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Ailing Journalism in Ailing Times
Posted on Jul 5, 2010
By T.L. Caswell
As I sped through the newspaper on July 1, the first thing I noticed when I came to LATExtra was that the layout of the section cover was highly unusual. The page contained two huge photos—one measuring about 14 inches deep and 8¼ inches wide, and the other about 4¼ inches deep by 8¼ inches wide. My first thought was: “Something terrible has happened … and for some reason it was not covered on Page 1.” My eye slid to the one headline on the page: “Universal Studios Hollywood Partially Destroyed; Theme park suffers massive damage, but vows to remain open.”
I was almost stunned. I wondered why I had not learned of this development from television or the Internet.
Over the years I had gone to the theme park several times, the last instance being when my wife hauled me there to see a newly released Harry Potter movie that was being screened partly in 3-D. But in that July 1 moment of surprise, what was more important than my slim personal connection to the park was that Universal, in additional to being a major player in Hollywood history, had created a renowned attraction and a business that employed many people and drew visitors who collectively spent bushels of money in the L.A. area. Also, the studio is a repository of valuable records, sets and artifacts.
In the instant when I read the headline I remembered there had been a terrible fire on the lot two years ago that destroyed historic sets and many thousands of visual and audio documents, and that the backlot had reopened only recently after restoration. Also, I recalled that a number of years earlier there had been another conflagration at the studio. (Later when I looked up the details I found that the previous fire had occurred in 1990, had caused $25 million in losses and had followed six other serious fires at Universal since 1932.)
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The article was a litany of destruction: “… the bright façades of Universal Studio Hollywood have been darkened by the specter of actual disaster. … What was once a 23-acre neon playground and nightspot for families and tourists [CityWalk] is now strewn with charred mementos of a harrowing catastrophe. … [The] amusement park is in ruins. …”
By the time I was near the end of the 14½-inch article in my eager reading I was horrified and filled with sorrow that Los Angeles had lost one of its most famous features. Also, by that point I was puzzled by the odd phrasing in the article, and I wondered who the writer was. I had seen no byline atop the text. Then, at the end of the piece, I saw a name: Kevin Chesley. And after the name was an identification: Special Advertising Sections Writer.
A surge of anger went through me. Simultaneously I felt a stinging embarrassment that in reading hastily, I, a veteran journalist, had been taken in, duped, by a publication that was an important part of my personal and work histories. I blurted, “Son of a bitch—a sellout!” I could scarcely believe that such a deliberate deception, such an egregious breach of journalistic ethics, had been committed by a daily traditionally considered to be among the best in the United States.
I started looking for an ad label. At the upper edge of the oversized, topmost photograph—whose image suggested vaguely defined damage in front of a Universal gate—there was the telling word, in type one-eighth of an inch high: Advertisement. The 13 letters were so visually overwhelmed by the largeness of the other page elements that they did not stand out even though they were printed in red.
When I looked at the section’s Page 2 and Page 3, which bore the words Advertising Supplement in type about an eighth of an inch high, I encountered five more fake articles. Their headlines:
The fourth and final page of the section was filled with an ad for a King Kong ride. It turns out that in this fevered advertising fantasy, the giant ape has run amok in Southern California and the “news” stories in the Los Angeles Times are detailing his fictional rampage. Well, King Kong had just made a monkey out of me.
Did someone think these fake news articles—filled with massive property damage and implications of human death—were funny? Did someone think these bogus articles would sell theme park tickets? Obviously someone did, but I’m not very interested in the ads themselves. What seizes my interest is a pair of graver questions: Has the Los Angeles Times really sunk so low? Whatever its fiscal condition and its need for income, wouldn’t shame keep it from running an advertising section gussied up to look almost exactly like the real LATExtra? (The real section was stuffed inside the fake section in the July 1 edition and, thank the heavens, contained genuine news.) The answer to the first question seems to be yes, it has sunk so low; to the second, no, shame does not constrain the current management from publishing such a section.
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