Tuesday, February 12, 2008

L.A. Times Needs More Color In Political Coverage

It need hardly be said that we are at an unusually dramatic time in American politics. Three galvanic candidates -- Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain -- have aroused enthusiasms, boosted voter turnout, focused the issues involving the succession to the Bush Administration, and in the process created the political story of the generation, and possibly a political story as significant as in the greatest election years of the American Republic -- 1800, 1860 and 1932.

Time magazine's Web site called "The Page," written, it sometimes seems almost 24 hours a day by Mark Halperin, has risen to the occasion as well as any of the media. The cable news network, CNN, has distinguished itself, especially on primary election nights. The British newspapers, the London Times and the Guardian, have contributed incisive commentary. The Washington Post has displayed sweepingly comprehensive and provocative coverage. Columnists David Broder in the Post and David Brooks and Frank Rich in the New York Times have provided brilliant backdrops. And the New York Times and Wall Street Journal have been quite good. Under the new ownership of Rupert Murdoch, the Journal's political coverage has been greatly expanded.

Some editorial pages have also risen to the occasion. I'm thinking, in particular, of the Columbia (So. Carolina) State, Los Angeles Times and La Opinion editorials supporting the Obama candidacy and criticizing shortcomings of the Clinton candidacy and the boorishness of former Presidant Bill Clinton. It was a particularly nice touch that the L.A. Times endorsements of Oboma and McCain were moved to the front page of the Opinion section and made the subject ofbeautiful portrait-style photographs that day, and an article in the news section touting them the day before. Both of these gestures were commensurate the with intense public interest in the 2008 presidential contest.

All that said, I'm disappointed in the political coverage in the news sections of the L.A. Times. The Times is making an effort, but its coverage, with the exception of Peter Wallsten and occasional other pieces, has not been up to the level of the Washington Post and New York Times. Oftentimes, the reporting has not been dramatic enough to fit the occasion. Sometimes, as in the case of Janet Hook, it has leapt to the wrong conclusions. And it has not been marked with the scoops which so often have been a part of the Post and NYT coverage.

Rather than write a memo, as they did this morning, taking exception to new L.A. Times owner Sam Zell's language and advising Times personnel not to emulate him, managing editors John Arthur and John Montorio and personnel manager Susan Denley would have been better advised in my view to take steps to stimulate more interesting political coverage.

I won't be shy with my advice at this critical juncture. Wallsten ought to be promoted to be the senior political news writer. Doyle McManus, chief of the Washington bureau, should be encouraged to write more, and even more interpretively. On the editorial page, Tim Rutten ought to be freed from the present restrictions on his new Op Ed page column to write about national politics for the duration of the campaign year. And perhaps George Skelton in Sacramento should periodically be detailed to write about the dramatic situation nationwide in his column. As a former White House correspondent, he certainly has an historical view.

Also, I think some of the younger reporters of the Times who have displayed initiative -- Matea Gold (who covered some politics four years ago), Tami Abd0llah, Ron Lin -- and others should be given special supporting political assignments, to catch the fresh perspective they might be able to bring. Give them a chance, and the editors might be pleasantly surprised.

I would not even hesitate to bring some of the most perceptive foreign writers -- Kim Murphy, Borzou Daragahi and even Megan Stack -- home for brief assignments to bring their talents to bear on the situation. If this were done, it should be done for the Ohio and Texas primaries and the Democratic National Convention, if the Obama-Clinton contest still rages. Even foreign editorials writer Sonni Efron might be enlisted as a writing observer.

I can't forget the advice of Frank Haven, Bill Thomas and Ed Guthman when I was assigned, as a young reporter (30 at the time) to cover the political campaign of Eugene McCarthy in the spring of 1968.

"Feel free to be interpretive," they said. "Give us the color of what you see. Think anew and act anew about political coverage."

And they meant it. Guthman drove the point home every day, and Haven, Thomas and I were on the same wave length. Bob Donovan, then the Washington bureau chief, was under the same orders (and it was easier for him, because he was a better writer than I was and had a lot more experience).

The Times needs to move in some of the same directions now. It has to loosen up. It shouldn't virtually ignore dramatic occasions like the Maria Shriver appearance at UCLA to endorse Obama. It's got to dig into the pathos of the present Clinton campaign, and keep up with its last ditch efforts in Texas and Ohio to turn back the Obama insurgency. It needs to better examine the multiple challenges facing McCain and the almost moribund Republican party. And it needs to dig more trenchantly into the voting screw ups in last week's California primary. Specifically, it needs to examine very critically why, a week after the election, we still have nearly two million votes uncounted. There is nothing so consistent as California's terrible habit of letting elections hang in the balance for weeks, as it did in 1960 and now is doing the same.

It is one thing for Zell and publisher David Hiller to talk about enhancing the Web site and covering local news. But now they face a truly newsworthy situation. The other priorities can and must wait until the present national political events get the coverage they deserve.

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For a good example of the nonsenical claptrap L.A. Times Op Ed Page editor Nick Goldberg loves to run, go today to the column by Jonah Goldberg claiming that Obama's idealism is "hogwash." Goldberg frequently is foolish. In this column, he outdid even himself.

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