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Confessions of a Dead Tribune

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Posted on Aug 19, 2011
Illustration by Peter Z. Scheer

By Mark Heisler

Editor’s note: The Los Angeles Times’ Mark Heisler, 2006 winner of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame’s Curt Gowdy Award and a Truthdig contributor, was laid off by the newspaper in July, one year before he planned to retire. With 44 years in the business, and 32 at the Times, he reminds us that newspapers were in trouble long before the Internet but still offer at least the promise of something their competitors can’t match. Bearing in mind his severance agreement not to “disparage” the company “in any way,” he nonetheless provides an inside look as one of the world’s great papers is bought, sold and turned into a caricature of its former self.

Who turned out the lights?

Not that the sudden end of my 44-year career in newspapers was disorienting, but I found myself feeling my body to see if I was still here, asking myself, “Who are you?”

It was a joke, I think.

For the last 32 years, I had been “Mark Heisler of the Los Angeles Times.” Before that, “Mark Heisler of the Philadelphia Bulletin” or “Mark Heisler of Somewhere” since June 1, 1967, when Gannett hired me at $125 a week.

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Suddenly, I was just “Mark Heisler.” Who in the hell was Mark Heisler?

Oh yeah ... ME!

Not that this is about the bad things that happened to me, because I got out way ahead of the game. I got to live my dream, even if I bitched every step of the way. At 67, I was ready to go when I did … give or take a few months, from next July when I planned to retire, to next April, which is how long they paid me in severance.

This is really about the biz, and everyone who preceded me over the falls, and everyone who’s still on the job but can feel the current and hear the roar.

I got to do what I did—get in games for free, meet great stars, some of whom were even fun to know, and, best of all, write about it exactly the way I wanted to—before, during and after the Sam Zell era, which began in 2008 when the billionaire wheeler-dealer bought the Tribune chain that included the Times.

Everything else was changing daily, as holdovers in the chain of command learned daily, obliged to keep straight faces as Sam’s Zellots, imported from radio—now there was a boom industry—unveiled their latest idea to reinvent us.

It was harder than the new people imagined. The challenge of TV had newspapers trying to reinvent themselves for decades before the dawn of the Internet (when Tribune made $1.2 billion in AOL stock and later went looking for a corporate acquisition that turned out to be Times parent company Times Mirror, according to Trib-turned-Times Editor Jim O’Shea, providing the answer to the question we used to ask: How did they buy us?).

(O’Shea was one of several Trib-turned-Times execs sent out from Chicago to get us under control who went native and were fired in the eight-year occupation, er, in the time before Zell discovered that fat ESOP fund he could use to buy Tribune.)

Not that I, or anyone, could tune out Zell’s “chief innovation officer” Lee Abrams, whose success in radio seemed life-defining to him, or mind-altering, leaving him capable of announcing upon arrival:

“While my background is steeped in ‘Rock n Roll,’ I strongly believe that News and Information is the new Rock n Roll. ...

“The Tribune has the choice of doing to News/Information/Entertainment what Rock n Roll did to music ... to be the Ray Charles, Dylans, Beatles and U2s of the Information age ... or have someone else figure it out, or worse, let these American institutions disappear into irrelevancy.”

Abrams peppered everyone in the chain with memos full of more insights like this one, which somehow ignored the fact that two of his four “American institutions” weren’t American, and thundering proclamations (“You are either WITH the revolution or AGAINST it”), even after a WAVE OF MOCKERY of his use of caps, which, THE PROFESSIONAL WRITERS IN HIS EMPLOY assumed he did to press points IN THE ABSENCE OF ANY KNOWLEDGE OF THE BUSINESS.

If eye rolls were debilitating, we might never have published again, but nothing stopped Abrams from leaving his mark in newspaper history in the role of the fabled emperor, parading proudly in the breeze, dressed only in his nonexistent new clothes.

I didn’t read the memos, which were dismaying, not to mention an open invitation to tell him where to put his revolution if you didn’t catch yourself before hitting “reply.”

I should note I have signed a termination agreement, stipulating I won’t “disparage” or “denigrate” Tribune. Since interpretations can vary, even if they hadn’t stuck in the words “in any way,” I thought it only prudent to wait for my severance check before writing this.

Nevertheless, to me, disparaging the company means calling it names or questioning its motives, which I’m not.

If Zell and Abrams were publicly and unapologetically unconventional, both have resigned their positions with Tribune, or, should I say, parachuted out. The company is now being run by a board, headed by Times Publisher Eddy Hartenstein.

(Highlights remain online, like Zell’s 2008 session with the Orlando Sentinel staff, when he muttered “Fuck you” at photographer Sara Fajardo, who asked if his injunction to give readers what they wanted mean writing about “puppy dogs.”

(If that one was accidental, picked up on Sam’s open mike, he went on to deride an unnamed Trib executive for complaining that no one was telling him what he was supposed to do, snarling: “Now this motherfucker makes $750,000 a year!”

Tribune isn’t what it was in 2008, as it prepares to emerge from bankruptcy, in the process of deciding what it is to be, still obliged to fight for its very survival as the economy slows dangerously once more.


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By Dragbunt, December 1, 2011 at 4:20 pm Link to this comment

Amazing and sad. It would appear that not one commenter here knew who Mr.
Heisler was and what he meant to a few hundred thousand NBA fans. Clearly
this was the wrong room for his farewell concert. So then let me just say… Since
1980 ish, between November and June (the NBA season) Angelinos were treated
to arguably the best sportswriter/columnist on the pro basketball beat in the
country. Brilliant, funny and charming. When my kids were younger I would
read them Heisler’s sunday column and almost always tear up at the amazing
perspective he would bring to the circus that was Jordan era Bulls and then later
the Kobe/Shaq world here in Lakerland…His open letters to LA Clipper owner
Donald Sterling dripped with such amazing sarcasm that they should used to
define what the word means… Mark Heisler was a freakin’ national treasure. His
sunday NBA page in the Times included thumbnail descriptions of how all the
NBA teams were faring that week - and with each one… a pearl. I’m sorry to be
maudlin and poetic over a sportswriter but you people have no idea how much
joy this man brought to my sunday mornings.

Like most who have commented here, I am not a fan of corporate media, and
not at all a fan of the LA Times. Politically it can’t handle the truth. It serves the
community with a lovely Food and Metro section but little else. The sports
section, save for Heisler, has been a dead zone for years. It is what it
is…pathetic… and has been for quite some time. the firing of Robert Scherer
from the editorial page was pretty much the moment you could say ‘stick a fork
in it.”

The loss of Heisler and Tim Rutten seems to harken the end of days… Robert
Lloyd is smart and funny and Ulin is great and there are others to name as well
as friends who toil in wonderful ways for that paper. We still pay for home
delivery and it enters my house like a brother-in-law who I completely
disagree with politically but who is family.

Losing Heisler is like losing family… Should I be lucky enough to have Mr.
Heisler see this… I wish you the happiest of retirements and thank you
immensely for making sunday mornings in LA a joy.

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By Marian Griffith, August 22, 2011 at 12:11 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

@christian96
—-Please help me understand American journalism.  Thank you.—-

American journalism is pretty much exclusively about sensationalism. This includes sports and political commentaries.
A missing woman has lots of drama and appeals to the basic subconscious fears drilled into the average American, so it is sensational and it will tie readers and viewers to their news media for the duration of the ‘crisis’.

On a world scale it is entirely insignificant (though not for the people involved obviously), but few people are interested in things that do not immediately affect them or their personal interests.

None of this is unique to American journalism, they are just a bit more myopic (or advanced along the path leading to irrelevance and pure entertainment) than most.

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By christian96, August 22, 2011 at 10:44 am Link to this comment

Since this is an article about the media I’ll post
the following comments and questions I sent this
morning to ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, and CNN.  It is almost
2 pm, EDT and I haven’t received any replies:

Can somebody please take time-out for a few
minutes to explain to me why the media
is giving so much coverage to a woman, Robin,
missing in Aruba?  Is her daddy rich?  Is she an
American diplomat?  There are thousands of missing
people throughout America.  Why is this one woman
getting so much attention?  Please help me understand American journalism.  Thank you.

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By Alan, August 21, 2011 at 11:51 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The current socio-political-media climate in the U.S.,
in Italy, in the UK and elsewhere suggests a
re-reading of Gramsci.

from a Wikipedia entry:

“Cultural hegemony is the philosophic and sociological theory, by the Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci, that a culturally diverse society can be dominated (ruled) by one social class, by manipulating the societal culture (beliefs, explanations, perceptions, values) so that its ruling-class worldview is imposed as the societal norm, which then is perceived as a universally valid ideology and status quo beneficial to all of society, whilst benefiting only the ruling class.”

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By NABNYC, August 21, 2011 at 10:02 am Link to this comment

Interesting perspective on the changes in national newspapers, but the last part—about the healthcare bill—could have been dictated by the democratic party.  How can someone lament the loss of analysis and perspective, then write this nonsense.  It was not “the left” that lost the mid-terms—it was the democratic party’s failure to act on behalf of the working people of this country, ignoring Wall Street criminals, refusing to prosecute war crimes and essentially giving immunity to all U.S. -associated people who engaged in torture.  Not to mention the ongoing give-aways to Wall Street and the banks, and the flat-out refusal to create a jobs plan to put 14 million unemployed Americans back to work.  For heaven’s sake, where’s the perspective on the truth in that last section?

Beyond that, at the outset Obama held secret meetings with the medical industry heads and negotiated deals that left the public out of the debate.  What are we citizens?  Children?  The adult get together and make decisions, and we have no right to participate?  In his earliest meetings Obama agreed he would not push for a non-profit option, medicare for all, or even that watered-down creature that the democratics invented called the “public option.”  Does anyone even know what that means?  Of course not.  It will never exist in this country, by the way.  It was just thrown out there to placate part of the population.

We’ve got 55,000 Americans who die every year from a lack of access to healthcare.  That’s not “left” Americans—it’s all Americans.  To attack people on the left for their criticism of this health care bill is to ignore the ongoing needless deaths which, by the way, are not solved by anything in that bill.

Here’s the thing, if the politicians had bothered talking and listening to the public instead of just to the corporate insiders, we could have told them:  the problem with healthcare is that it’s too expensive.  To “solve” the problem by ordering people to buy insurance is insane.  My insurance, for example, has gone up 40% in 18 months.  There is no help for many of us in this ridiculous bill the democrats passed.

Too bad the author veered off on his need to slap down “The Left.”  And a word about that.  People talk about “The Left” as if it were comparable to “The Right.”  Which is just silly.  In this country, “The Left” consists of a handful of people who have strong political views, generally opposed to the inherent greed and destruction of capitalism.  A handful of people, mostly disorganized, certain with little money.  Any “liberal” money goes only to groups that support the democratic party.

Contrast that with “The Right,” which has trillions of dollars in funding, is well-organized, own much of the media, owns probably half of our politicians, and is carrying out its program to create fascism in this country.  It’s silly to talk about “The Left” as if it was a significant or controlling force in this country.  Silly and dangerous because it so ignores reality.

Finally, all educated professionals and professions are being decimated—teachers, lawyers, doctors—all being taken over by corporations, ethics trampled, the professions themselves pounded into the gutter.  It reminds me so much of all the talented professionals who fled Europe in advance of the Nazis.  It’s the same forces who are destroying everything decent in this country.  Not The Left, but The Right.  I’m tired of people bashing the Left as a way to show their solidarity with neo-cons in the democratic party.

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PatrickHenry's avatar

By PatrickHenry, August 21, 2011 at 8:25 am Link to this comment

Lafayette

POV,

And you are the self-proclaimed Inspector of Objective News Reporting? Come off it.

.

In my life, yes I am.

What does it tell you of the 9/11 event, with the shortest offical investigation in modern history has glaring holes in the official U.S. explanation that continue to get larger as the years pass.

The case of Ron Paul is another in-your-face example of misreporting and non-reporting by our ‘journalists’.

I get much better news content from Al-Jazerra and RT than any of these paid propagandic (hasbaric) shills in America.

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David J. Cyr's avatar

By David J. Cyr, August 21, 2011 at 5:31 am Link to this comment

QUOTE, Marian Griffith:

“Near as I can tell Heisler was a sports journalist, not a political one. And while I agree with you [David J. Cyr] that the only solution that would have made sense is putting at least the basic (and preventive!) healthcare as single payer, it also was clear that the republicans had managed to drum up so much misinformed opposition that there was not enough support to push it through.”
_____________________

In America, the corporate media’s political columnists are all sports writers, who confine their opinions to the competition between the corporate party’s red and blue teams.

All people employed in the corporate media serve to perpetuate the corporate-state, wether their job is to daily produce massive misinformation about issues; or to incessantly induce consumers to consume more of this rather than that product; or they distractingly provide advertisements for the sense dumbing diversions of the entertainment industry (in which professional “sports” has a truly significant role in the dumbing of senses and the militarization of minds).

Republicans did not obstruct Obama’s path toward provision of a healthcare system to replace the sick ProfitCare system, because Obama never set out upon that path. As with his position on war, in which Obama promised that he would relabel “dumb” wars to instead be maniac comforting “necessary” wars, Obama was quite openly transparent about his position on the prospect of America actually having a healthcare system: No We Can’t! (Americans would never want medical care focused upon people’s health, rather than corporate wealth).

QUOTE: “If you’re starting from scratch, then a single-payer system — a government-managed system like Canada’s, which disconnects health insurance from employment — would probably make sense. But we’ve got all these legacy systems in place, and managing the transition, as well as adjusting the culture to a different system, would be difficult to pull off. So we may need a system that’s not so disruptive that people feel like suddenly what they’ve known for most of their lives is thrown by the wayside.”

— Barack Obama, in an 05/07/2007 New Yorker magazine interview explaining why Americans can’t properly replace a criminally corrupt insurance company profit care system that chains people to their employers, and often renders even those who have “insurance” health careless.

Obama frequently repeated his “No We Can’t” disrupt this sick society’s legacy systems message on the campaign trail, and near 70 million maniacs apparently either weren’t listening to the change disqualifying qualifications he attached to his “promises” of change (all offered with his Cheshire Cat grin), or they manically assumed he was just saying that to get elected… or Obama’s maniac millions never actually wanted any change to come.

The Devolution of Liberalism:

http://chenangogreens.org/home/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=496&Itemid=1

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By Lafayette, August 21, 2011 at 1:04 am Link to this comment

POV

PH: They have misreported, underreported and failed to report unobjective news since long before 1967.

And you are the self-proclaimed Inspector of Objective News Reporting? Come off it.

The above pompousness is about as bad as the journalism that you decry.

For the longest time, journalism was a one way street - them to us. It was also a battlefield where magnates collected in order to influence/manipulate public opinion. It still is, in many ways. (Murdoch is perhaps the last of his kind.)

Now, as a result of Internet Forums, there is feedback. That is, the opportunity to question journalistic content, attitude, POV. A journalist who writes such a column as this one would be a damn fool not to read the feedback comments.

MY POINT

A journalist, in this brave new world of ours, originates an exchange, a discussion. We are invited to comment or rebut.

So there is also the responsibility to do so with a modicum of “good sense” - remember that? It is the ability to eschew polemics that are blog clutter. It requires the ability to debate (period). That is, to engage in a discussion of a public question in an assembly involving opposing viewpoints.

All to often, in our hyper-competitive society, it is taken as yet another contest that “must be won”. (Especially amongst the male egos that collect here.) Meaning that it devolves into useless quarreling replete with ad hominems, which are personal rather than objective.

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By Marian Griffith, August 20, 2011 at 11:11 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

—Heisler considers Obama to be a hero worthy of praise for his monumental “healthcare” achievement? Obama didn’t “tackle” the healthcare problem. He sacked Single-Payer, which was the only real solution!—

Near as I can tell Heisler was a sports journalist, not a political one.
And while I agree with you that the only solution that would have made sense is putting at least the basic (and preventive!) healthcare as single payer, it also was clear that the republicans had managed to drum up so much misinformed opposition that there was not enough support to push it through. All republicans were foaming at the mouth opposed, and far too many democrats were too scared to openly support it too.
Obama most certainly misjudged his ability to get people to see reason, but at the same time even as weak as it is, the reforms that bear his name are an improvement over what was there and where it was heading under republican rule. It is not nearly what was needed but I can not see how a better deal could have been pushed through the rabid obstructionist (bordering on inciting revolution) attitude of the republicans and the big insurance companies. Had Obama had left any illusions, after that year he knew who really runs the country.

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David J. Cyr's avatar

By David J. Cyr, August 20, 2011 at 8:22 am Link to this comment

QUOTE, Mark Heisler:

“Check our political process, which is supposed to be about ideas and is now, instead, about the law of the jungle.”
____________________

What dark irony.

An excessed dutiful member of the corporate media claiming that the political process “is supposed to be about ideas” when it’s been his life’s work to be a player on a team persuading people that politics is just a wagering sport… with only the most monied allowed reportage.

Heisler considers Obama to be a hero worthy of praise for his monumental “healthcare” achievement? Obama didn’t “tackle” the healthcare problem. He sacked Single-Payer, which was the only real solution!

A thought-control corporation may take a journalist off its payroll, but that doesn’t remove the corporate “thinking” from the journalist.

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By T-Crossing Truth Seeker, August 19, 2011 at 8:47 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Say what you want about Tribune and Zell, but disparaging copy editors?

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By HonestRob, August 19, 2011 at 8:30 pm Link to this comment

Great Article, Until the final stanza RE: Obama.

I had thought you would continue on the thread of how News is now directed rather than reported and point out that Obama was pushed and promoted by the media over Hillary (the far more qualified candidate).

THAT is what the Wash Post’s Columnist was saying - Hillary was the better candidate and Obama is Just what most said he was - Under qualified and in over his head.

I get that you volunteered for the fellow, but even you must have seen how NOBODY knew who this guy was and then suddenly EVERY news conglomerate pushed him and Bashed Mrs. Clinton. It was easy writing to gang up on Hillary - the press had been doing it for years.

Then they reported Gossip as if it were news -  like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie getting behind Obama, but NOT about Obama’s horrible voting record and lack of tangible track record of any sort.

And, I thought you would then follow up with something about how the Media is turning on him because the News bosses see THAT is what is selling right now, so THAT is the reporting angle to take.

But perhaps that would be covered under your severance agreement.

And for the record - Obama deserves NO credit for ignoring the nation’s real needs - (Jobs + Jobs = Better Economy) for his pet projects that make no sense.

For Example: Heath care that everyone MUST pay for? How will the millions of Broke Americans PAY for that? With the Job that went overseas?
Amnesty for ILLEGAL Immigrants? So… reward lawbreakers and let Non-Citizens take those jobs?

Obama deserves the backlash, but it should have happened BEFORE his nomination, it would have saved us a LOT of grief. Where was the real journalism dead.

Great Article except for that caveat, the fact is news is all manufactured now that real journalism is dead.

(Yes, Caps were for your benefit).

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By Tom Auclair, August 19, 2011 at 5:36 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Mark, thanks for a wonderful article. As a former designer/editor of the closed Rocky Mountain News, all the details you mention in your article sounded depressingly familiar: Clueless leaders, panic and fear. The only thing missing was the mantra that has become too common in newsrooms: “We need to do more with less.” What that ends up meaning is usually “Let’s do less.”

Thank you again for your wonderful article, and the courage to write it.

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By PatrickHenry, August 19, 2011 at 3:13 pm Link to this comment

Mark Heisler,

$125 per week in 1967 was real good money.

I haven’t one shread of sympathy for any of the lifetime shills of the major new organs who are getting canned, thanks to the Internet.

They have misreported, underreported and failed to report unobjective news since long before 1967.

They sold their souls long ago and now they must reap the whirlwind.

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By Marian Griffith, August 19, 2011 at 2:52 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Some very insightfull observations on the last page. They have been mentioned before, but they are expressed cogently here, that the focus on speed and form (and profit) over understanding and deliberation leads to increasing cognitive dissonance within groups of the population. As he said: groups are living in alternative universes.

Important as the internet is, we have to find a way out of this trap, or we will see a series of (civil) wars mar our transition away from the industrialised society into whatever the networked world is leading to.
The transition from agricultural to industrial gave rise to a century of misery for the workers, communism and two world wars (as well as many lesser wars ranging from devastating conflicts like the german-french war to local pogroms and conflicts that are still smoldering just shy of outright civil war).
I am not sure we, as a world, can survive another such period of turmoil. No idea how it can be prevented either, since our economical and politial ‘elite’ world wide seems dead set on self-immolation.

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By JMD, August 19, 2011 at 10:03 am Link to this comment

Mark Heisler:                8/19/2011
        A part of the dynamic construct of society is to “work smarter,not harder.” However,this is not an avenue to declare the truth will emerge or set you free.
        Technology is promoted and designed to trump all aspects of life,including life itself.But,somewhere in the midst of this arena of data technology,the truth is revealed.
        Thank you -
        James M. deLaurier

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By BobBarnett, August 19, 2011 at 9:18 am Link to this comment

Not sure I disagree w Cohen after think Obama would be JFK2-but more
importantly, what influence did Sterling have w the Times w all those bogus
tributes to himself?

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By ardee, August 19, 2011 at 4:03 am Link to this comment

The only constant is change. My impressions of the changing media comes from one wedded to print journalism and investigative reporting, the seeming absence of which is a nail in the coffin of democracy, I truly believe.

Those of a younger generation will probably note that the news has not disappeared but has shifted to the internet, that today’s reporter is still digging for facts, is still out there.

I have serious doubts. This media, on which I post, seemingly lends itself to the unsubstantiated rather than intense fact checking prior to publication ( posting). I do not see either the quality or the audience that once was an integral part of the checks and balances we so sorely needed then and seem to be without today.

But then, the only constant is change.

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