Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Narda Zacchino Should Have Been LAT Editor

The L.A. Times began to be troubled in 1989, when Tom Johnson was summarily removed as publisher by Robert Erburu. But certainly the decision to pass over Narda Zacchino as a prospective Times editor in 1996 was a key part of the slow slide of the newspaper.

Zacchino would have been an inspirational leader of the Times, close to the pulse of Los Angeles, a winning personality, in all respects a top quality successor of the often-hesitant but decent Shelby Coffey.

Instead, Michael Parks, a Pulitzer Prize winning foreign correspondent, was brought to Los Angeles and made managing editor. Eight months later, he became editor. Unfortunately inarticulate, Parks was a fine managing editor, but not a successful editor. Just three years later, he became enmeshed in the Staples scandal and lost the editorship when the Tribune Co. bought the paper and brought in John Carroll as editor.

I thought of this past history when the news came yesterday that Narda was leaving the San Francisco Chronicle after six years there as an assistant executive editor. I've already compared this on an earlier blog to Katherine Ross's decision to go home from South America and leave Paul Newman and Robert Redford in the movie, "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." It seemed that her departure foreshadowed the deaths of the outlaws in a hail of bullets. One wonders now whether the Chronicle will long survive Zacchino.

It all might have been different for the Times had Narda been named managing editor in 1996, and then became editor a few months later. She would never have allowed Mark Willes to wander into the Staples conflict of interest, in which he and Kathryn Downing agreed to share advertising profits with an entity the paper was promoting. I believe Narda would have protested vehemently, and Willes, a naive man without experience in journalism, would have desisted.

This may be a controversial judgment, but, knowing Narda all during her three decades at the Times, I grew to have the highest degree of confidence both in her abilities and her character.

Narda was Sacramento bureau chief and later the editor of politics for Metro, in addition to being Orange County Editor and associate editor in charge of Calendar, View and other sections. But of course as a political writer and later I knew her best as a political editor.

I had many fine political editors at the Times, but no one of them was more willing than Narda to accept new ways of trying to cover politics, unless it was Ed Guthman, national editor during my earlier presidential campaign assignments. (I should also add that I had a high regard for the abilities and character of Art Berman and Bob Trounson. The Times was fortunate during all this period to have high-minded people in charge of political coverage).

Narda was willing, as some less secure editors were not, to give her political writers freedom to experiment with different kinds of stories and interpretations. She commanded respect, and her ideals were beyond question.

Also, her career at the paper coincided with the time when women were coming into their own in journalism. At the Times, this was not an easy process, but Narda was one of the most effective in pushing it along.

Not only this, but she had the capacity of doing everything in a nice way. Narda was a wonderful person to work for in every respect. She was very proud, by the way, of her ethnicity, half Polish and half Italian.

Now, of course, no one is perfect, and Narda was sometimes accused, particularly as associate editor, of micromanagement. She also was definitely part of the personal fiefdom of Mark Murphy when he was Metro Editor. But these were not shortcomings that I found particularly crippling.

The Times had a choice in 1996, and unfortunately it strayed in the wrong direction.

--

In what I believe is one of its most misguided articles of late, Time magazine suggests in a long article this week that America "reach out" to the Hamas organization in a search for a Middle Eastern settlement. Nothing, I think, could be more foolish and counterproductive.

Hamas has already used such tactics as tossing people off high rise buildings, and raining rockets on peaceful Israeli cities, to get its way in Gaza, which it has now taken by coup d'etat. It is an organization already influenced by Al-Qaeda and its dead-end extremism has long been evident. It can't even control kidnappers in Gaza, and may even have encouraged them.

Contrary to what Time and many American liberals believe, there is no way out of the Middle East crisis by appeasing or turning to the extremists. This is not a time when Time magazine is distingishing itself. In World War II, at least, it did not follow Lord Halifax and propose negotiating with Hitler.

This morning, there's a report from the present Middle East summit in Sharm el Sheik that the Fatah president, Mahmoud Abbas, is proposing that a Jordanian force be created to fortify the Fatah position in the West Bank. Under the circumstances, that would be a good idea.

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