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Ailing Journalism in Ailing Times

Posted on Jul 5, 2010
AP / Reed Saxon

A note informs prospective buyers that the Times has temporarily “sold out.” Indeed.

By T.L. Caswell

(Page 2)

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.)


Square, Site wide

The caption under the two big photos in the Los Angeles Times on July 1 read, in part: “Officials are at a loss to explain the seemingly random devastation.” What? Had some wingnut or terrorist tried to destroy the landmark?

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:

Colossal Footprints Found on Beach; Scientists at a loss to explain the 15-foot-long ‘possibly simian’ tracking dotting the shore from Long Beach to Santa Monica

Mysterious Gaping Hole Found in Ocean Liner; Sumatran ship smashes into a busy Southland port with its crew missing

Dodger Stadium Heavily Battered; Whole sections of the grandstands and a large swatch of the field are crushed

‘H’ from Hollywood Sign Found; The iconic letter, missing for 24 hours, is found battered and bent in the backyard of a Silver Lake resident

Planes Grounded at Southland Airports; Travel to and from international hubs suspended for the foreseeable future

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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By faith, July 7, 2010 at 10:10 am Link to this comment

I am surprised Mr. Caswell, that you hung on to your respect for the LAT for so
long.  I stopped my subscription when the LAT powers that be fired Robert Scheer
for his opinion columns opposing the Iraq war.  Actually, I know several readers
that did so beside myself.

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By garth, July 7, 2010 at 8:34 am Link to this comment

This article is not unexpected.  I heard stories about the layoffs at the LA Times a few years ago.  I think the capitalists (Capitalists, by the way, are the ones who believe that someone somewhere has a few bucks that they can steall.) who were involved in the takeover of the Chicago tribune were also there when the LA Times needed an infusion of cash. Cuts and layoffs must follow.

The Boston Globe recently went through a contract dispute with its owner, the NY Times.  The unions gave up a lot.  The NY Times awarded its key personnel bonuses.  The Sunday Times hereabouts goes for more than 5 bucks.  Where do they get off?

The Boston Globe, of which I am a Sunday subscriber, has continued its march to print all the news that is already known or unimportant. Fluff. And they they have no continuation of coverage.  All that is news happens only once. Read ‘em and weep!

The Globe would be better off in saving money if they were to re-issue old editions with a new date, a sort of palimpsest of the dateline.  Their news makes that much difference.

They are trying to get people to lament about the lost art of journalism, the lost pleasure of reading a newspaper the first thing in the morning, the funnies, the favorite columnist, etc.  It ain’t going nowhere.

If you want to get a grasp on what’s going on, use your noodle.  Read, “War in Cliche”, by Martin Amis.  His writings with give a good perspective among many other things.  Keep a dictionary handy.

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Go Right Young Man's avatar

By Go Right Young Man, July 7, 2010 at 5:15 am Link to this comment

Not to worry Mr. Caswell.  The Community Organizer come junior Senator come U.S. President will, in the name of “social justice” save the day.  The U.S. government will gladly take control of the newspaper industry.

The integrity of the news industry will be repaired under the warm and steady guidance of the White House and the FCC.

Feel all better now?

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By iain, July 6, 2010 at 6:44 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

So you’re like the guy “who truly loves his wife and truly loves his girlfriend too. (That image will probably cost me any wives, girlfriends and champions of holy wedlock who are reading this”. Apart from the fact that you’ve just alienated any LGBT readers (interesting how the literate UK press refers to ‘partners’ and doesn’t bother getting into gender), it is worth pointing out that you assume a lot of your readers, most of whom likely wish you’d just stop congratulating yourself on how seriously your imagined readers are taking you and Get. To. Your. Point. But no, on you go, rhetorical flourishes and college-magazine standard emphases aloft. I suggest you take the story very seriously, and yourself very much less so.

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By Anita Busch, July 6, 2010 at 1:54 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I’ve seen worse ethical breaches than this at the L.A. Times.

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By Edwin J. Perkins, July 6, 2010 at 1:03 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I still subscribe to the LA Times, but hold my nose when I read it. As a welcome supplement, mainly for sports and business, I also get USA Today delivered in the morning along with the Times down here near Laguna Beach.  I wish the Times would become affiliated with USC or UCLA and then be operated as a non-profit.  That is the only chance for its revival in my view

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By garth, July 6, 2010 at 11:17 am Link to this comment

When I looked at the front page, so to speak, of Truthdig, I wondered: Is all okay except for the endless drone of useless nostalgia about the American Press?

Is Obama still President? 

Obama is such a fertile target for the honest onlooker.

For example,
I caught the tail-end of Maureen Dowd’s interview on ABC’s GMA last week.  She said, Obama is thin skinned.  He doesn’t have the advantage of previous Presidents of recent memory like JFK and George W. who were brought up in patrician families with the spirit of confidence.  In short, Obama doesn’t have the ability to shrug off the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune.

Maureen finished by saying that Obama is thin-skinned and has adapted shields.

I thought that was his strong point—his skin.  He is, after all, the first black President.  Imagine Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton whining about being thin-skinned?

Obama’s inadequacy comes through quite clearly when one compares him, his deeds and his speeches with almost any black leader in the US.

Take, for example, the canard that he is smart. He doesn’t seem al that smart to me.  He might have been able to pass certain tests that got him this far, but he is not smart.  He is above average, maybe. 

Witness his inability to handle George Stephanopolous in their give and take on ABC’s “This Week” a few months ago.

Compare speeches.  Everyone says that Obama is a great speaker. 

Compare Obama’s, “We are not Red States or Blue States.  We are the United States” with Rodney King’s lament, “Why can’t we all just get along?”

Now, look at Al Sharpton’s inspirational “40 acres and a mule” speech.  They didn’t want to let Sharpton speak.

He said, in effect, Fool me once shame on you.  Fool me twice, Never!

In summary, Obama’s like the guy you knew in high school.

And doesn’t that piss you off to no end?

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By Old Man Turtle, July 6, 2010 at 10:36 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

So the “Fourth Estate” turns-out to be just one more fifth-column carrier of “the industrial disease, and another institutional icon at-last reveals its feet of clay blatantly enough that even the sincerest of true believers can no longer escape having to admit what’s been obvious to many for a long time already.  No “news” there.  No doubt legions of faithful Catholics can sympathize with Mr. Caswell, along with maybe hundreds of millions of Americans faced with the in-your-face corruption and malevolence of corporate “governance.”

Here in what Derrick Jensen aptly calls the “ENDGAME” of civilization, anybody with any sense knows things will certainly get a whole helluva lot worse before they can start to get even a little bit better.  If we’re lucky it’ll happen soon and fast.  If we’re not, this is going to be a real bitter lesson in WHY it’s not nice to fuck-with Mother Nature.  Either way, can you sing “Bye-bye, Miss American Pie.”?

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Eric L. Prentis's avatar

By Eric L. Prentis, July 6, 2010 at 10:07 am Link to this comment

Advertising, advertising that looks like news or propaganda are what the MSM delivers today because it is owned by the privileged, powerful and wealthy corporate elites whose goals are to manipulate the American people, sell stuff and to protect their positions in society. Solution: first and foremost, STOP WATCHING TV, next, stop listening to the radio and, finally, stop reading newspapers or at least don’t take them seriously.

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By Anarcissie, July 6, 2010 at 9:56 am Link to this comment

In many ways I, too, prefer the technology of ink on paper to that of computers and monitors.  However, I think we should not confuse technology with truth, which seems to be part of the moaning and groaning about the death of the daily newspaper.  Newspapers and books have been full of lies and errors since they were invented; as with stuff written on the Internet, you have to approach any story with caution and look for verification.  (“Believe nothing until it has been officially denied three times” is one of the better rules of thumb.)  Apparent accuracy and gravitas were part of the print act during a certain period, but the utility of that act has passed.  The Net is often better at exposing bogus tales than the press.  Had hoaxes like the one described been attempted on the L.A. Times’s web site, comparison with other sites would have revealed the fiction immediately.

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By SoTexGuy, July 6, 2010 at 7:25 am Link to this comment

The first few paragraphs of this article hooked me.. I am in agreement with the author about the unique pleasure of browsing the morning paper and am also angered by the overt and insidious ways my newspaper has morphed into a tabloid for hucksters and more.

Aside from excessive advertising one thing that has also crept into print media is excessive wordiness, cut and paste text, needless explanation and endless repetition.. seemingly simply for the sake of filling space and columns.. THIS article itself could be an example of that.

How clever of the writer to so subtly demonstrate that evil!


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