Masthead

Finally, he is gone. Michael Kinsley is off the LAT masthead and Andres Martinez is on it as "Editorial Page Editor." It can't help but be an improvement.

There can be no doubt, according to Kinsley's own e-mail to the staff that the new publisher, Jeffrey Johnson, gave Kinsley the final shove.

"For whatever reason," Kinsley said, "Jeff isn't merely uninterested in any future contribution I might make, but actively wants me gone."

Johnson must have drawn the adverse conclusions so many close local observers and inside staff did at the Times: Kinsley was bad news. He was costing the paper circulation when it could ill afford to lose any more. He might have meant well, but he had little or nothing to contribute. Congratulations to Johnson, and may this be only the beginning of his benefits to the paper, and to Los Angeles.

Media correspondent James Rainey's article announcing Kinsley's departure was weak. Rainey, it ought now to be said, is a disappointment as a media writer. He lists the controversial rightwinger Bill O'Reilly as a critic of Kinsley without ever mentioning all the local critics he had, without mentioning Jack Nelson's persistent criticism, and without mentioning such squalid episodes as the Susan Estrich affair, when Kinsley followed his mentor John Carroll's lead in keeping her off the Op-Ed Page. Now, both Carroll and Kinsley are gone, and we will see whether Estrich is welcome back on the Op-Ed Page, as she should be.

Today's editorials in the Times showed little improvement, including a rather insipid lead on the disappointingly bland testimony of Supreme Court Chief Justice nominee John G. Roberts, Jr. to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

But I would guess Martinez, who has written some good columns since arriving from the New York Times, would soon spruce things up. He is quoted this morning as saying there will be more local and state editorials.

Good, after all, the Times is the state's largest paper. It is not, thank goodness, the Chicago Tribune.

Farewell but also good riddance to Michael Kinsley.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

L.A. Times Downplays Terror Threat Against L.A.

Things have not changed much at the Los Angeles Times. It is still downplaying to a ridiculous point the terrorist menace against the city and state.

On the fourth anniversary of 9-11, editors stuck on the last page of the A section a direct threat by a known terrorist suspect to make targets of Los Angeles and Melbourne, Australia on behalf of al Queda.

This story should have been displayed much more prominently.

The LAT has a staff and editors in denial. Los Angeles is a natural target for al Queda, because it is the worldwide center of the movies, a vital cultural influence, and a major population center of the world's Jews.

Already, before, in an aborted threat against LAX, the Los Angeles International Airport, there occurred discovery in 1999 of a threat. Then, there was a terrorist attempt at the El Al counter at LAX, with fatalities, which the Times bent over backwards not to call a terrorist attempt.

Editorially, the paper still bears the ersatz liberal Michael Kinsley, on its masthead as editorial page editor, despite an announcement over the summer that he was giving up the post.

When will the Times get serious? When will it recognize that Los Angeles is a likely terrorist target? When will it stop being in denial?

Not as long as the Tribune owns the paper, I suspect. Things have not changed despite announced changes during my Alaska-Canada trip. The paper remains shamefully weak on terrorism.

Monday, September 12, 2005

End of 84-Day Trip to Alaska And Western Canada

Written from San Carlos, California --

Tomorrow marks the end of my 84-day trip to Alaska and Northwestern Canada, nearly 11,000 miles by car plus a ferry to the Aleutian Islands and a flight to Barrow.

It was a trip that met lifelong expectations, but I'm happy to get home to resume intensive reading of both the Los Angeles Times and New York Times plus some review of other media. The exact mileage upon arrival at home Tuesday evening was 10,911.

These are particularly crucial times at the LAT, where the editor and his choice as editorial page editor have both stepped down, and the struggle continues to preserve both circulation and advertising. I plan to do my bit at continuing to scrutinize the paper and to comment on what is going on there.

As I return home, I want to pay tribute once again to colleagues who died while I was away, the great David Shaw, City Hall correspondent Erwin Baker and the late office manager, Myer Rosenberg, whose passing became known after I left.

Two news developments over the summer -- the terrorist attacks on London and the hurricane on the Gulf Coast and New Orleans -- both greatly influenced events and were a focus of news coverage. Both were diligently covered by the media and won attention throughout the world.

My own feeling is that neither the Bush Administration nor the Tribune Co., really met expectations over the summer. Both must do berter or lose the support of those following them.

The months ahead will be critical. I'm back refreshed and determined to express my views regarding both of these and other topics.

The highpoints of my trip, as I look back on it, were driving the Alaska Highway, catching four big halibut in the Aleutians, staying at the Kachemak Wilderness Lodge, visiting Yellowknife in Canada's Northwest Territories, making many new friends and seeing two great parts of North America.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Publisher Note To L.A. Times Staff Strikes Right Tone

Written from Ashland, Oregon--

There is reason to be encouraged by the tone struck in new L.A. Times Publisher Jeff Johnson's note to the staff last Friday, reporting that coverage of the hurricane led to an upturn in Times sales.

Johnson indicates street sales mounted by nearly 10,000 daily and pays tribute to the staff who worked on the hurricane coverage.

That's what is needed from the publisher, and also he should make more of a public mark in Los Angeles, getting out more, putting the view of the paper before the public.

This is the way to reverse the circulation declines, and it is something that recent publishers have not done. Johnson has made some good opening moves.

On another matter, this is the fourth anniversary of 9-11, and it is marked today by two long articles in the New York Times Magazine on the status of the war -- what is happening in Iraq and why the U.S. did not capture Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora in 2001.

Both articles are well worth reading, although in the first, the author fails to make explicit at this point what would win the war. As I've contended before, it must be stepped up. The Sunni civilians need to be convinced by an all out campaign that they will suffer less if they back us than if they back the insurgents.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Michael Brown Is (Mostly) Gone; Now, What About Rumsfeld?

Written from Ashland, Oregon--

At last, President Bush has been prevailed upon to remove the inept Michael Brown from most of his post-hurricane responsibilities at FEMA and put a seasoned Coast Guard admiral in charge. He acted, because even leaders of his own party in Congress told him he had to.

Brown, who lied on his job resumee, was the official who, days after the hurricane, still said he had not heard about the squalid conditions at the New Orleans Convention Center.

But the hurricane is not the only major event to have taxed the Bush Administration to and beyond the breaking point. There is also the war in Iraq.

There, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had a plan for conducting the original attack, but in the two years since has not seemed to have a clue on how to stem the insurgency and put Iraq back on its feet. About 140,000 American troops are bogged down in Iraq, and the casualty toll is mounting toward 2,000 dead.

It's been obvious for some time that Rumsfeld, past 70, is as unfit to run the continuing war effort as Brown was to run the disaster effort. There needs to be a new Secretary of Defense and a new war plan with at least a chance of success.

George W. Bush is not the first second term President to run into difficulties. Even the redoutable Ronald Reagan ran into Iran-Contra, ran into a need to change top aides. Even Franklin D. Roosevelt tried a court packing scheme in his second term and had to make big changes before he ran for a third term.

So, Bush needs to rethink matters. Obviously, the hurricane is going to be a major preoccupation for the Administration for a long time to come, and Iraq is not going to go away. In both matters, new people have to take charge, and it is Bush's task to find them.

Who said, incidentally that the press had lost its way and was growing too soft on top governmental authorit? Aside from the Fox News Network, the press has been showing commendable vigor in telling us what is wrong down in New Orleans and in Baghdad. They can't a government make, but at least press criticisms can make away for essential changes.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Brilliant NYT Editorial Slams Bush On An Inhouse Investigation of His Administration's Handling Of The Hurricane

Written from Ashland, Oregon--

Yesterday, FEMA announced a plan to issue $2,000 debit cards to evacuees from the hurricane. Today, it said it wasn't ready to issue the debit cards, and it was left to the Red Cross to give the evacuees, for now, ATM cards.

What a disgrace! The hurricane occurred 10 days ago, and yet FEMA is still not ready. It is clear that Michael Brown, the inept FEMA director, should be the first government official to be replaced by a more competent administrator.

But President Bush seldom fires anyone for incompetence. He has kept Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld on the job. Now, he says, "Brownie" has done a wonderful job.

I draw your attention to a New York Times editorial yesterday dismissing the Bush notion of an inhouse investigation of what has gone "right and wrong" in the hurricane aftermath.

The beginning of this pointed editorial deserves quotation:

"With the enormity of the task of rescuing and rebuilding New Orleans and other parts of the Gulf Coast still unfolding on a daily basis, it seemed early to talk about investigating how this predicted cataclysm had been allowed to occur and why the government's response was so slow and so inept. Until yesterday, that is, when President Bush blithely announced at a photo-op cabinet meeting that he personally was going to find out "what went right and what went wrong." We can't imagine a worse idea.

"No administration could credibly investigate such an immense failure on its own watch. And we have learned through bitter experience -- the Abu Ghraib nightmare is just one example -- that when this administration begins an internal investigation, it means a whiewash in which no one important is held accountable and no real change occurs.

"Mr. Bush signaled yesterday that we are in for more of the same when he sneered and said, 'One of the things that people want us to do here is to play a blame game.' This is not a game. It is critical to know what "things went wrong,'as Mr. Bush put it. But we also need to know which officials failed -- not to humiliate them but to replace them with competent people....."

The New York Times, which unlike the L.A. Times, has a competent, principled editorial page, wants a 9-11 independent commission to examine everything, and, as a downpayment, it urged the immediate replacement of the incompetent Michael Brown.

So be it.

Unless Bush can do better, perhaps it is not too early to examine the possibility of his early replacement by a more competent leader. Richard Nixon had to resign. Why not Bush, unless he can demonstrate a genuinely new tack?

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Time Magazine Picks The Wrong Reporter To Criticize Bush On The Hurricane

Written from Ashland, Oregon--

I was anxious to see Time magazine this week on its hurricane coverage, but when it arrived at the bed and breakfast I'm staying in here, I was very disappointed.

Time compromises its criticism of the Bush Administration by using its discredited White House correspondent, Matt Cooper, to make the criticism.

Ever since Cooper followed the cowardly Time, Inc. CEO Norman Pearlstine and testified before the grand jury in violation of his pledge of confidentiality in the CIA leaker case, he, like Pearlstine, have had no place in big time journalism.

We can only hope that Cooper and Pearlstine resign. For Cooper to be critical of the Administration that pursued his disgrace further discredits himself and Time magazine.

Much of what Cooper says, I happen to agree with. As readers of this blog know, I've been very critical of the Administration's and Bush's response to the hurricane. It has been inadequate, and it was to be expected given the Administration's downgrading of FEMA and its general insensitivity to black people.

But to use a reporter like Cooper who has every reason for revenge against the Administration for ruining his career, is ridiculous. Another reporter needs to be appointed to the White House beat.

It cannot be journalism as usual while Judith Miller of the New York Times remains in jail in the CIA case. All those who have given in to the Administration have sold out freedom of the press.

Time needs to recognize that when it gave in to the Administration it ruined its credibility. Now, it cannot easily recover it by correct reporting in other areas.

I'm not sorry to be so tough. As Mr. Lincoln said, "Important principles may and must be inflexible.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Fox Seems Scripted For Administration On Hurricane

Written from Ashland, Oregon--

As I approach home from my long trip, I've been catching up on hurricane coverage. Reaching the Shakespeare Festival here, I bought my first New York Times since June and was delighted, if not surprised, to see its massive, acute coverage of the storm's aftermath, with a special section and a terrific series of Science stories. It's what you expect from the NYT. They never disappoint in disaster coverage.

Also, since crossing the border from Canada last Friday, I've had the opportunity to look at Fox Network coverage of Katrinia's aftermath and compare it with CNN.

There really is no comparison. CNN has consistently done a great job.

But Fox's coverage seems prescripted to whitewash the Bush Administration and its handling of the storm.

Even President Bush has acknowledged that the response from the authorities initially left much to be desired. But you don't get this from Fox, which, as usual, is more royalist than the King.

Its correspondents keep up a drumfire of how massive the response has been, and what a great job the military has been doing at it. There is little real coverage from Fox -- just blah, blah, blah about everything the government has been doing for the people of New Orleans. People have been dying, and Fox can't bring itself to be honest.

I'd like to see the ratings during this period. I'd be surprised if CNN has not been catching up to Fox in watchers. Particularly outstanding has been the ever-sensitive, inquisitive Aaron Brown, who has been at a lifetime best night after night.

With Fox, it is sad. John Carroll was rght when he termed this not really a journalistic organization. It is shameful when the press fails to do its duty in such an emergency.

Fox is not only a rank ideologue, it is proving itself unprofessional, unbalanced and biased. Showing that its slogan and salesmanship is a big lie.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Tribune, Incorribly Unambitious, Cuts Back Newsday, And Other Matters

Written from Bonners Ferry, Idaho--

The latest Tribune cutbacks in a former Times-Mirror newspaper, are taking place at Newsday, with Manhattan coverage being cut back and 45 buyouts being offered.

Nothing is more tiresome than fresh proof that the incompetents who run the Tribune Co. simply have no desire to improve the product. It's too bad they are not in another business, since they have little of the adventurous spirit of traditional news personnel.

I'm back in the U.S. tonight, working my way slowly south toward home, and am looking forward to seeing the L.A. Times and NYT again regularly and thus feeling free to comment in detail on developments at both newspapers.

Some things are a puzzle. This is a big news week, with the hurricane diasster and both President Bush and the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast struggling. So just why is the new LAT editor, Dean Baquet missing until Sept. 6?

He may have a good reason. But a vacation would not be such a reason. It would be desirable if he were at the helm this week. On the other hand, if memory serves me, Baquet might be from New Orleans originally. In other words, compelling family reasons might be responsible for his absense.

I spent a total of 38 days in Alaska and 31 days in Canada in the course of my trip. Canada is by and large an admirable country, with relations with the U.S. that could be better.

But it's often our fault, they are not better. Just this week, the Canadians offered help for New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. The Canadian Prime Minister called President Bush with the offer and three Canadian ships were said to be loaded and ready to depart with supplies, food, helicopters, military personnel, etc.

Why then was Bush so standoffish? He should have accepted the Canadians offer with thanks and given them an immediate go-ahead. It remains me of the Japanese being reluctant at the time of the Kobe earthquake in 1995 to accept American and other foreign help. That was silly of them and this is silly of us.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

It's Obvious That The Hurricane Crisis Is Not Over

Written from Lake Louise, Alberta--

Even if we assume that a few days after most disasters, rumors grow and everything may appear bleak, it's obvious that the New Orleans and Gulf Coast hurricane disaster is in a great crisis.

Part of the trouble, as I pointed out two days ago, is that under this Administration
FEMA has been weakened. Its planning for this kind of catastrophe has initially proved inadequate.

However, it was somewhat reassuring this morning to see Homeland Security and the military so much involved.

What is disconcerting for someone, like myself, who covered the Kobe earthquake disaster in 1995, is that the Japanese were able to get a lot more relief right on the scene within 48 hours after the earthquake struck. They were feeding people on every street corner in Kobe and set up massive evacuation centers.

Once the Japanese got revved up, things went smoothly, and I hope the same thing is true with us. On the other hand, there simply wasn't the violence and looting in Kobe that there has been in New Orleans.

At this point, this has to be largely a federal response. State and local officials are overwhelmed.

We can hope, and the public should demand of this Administration, a massive and adequate response.