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Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times

Posted on Nov 3, 2009
Angel City Press

By Bill Boyarsky

“Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” tells the story of Los Angeles and the L.A. Times through the lives of the paper’s publishers, beginning with Gen. Harrison Grey Otis in the late 19th century. As the late David Halberstam wrote: “No single family has dominated any major region of the country as the Chandlers have dominated Southern California. They did not so much foster the growth of Los Angeles as invent it.”

Below is the epilogue. 

The last of the Chandlers, Otis, was driven from the paper by his right-wing relatives who had majority control. The newspaper business was collapsing. Ethical standards were ignored. This paper, which had been one of America’s greatest, was beginning its fall toward mediocrity. The Times, which had been the single most important force in shaping Los Angeles and the rest of Southern California, was now out of the game.

Throughout its history, California has been a precursor to movements that have swept across the country. The story of the decline of the Chandlers could well foreshadow the decline and fall of the old families that run The New York Times and The Washington Post.

As city editor of the Los Angeles Times, I was part of some of the events in this book. I tell the story from the factory floor, the newsroom of the L.A. Times.

“Inventing L.A.” was published by Angel City Press in conjunction with a PBS documentary of the same name produced by Peter Jones.

* * *


Epilogue: The Chandler Era Ends

Most of the time, workers on the factory floor can’t explain why their company failed. By necessity, their view doesn’t extend much beyond the car they are assembling or the supervisor giving them orders. A newspaper, however, is a different kind of manufacturing plant. A number of the workers are journalists, often high-strung creatures, trained to observe every nuance, rumor and fact. At the Los Angeles Times, the journalists’ factory floor—the newsroom—was the best place to observe the sad final decade of Chandler control.


book cover


Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times


By Bill Boyarsky / Based on the film by Peter Jones


Angel City Press, 208 pages


Buy the book

The newsroom, on the third floor, extends the length of a long city block, from one end of the Los Angeles Times building to the other. In 1989, the year Tom Johnson was fired as publisher, the many departments in the room reflected the ambitions of a paper at its height. Books, Fashion, Food, Calendar (covering movies, television, art, and music) occupied one large portion of the room, blending into Sports, and then Business. Near Business were the foreign and national desks, receiving stories from bureaus around the country and the world. Beyond these desks was the Metro staff, covering local news, and then there were the specialists in education, science, medicine, religion and the environment.

Each day, at 10 a.m. and 2:30 p.m., their work went on display in a conference room. There, the editors in charge of the sections discussed which stories and pictures to run and where to place them. They would pick a few for page one and consign others to the many inside pages of the paper. The meetings were a daily presentation of events around the world, ranging from violence in the Middle East to a vote in Congress to a mishap on Santa Monica Beach, interspersed with a mix of movies, art, music, sports, food, and literature. Even with Otis Chandler gone, the choices still reflected his philosophy of “mass and class.”

As the 1980s ended, and Chandler and Johnson were driven from power, the journalists in the newsroom were uneasy. The paper was adrift. They had a new publisher, David Laventhol. Another unknown quantity, Shelby Coffey III, was editor, replacing Bill Thomas, who retired in 1989. Upstairs, the conservative Chandlers were in firm control of the board and were more determined than ever to revive the legacy of Harry Chandler—and make a lot of money while doing it. They found support in the Times Mirror hierarchy, now under the firm control of Robert Erburu.

Ideology was no longer an issue. With Tony Day gone, the conservatives had won and objections to a liberal editorial slant faded. The editorial pages became bland. The editorial board’s daily and lively discussions of issues, which had largely shaped the editorials, were abandoned. The great liberal cartoonist, Paul Conrad, left the paper in 1993, replaced by a conservative, Michael Ramirez.

Now the main pressure was economic. After two years of declining earnings, Times Mirror reported a loss in the fourth quarter of 1991. Company executives said the editorial department was fat and wasteful.

The atmosphere grew even more unsettling when Laventhol, the new publisher, instituted some cost-cutting measures, including elimination of first-class air travel. Rumors swept through the newsroom. The rebellious nature of the staff—a hangover from the journalists Thomas had hired and nurtured—heightened the staff’s sense of apprehension.

Despite all the newsroom gossip and speculation, workers were generally ignorant of the corporation’s financial situation and strategic plan. The wall that Otis Chandler had erected between business operations and the editorial department had been so effective that the reporters felt themselves immune from what was happening in the corporate offices on the sixth floor. They were, in fact, scornful of those who worked on the paper’s business side. The vast majority of editors were just as ignorant as the reporters. The few who knew what was happening didn’t choose to share their knowledge.

Thomas’ successor, Coffey, was a slender, athletic man who had bonded with Otis Chandler a few years before when they were lifting weights in a Washington gym. Johnson had chosen him as editor after a dragged-out process that required Coffey, who had been editor of the Dallas Times Herald, and the other contenders for the job to write essays laying out their plans for the paper. Thomas had made him a deputy associate editor in the features department, but it was clear he was on his way to bigger things. Even though his mandate was features, he went out to lunch with editors in the hard news departments and asked questions about what they did and the difficulties they faced in their coverage.

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By Sepharad, November 3, 2009 at 10:57 pm Link to this comment

prole, you are overlooking the most important thing about the Chandler-run Times and googling on the gossipy to slake your endless thirst for any remotely anti-Semitic draft. Like the NYTimes, the LATimes was an amazingly good paper with reporters who knew they were valued, knew what they were doing. The LATimes was able to pay talented investigative writers to spend the time it takes to develop difficult stories. For their “beat” reporters, they selected the best and the brightest. At perhaps the lowest point of my own journalism career, in the mid-70s, I was reduced to editing publications and explaining the actions of the State Bar Board of Governors to the reporters from around the state who were supposed to cover it. The only bright spot in the landscape was Gene Blake, the Times main legal reporter—and no, he wasn’t Jewish (but I never held that against him).  He always did his homework well before the meetings, knew everything pertinent about the individual governors, the issues, the politics, and was an oasis of intellect and rapid analysis. He’d sit there with a little smile, neat white beard, taking the occasional note and listening very carefully while the other reporters preened and looked around to see if anyone was noticing them. In short, the contrast between Blake and most of the other reporters was so depressing I’d begun to regret my choice of profession. Mostly I spent my time, for example, trying to persuade the gorgeous female Chinese SF reporter that the real action was the boring no-fault insurance law debate, not the sexy relatively meaningless diversion of dithering about legalizing marijuana. Many reporters do not want to write about the hard, convoluted stuff, where most of the important rights and wrongs are buried. Blake had an unerring instinct for finding the important, cutting through the legal blather and writing what counted. He knew exactly what was happening when then-Gov. Jerry Brown’s atty. gen. demanded a closed meeting on judicial selections. He was always interested in the latest Legal Services attempt to prod some big firm into doing a lot more pro bono, or when the disciplinary committee was being hounded for trying to discipline the wrong influential person. But mostly it was the issues that attracted him. 

If you want to know why so much in California is screwed up, it’s because people are no longer interested in details of complex issues because they no longer have enough reporters such as Blake and Boyarsky to explain, dissect, analyze. (Blake and the SFChron’s Larry Hatfield were also the best guys to share a drink with.)

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By Samson, November 3, 2009 at 3:08 pm Link to this comment

“But he said Willes wasn’t interested in new media. “


File that one right next to the captain of the Titanic not be worried about the ice bergs.

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By Samson, November 3, 2009 at 3:06 pm Link to this comment

“But he said Willes wasn’t interested in new media. “


File that one right next to the captain of the Titanic not be worried about the ice bergs.

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By prole, November 3, 2009 at 2:56 pm Link to this comment

“After the Staples scandal broke, Otis brooded at his ranch. Then he wrote a long message to the editorial department. He placed a call to the city editor, one of the few staff members he still knew, and asked him to deliver the message to the staff.”…and who might that chummy, unnamed city editor be? Why, none other than the author of the book and this review of it, despite the third person in describing the scene. And why the effusive praise for ol’ Otis? Maybe it has something to do with re-paying a debt. As another former L.A.Times reporter, Ken Reich, described it, in a ’05 interview: “The Times had a lot of Jewish reporters. Mrs. Chandler was responsible for opening up links between the Protestant and Jewish communities in raising Westside money for downtown goals. When Otis Chandler became publisher, one of the ways it changed is that it opened up to the Jewish community. It was no coincidence that The Times had as political writers me, Bill Boyarsky, Carl Brainberg, Bob Shogun. We were all Jews. The Chandlers had a good attitude towards the Jewish community.” This attitude extended to another prominent member of the Jewish community as well, the cuddly Henry Kissinger. In a transcript of a personal call to that war criminal recently released,  Chandler gushed: “The reason I’m troubling you, I’ll only take a minute of your time because I know how busy you must be, I’m calling for mother.She has written to you about speaking to about 500 ladies at the music center here on the west coast…
  Kissinger:“Let me review my calendar and get back to you by the end of the week.”
  Chandler: “Fine. How are things otherwise?”
  Kissinger:“Well, I’m getting back into the time zone. Things are going along, though. I think we’re getting something started with Australia, I mean Syria.”
  Chandler: “Henry, you are the one bright spot in the newspaper every day. The rest of the new is not very good but…
  Kissinger: “Otis, you have been a very good friend, at all times.
  Chandler: “Henry, anything you want, I’ll be here.”

How touching, two comrades-in-arms. A revealing glimpse into the incestuous relationship between power and the press. Still, the LA Times did have some redeeming features during the Otis era, most notably the excellent editorial cartoons of Paul Conrad, no great admirer of Dr. Strangelove or his similarly sociopathic brethren in Israel. 
So if “Otis said he was pleased that the Tribune Company was taking over”, in 2000, it’s not so clear how he would feel about the recent takeover by the Tribune, and with it his LA Times, in 2007, by zionist militant and AIPAC booster, Chicago slumlord, Sam Zell. But a crafty old Israel cheerleader and Gaza apologist like Boyarsky must sure be pleased!

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