Monday, February 11, 2008

Under Zell, L.A. Times May Use More Expletives

The Los Angeles Times, during almost all of the 39 years I worked for it, was inappropriately staid. It would not use profane language even when it was most advisable as a service to the readers to do so. Now, thank goodness, under the new owner, Sam Zell, that may change.

In several visits with the Times staff and on forays elsewhere in the Tribune empire, Zell, who associates say is not above smoking a little marijuana on occasion, has used the word "fuck" and other terms banned in his newspapers in the past. Sometimes, he has slipped over the line, such as his use of the word "pussy," during a visit last week to the Times' Orange County plant. But most of the time, he has just been salty, using profanity to make a point, and often a good one.

(It should also be noted that on his visit to the Times printing plant in Los Angeles, someone told him that employees there had long and fruitlessly sought installation of a pool table so they could play pool during the breaks. According to my friend Ed Padgett, Zell promptly ordered the installation of three pool tables in different Times locations. This is really a welcome sign that, like the Chandlers in past years, Zell cares something about the morale of the staff. One of the reasons the Tribune Co. fell into so much trouble with Times employees before Zell bought the company was that the former CEO, Dennis FitzSimons, seemed to hate Los Angeles and not care about employee morale).

In the supposed interest of being "a family newspaper," the L.A. Times for many years had a firm policy against running expletives.

One of the few times an exception was made was when the White House tapes were released in the 1970s illustrating the profanity used every other moment by President Richard Nixon and his staff. It was decided this was so integral to the story that on this occasion, in printing quotes from the transcripts, the Times would use some of the words Nixon used.

The first time this happened, Frank Haven, then the Times managing editor, emerged from his office, and said something to the effect, "This is the day! For the first time, we're going to have 'shit' on Page one." But a staff member immediately interjected, "Frank, it's not the first time we've had shit on Page one."

Afterwards, there were gradually more times when such words as "damn" and "hell," rather mild profanities by contemporary standards, made it into the Times.

But when John Carroll was named editor, named by the Tribune Co. to replace Michael Parks as editor when it purchased the paper in 2000, Carroll promptly banned all such words. He said these were not in accord with the image the Times should wish to project. I thought that this was one of those occasions when Carroll went too far. Under him, even the word "hell" was routinely excised from stories.

Still, Carroll was not as bad in some regards as Mark Willes had been when he became CEO of Times-Mirror and publisher of the Times in the 1990s. Willes, a devout Mormon who actually was a nephew of the leader of the worldwide Mormon church at the time, ordered that the stunningly beautiful Picassos purchased by Dorothy Chandler and put on display in the Times executive dining room, which was then renamed the Picasso Room, be removed, because, he explained, the nudity in some of the pictures would "offend my grandchildren."

Right then, we should have realized that Willes was not going to be a success in the newspaper business. (Willes was fond, also, of saying that he wanted to "take down the wall" between the editorial and advertising departments at Times-Mirror newspapers. This attitude led directly to the Staples scandal which resulted in Willes having Times-Mirror sold out from underneath him to the Tribune).

Willes' morality was subject to some doubt. When he was finally terminated, with a severance package that totaled at least $64 million, and perhaps over $100 million, he even took with him the soft drinks in his office refrigerator.

Everything thus far indicates that Zell is made of a different cloth. Although in his religion, the word "Zion," is often used, it does not mean the same thing exactly as the "Zion" so often used by the Mormons.

I should say, I have nothing against the Mormons in general. My father's roommate at the Naval Academy was a Mormon from Brigham City, Utah, and when I went to Washington, D.C., as a boy of 15, he, by then an Admiral in the Pentagon, fell all over himself to be nice to me.

The Times can probably afford to catch up with America and American language as it is today. So I was happy to see, in Sunday's Opinion section, an article by Gustavo Arellano, chastising the paper for being "hilariously dowdy" in not reporting exactly what Zell, "its loose-lipped boss," had said in employee meetings. After all, Arellano pointed out, his words could soon be found on the Internet, while not appearing in his own newspaper.

It would certainly not have come as a shock to the elite Los Angeles Civic Alliance, business and professional leaders who had met with Zell a few months before at the Times and heard first hand his earthy way of speaking.

And while we're talking about becoming more modern and explicit, the Times ought to reconsider some of the polite words it uses to describe evil-doers in the world.

In an editorial Sunday the newspaper again refers to "militants" in discussing the Al-Qaeda operatives who last week tied bombs to two women with Down's syndrome and sent them into two toy markets in Baghdad to commit suicide bombings that killed 99 of the patrons, including many children. According to reports, they had not bothered to inform the Down's syndrome bombers what they were carrying.

These people are not "militants" but foul mass murderers, and the Times should not hesitate to call them what they are. The paper's readers will certainly understand.



Anonymous another old fool said...

I agree that it is evil to use the mentally handicapped to carry out mass killings. This goes beyond any "rule of war", if there ever was such a thing.

Give us your opinion on the new ads on the L.A. Times Blogs. I really liked the car dealership ads on "Bottleneck Blog". However hair growth ads on "Homicide Report" are in bad taste.

2/12/2008 11:06 AM  
Anonymous Sending soap to Sam said...

Quaint as it may sound, there are still some of us who don't see Zell's "profanity policy" as being modern, progressive, or a "catch up with America," but exactly the opposite.

2/15/2008 2:20 AM  

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