Mar 7, 2014
Ailing Journalism in Ailing Times
Posted on Jul 5, 2010
By T.L. Caswell
The final sentence of the above quotation is remarkable: It was the L.A. Times, not the advertisers, that cooked up these journalistic atrocities. Instead of just going along with the gags, the newspaper thought them up.
In an earlier article, in 2009, The Wrap reported that LAT staffers were infuriated by the “Southland” incident:
Perhaps amid the high turnover in the LAT executive suites the Hartenstein cohort doesn’t know of, or conveniently has chosen to forget or ignore, a certain event of the dim, dark, distant past—1999. That was the year the Times was humiliated by an ad-related scandal that generated enough controversy to merit a report on PBS’ “NewsHour With Jim Lehrer.” Mark Willes, who was the CEO of Times Mirror, then the parent company, and Times Publisher Kathryn Downing—neither of whom had any journalistic experience—were leading the newspaper when LAT executives secretly approved a deal under which the paper published a special edition of its Sunday magazine dedicated to news about Los Angeles’ new multi-sport arena, Staples Center; the plan called for covertly splitting the ad revenue profits between the newspaper and Staples. When this violation of professional ethics was exposed by other publications, the scandal reverberated throughout the journalistic world and the newspaper itself was awash in crisis. Many LAT reporters and editors were enraged by management’s betrayal, and some reportedly angrily confronted high executives, including Willes, previously the publisher, who had been ignorantly campaigning to tear down the traditional “wall” between the news/editorial staff and the advertising department.
At the time, the copy desks of the LAT were buzzing with “advice” for Downing and Willes—a former General Mills executive who after launching harsh staff cuts at the LAT became known as “the cereal killer” and “Capt’n Crunch.” Some of the advice being hashed over by us foot soldiers went like this: Mr. Willes, Ms. Downing, (1) find a college with a good basic course in journalism; (2) sign up for and attend that class; (3) learn that news is news and advertising is advertising; (3) learn that integrity, straightforwardness and a reputation for truthfulness and credibility are a newspaper’s most valuable assets—in the deepest sense, its only real assets; (4) learn that ethics matter in both business and journalism; (5) learn that not everything has a price.
Now I offer that warmed-over advice to the Times management of 2010, without change or charge. And I will toss in an extra bit: If the Los Angeles Times can stay in business only through practices that trample ethical standards and insult editorial staffers who respect and have lived by those standards, maybe the newspaper should not be in business. … What terrible words to direct at the organization I’ve revered for so long. I hope my friends at the Times will forgive me.
One person eminently qualified to speak out on the LAT is my Truthdig colleague Bill Boyarsky. Boyarsky’s list of credentials is long. He now is Truthdig’s political columnist, and last month the Los Angeles Press Club named him online journalist of the year for his work in that capacity. Boyarsky was at the Times from 1970 to 2001 in a number of roles, finally as city editor, and he is the author of a book about the Times, “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times.” His place in California journalism is a special one. In response to an e-mail query from me about the newest scandal at the Times, here’s what he had to say:
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