By Mark Heisler
No, I don’t know what’s going on with the Los Angeles Times’ love-him-or-hate-him T.J. Simers, whose sports column has disappeared from the paper since June 2, when he staged a free throw shooting contest between his grown daughter, Kelly Nielsen, and NBA star Dwight Howard.
Nielsen beat Dwight, who shot left-handed and, soon thereafter, left the Lakers for Houston, although that was a coincidence.
Mandalay Sports Media put out a video of the charity contest, days before Sports Business Daily reported the company was working on developing a TV show based on Simers.
His only piece since has been a co-bylined news story reporting Howard’s departure. That’s not likely a coincidence, leading to speculation the columnist won’t return.
If there’s an ethical problem, the Times has not acknowledged having leveled one. Simers has yet to be heard. Instead, with both sides observing a months-long no-comment policy, it looks like they’re discussing a settlement that would lead to his departure.
The real question is how this episode has risen to such importance at a newspaper that has wandered further over the ethical line than this as when it wrapped the paper in a fake Page 1 flier in 2010 to advertise the movie “Alice in Wonderland.”
If I don’t know the details, I know a lot about the environment at the Times, where I worked alongside Simers for almost 20 years, from the ’80s on one of the most talented sports staffs ever assembled—Rick Reilly was a sidebar writer—to my departure in 2011, with the surviving editorial staff (33 percent of 1,400 employees when Tribune bought the paper in 2000) trying to maintain the tradition, under a continuously purged managerial hierarchy, through a long Dark Age of defying the Chicago-based empire, Sam Zell Hell and years laboring in the twilight of bankruptcy.
If Rupert Murdoch was regarded as a white knight when prospective buyers included the arch-conservative Koch brothers, you see what the Times is up against.
The current Times publisher is Eddy Hartenstein, the DirecTV founder, brought in as part of Zell’s new, clueless wave. With Times editors reining columnists in, it was just a matter of time until something happened with someone … and no surprise that it turned out to be Simers, an attention-demanding, outrage-embracing provocation, if one who usually erred on the side of the angels, comforting the afflicted, as H.L. Mencken put it, while afflicting the comfortable.
The more comfortable, and the more personally dangerous they were to Simers, the better. Topping himself in 2003, he took on Tribune corporate head Dennis FitzSimons, asking whether he was supposed to have a rooting interest between the local Dodgers and the Trib-owned Cubs.
“I would hope you’re rooting for the Cubs,” FitzSimons said, perhaps before realizing Simers was quoting him for the record. “It would be good for everybody’s stock price.”
For good measure, Simers published FitzSimons’ phone number so Dodger fans who didn’t own Tribune stock could call up too, obliging the guy who signed the writer’s paycheck to change his digits.
That was many rough and tumble columns ago, in which Simers went after more heavies, but few like Frank McCourt, then-owner of the Dodgers.
Not that sports history had many likelier targets. McCourt’s financial acumen and lack of any other clue were apparent from his arrival, when he named his wife, Jamie, Dodger CEO, to the Gotterdammerung with the couple’s legal titans hurling lightning bolts in divorce court, before Frank cashed out with a $1.2 billion profit for his seven-year nightmare.
By the end, it was no surprise that everyone in baseball, starting with Commissioner Bud Selig, who had helped McCourt buy the team and eventually seized the franchise, tried to get rid of him. Only one powerful ally remained, Hartenstein, the Times publisher, even as his entire editorial staff battered the Dodger owner on his way out.
I don’t know the extent of the Hartenstein-McCourt relationship. We heard about it for years at the Times but I’ve never seen it acknowledged or confirmed.
I do know the new guidelines that came down in 2011, McCourt’s last season as Dodger owner.
If one columnist wrote about, say, McCourt, the rest weren’t supposed to write more about the same subject.
I learned about it the hard way that spring, after writing a column on the Lakers’ surprise hire of Mike Brown, a bland technocrat, to replace the retired Phil Jackson as coach.
Three days later, I flew home from Miami, where I’d been covering the Heat-Mavericks Finals, writing a Sunday column on the Laker organization going forward—only to be told I couldn’t write anything more on the subject, which was suddenly bigger than Mike Brown.
Shocked and awed, not to mention dismayed, I was assured the new policy applied to all departments. Even Steve Lopez, the Times highly regarded Metro columnist, had supposedly had a piece spiked.
Worse, there was no misunderstanding in this case. Davan Maharaj, then-deputy editor who oversaw sports (now the paper’s editor in chief), told sports editor Mike James that we had already run one too many columns on Brown’s hiring.
We had written two in two days. We often wrote more than that off a single game.
I was told James had pointed out to Maharaj that the articles were different. Bill Plaschke, our lead columnist, had ripped the hire. I had written about it in light of Jim Buss’ ascension to head the day-to-day operation, noting the similarity to his first involvement in 2004 when Rudy Tomjanovich fled within months of being hired as Lakers coach, leaving his five-year $30 million deal behind.
With the snap of a finger, management had reversed our well-received, hit-magnet, All Lakers All the Time approach. A year before, then-Editor-in-Chief Russ Stanton had invited me and writers Mike Bresnahan and Brad Turner to lunch to thank us for our work.
Whatever we had lost, we still had fabulous Lakers coverage with beat guys who owned the news and engaged general columnists who broke their own memorable stories, as when Plaschke got Kobe Bryant’s father, Joe, to acknowledge the family’s painful break.
Appearances notwithstanding, Simers had as many confidants as guys who wanted to shoot him on sight. He was the one Bryant told about his split with Karl Malone, revealing that his wife, Vanessa, had claimed the Mailman hit on her at a game.
So, yeah, there was a lot reeling through my mind, driving north from LAX, on the phone with James who confirmed my column was really dead.
“I quit,” I informed him.
That lasted a few hours until I called James and unresigned. I eventually got my piece into the paper—two weeks later, after two rewrites.
Four weeks later, they laid me off.
No, I don’t think Maharaj had anything to do with it. The sports department had cuts to make. I was 67, and had told the editors I would work one more season—which, with a lockout looming, the NBA was threatening not to play.
I’d been lucky. I came up before this puppet-on-a-string BS when everyone from the bosses to the interns felt a sense of mission. If many editors might have cut Simers less slack, great papers didn’t jettison voices like his on penny-ante ethical issues.
The hits have never stopped happening to the industry, which is staging its own disappearing act in plain sight, even as the economy recovers. Now, instead of newspaper empires buying the local baseball team on a whim, Red Sox owner John Henry just picked up the Boston Globe for $70 million, or about what he’s paying this season’s pitching staff.
Once the conscience of the community, newspapers are all but reduced to charity cases. Last week MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow asked viewers to patronize the down-on-its-luck institution, noting, “Your local paper needs you.” Of course, newspapers, which may employ 95 percent of the reporters still working, are especially useful for TV personalities and sites such as Red State and Daily Kos. Otherwise, they’d be—and soon may be—commenting on reports they get from TMZ.
In the new sports/media dynamic, the excitement crackles up from the audience via Twitter, which informs at lightning speed and engages an ever-greater readership ever more deeply—but as for providing perspective, is more like the Tower of Babel.
In the increasingly spider-webbed world known as “journalism,” the Los Angeles sports scene has been a lot quieter since June 2, and a lot less fun.
Here’s a thought that will surprise a lot of the Times’ remaining readers, and should: We miss T.J. Simers.
Shutterstock graphic of a basketball on fire.