Monday, June 02, 2008

Are Kristof, Colker, Lazarus Leading Way at LAT?

(Precede: As I told a friend tonight, the campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination is ending not with a whimper, but a bang. Yet, anti-Clinton as I have been, I feel it is too bad that Bill Clinton was goaded into a temper tantrum today about a Vanity Fair article that seemed terribly unfair to him.

(I've defended the use of anonymous sources as often necessary in journalism, but I'm talking about sources discussing government policy, diplomatic overtures, etc. Anonymous sources should not be used to discuss a politician's sex life. This was bad journalism. The Todd Purdum article in Vanity Fair used anonymous sources to smear Mr. Clinton, and his temperamental outburst, the most recent of many, followed. However, by blowing up, Bill Clinton compromised his wife Hillary's chances to be on the ticket with Obama, and sadly complicated efforts to unify a deeply divided Democratic party for the fall.)


One of the things I like at the L.A. Times these days is that there seems to be a new, harder edge to consumer and business coverage at a time when economic concerns are a dominant political issue and public concern.

The appointment of Sallie Hoffmeister as the new editor of the Business section, who has been a good reporter, may be one sign of this. But the best indication is some outstanding work by Business writers Kathy Kristof, David Colker and David Lazarus. They are writing about real things that bother people, and they are doing more of it than the New York Times is doing.

Of course, I've been reading the back issues of the L.A. Times since returning from my long voyage around Africa, and the Business section of May 11 is a particularly good sign of a new tone.

In this issue, Kristof examined the nefarious practice of big retailers, several of whom she named, of selling consumers a "no payment" option under which they pay nothing when they buy something for up to 12 months. The trouble is, the fine print, explains frequent conditions under which very large interest will be owed at the end of the period. The interest can add 25% to the payments.

Named as such cheaters of an often naive public were Best Buy, Sears, Office Max, Home Depot and American Airlines among others.

I was glad to see American Airlines listed. They are the sons of bitches who first announced a $15 charge on the first piece of luggage checked on flights. Their service to the customer has been abysmal for some time. Now, they are paying new tricks. I have given my travel agent instructions never to book me on that carrier again, or at least not until it becomes a property of a higher service carrier, like Iranian Airlines, or Aeroflot. The North Korean airline has not yet reached American Airlines service level, but it is probably working on it.

Kristof has been a leading L.A. Times writer for many years. She gets better and better.

Right on the next page of the May 11 Business section was a piece by David Colker on Internet scams -- the sudden notification of the Internet user that he or she has won a big lottery they did not enter, or is the beneficiary of a sudden bequest from someone they never knew.

These are so common that you wonder, at this point, who would ever be stupid enough to respond to them, or to agree to transfer a processing fee in exchange for that big check that never comes.

Still, the Colker article was both entertaining and useful in that it laid out what the Internet is becoming -- a trap for the unwary.

I've also become an admirer of Lazarus over recent months. He chooses his subjects carefully, and most of them are highly relevant to average concerns.

Unlike the often bland and pedestrian political coverage, which, in the L.A. Times this year, has only seldom come up to the level of the Washington Post, Mark Halperin's The Page, Politico, the Drudge Report and Daily Kos. not to mention the New York Times, the L.A. Times Business section is often leading the way.

I haven't even discussed here the outstanding columns of Tom Petruno, Peter Hong and others.
At a time when forboding new signs of additional layoffs are cropping up, this is one place where something good is happening.

Two former Business editors, Russ Stanton and Devan Maharaj, have become, respectively, editor and managing editor of the Times. I'm not high on Stanton, but Maharaj has often shown himself to be a top newsman. The main thing is, at long last the Business section, which for a long time was a weak sister of the rest of the paper, is becoming enjoyable and informative.

--

Joel Sappell's sad farewell message upon taking a buyout, as quoted in LA Observed today is a sad reflection of the disillusion many of us felt that the new Tribune Co. owner, Sam Zell, so quickly sold out on his promises that he would practice openness by listening to employees, and actually invest in his newspapers.

Of course, the reverse has happened. It seems as if the inept Dennis FitzSimons is still in charge at Tribune, and there are rumors of yet another round of layoffs.

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