Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Zell Threatens The L.A. Times Washington Bureau

When the unqualified Russ Stanton was named as lackey-editor of the L.A. Times by lackey-publisher David Hiller, he broadly hinted he would do in the Times national and foreign coverage, or at least sharply pare it.

This week, Tribune Co. owner Sam Zell, to whom Stanton and Hiller obsequiously report, dropped the other shoe. In an appearance at the Washington bureau, Zell said its staff (now 47) is "bloated" and suggested it should be smaller than the Times' Orange County staff. L.A. Times reporters and editors in Washington are said to have loudly objected.

It is more and more evident that Zell, a corrupt Chicago billionaire, has little regard for, and no understanding of the newspaper business. When he became Tribune Co. owner, he first said he would not cost cut his way to prosperity, but it has already become apparent he was lying.

Zell came to the Washington bureau at the same time as a memorial service for the retired Times Washington Bureau reporter Rudy Abramson. This offensive timing left the bureau staff, particularly the ones there when Abramson worked there, with a kind of Sophie's choice: They could honor their esteemed colleague, or they could listen to Zell. Some courageously did choose to honor Abramson by going to the service, and others stayed for Zell. It may have been just as well, had all gone to the service and boycotted Zell.

As usual, those who stayed for him found Zell a crass jackass. But at least he did not smoke any pot while he was at the bureau.

Afterwards, Doyle McManus, the Times Washington bureau chief, tried, as he frequently does in this sad era, to put the best possible interpretation on things. He said in a memo to the Washington staff that in ensuing discussions he had concluded Zell, who loves to throw out bombastic sentiments, should not be taken literally.

If McManus really believes that, he's been smoking some of Zell's marijuana. It might be remembered that when Hiller-fired Times editor Dean Baquet was made Washington bureau chief of the New York Times, McManus issued a statement vowing that the L.A. Times Washington bureau would be a stiff competitor. Despite the fact that Baquet has made some miscues, such as pushing the New York Times' scurrilous and lascivious article about the supposed sex life of Sen. John McCain last week, the Washington bureau of the New York paper has, in fact, outshone the L.A. Times bureau.

This morning, Chicago Tribune media writer Phil Rosenthal, in a long article about Zell's appearance in Washington, says that he asked Stanton about Zell's threats to the Washington bureau. Would Stanton agree, he wanted to know.

He quotes Stanton as answering: "I can see why Zell is asking the questions. I can understand why someone would think that (cutting back the Washington bureau) would be a good idea."

Well, it is obvious that Stanton has decided already to be a traitor to long range L.A. Times quality and interests. So much for him. When a ranking Timesman this week speculated that Stanton and Hiller both would be gone by the end of the year, let's hope he was right. But that presumes Zell is going to come to his senses, and I wouldn't bet he would.

In LA Observed this morning, Kevin Roderick suggests that in the wake of Zell's threats in Washington a number of the Times staff there, particularly the most able, would be calling Baquet to ask him for job.

I hope they will not do that immediately. They can always go elsewhere after the firings begin. But their duty now is to stay and fight for the bureau. They can protest vehemently, they can scream to the outside journalistic world. They can plant the kind of stink bombs in the Tribune Tower that the anti-war groups did at the Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968. They should not go quietly, and neither should the bureau chief, Doyle McManus.

Meanwhile, here in Los Angeles, we need help from that Civic Alliance that protested to then-Tribune CEO Dennis FitzSimons last year. They must now push the idea of the Tribune Co. selling the L.A. Times to local interests here who would have the paper's interests at heart. And they must call loudly for firing the traitors, Hiller and Stanton.

LA Observed also reports this morning that new layoffs are expected momentarily at the Daily News in the San Fernando Valley. If that paper dies, which it soon might, then there will be opportunity for the L.A. Times to pick up substantial Valley circulation. Perhaps, that opens up prospects which might be encouraged by expanding the Times' present miniscule Valley staff. (I remember attending a Hiller presentation to Valley civic leaders at which he lied through his teeth about his plans for Valley coverage, just 24 hours before he announced he was thinking of putting ads on Page 1).

--

The L.A. Times runs a Times-Bloomberg poll this morning that shows McCain beating either Sen. Barack Obama or Sen. Hillary Clinton in November general election matchups.

This has to be taken with a very large grain of salt. The fact is, Times-Bloomberg has been off the mark before this year, in large part because it has made erroneous assumptions about both the size of the turnout and its demographics. This poll is in all likelihood just as all wet. Maybe, Stanton has been conducting it.

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