April 01, 2004,
The longstanding leftist orthodoxy of the Los Angeles Times has improved noticeably under editor-in-chief John Carroll, a respected newsman who moved here from the Baltimore Sun four years ago. Carroll has made a real effort to rein in the paper's liberal bias, at least in straight news stories. Earlier this year, Carroll wrote a famous (in media circles) in-house memo scolding a reporter for a story about a Texas abortion law; the piece had implied anyone against abortion is obviously nuts.
I should note though, that this improvement at the Times was underway even before Carroll's arrival, with the departure of former editor Shelby Coffey III in 1997. Like ex-New York Times editor-in-chief Howell Raines, whose upcoming 21,000-word non mea culpa in the May Atlantic has returned white male guilt to the media spotlight, Coffey grew up rich and liberal in the pre-civil-rights south, and expected his staff to atone for his privileged background. When a paper's top editor is a self-styled Atticus Finch, watch out.
Who can forget (O.K., where' talking the same media circles again, I suppose) the infamous Times style guidelines of the mid-'90s, which made the L.A. Times under Coffey a national laughingstock, with their risible combination of earnestly p.c. taboos combined with bloated middle management. My favorite guideline: "Pendejo... translates literally as pubic hair, but it is a vulgar term that means fool...should be used only in quotes approved by the editor, managing editor, associate editor or the senior editor." (I remember thinking at the time: If you have to go through all that, why bother?)
Still, my favorite newspaper gave me a couple of déjà vu moments last week. The first, in the wake of the Spanish terror bombings, was Ariel Dorfman's Mar. 21 Sunday opinion-section ode to the Chilean poet and leftist hero Pablo Neruda. The headline: "Words That Pulse Among Madrid's Dead: Neruda's Verses Howl Against Terror Today and Yesterday..."
Dorfman chided anyone who thinks that the result of the Spanish elections mean Spain has capitulated to terror "Just because a sovereign nation decides to reject and oppose an unnecessary, unjust and deceitful war does not mean the people of that nation are not willing to defend themselves" and quoted some lyrical verses Neruda wrote about Madrid's barrios and clock-tower bells during the Spanish civil war.
But you would have no idea reading Dorfman's piece that Neruda was such a hard-line true believer that he was awarded the International Stalin Prize and the Lenin Peace Prize. Nor that his poetry includes these lines written in 1953, upon the death of Stalin:
We must learn from Stalin His sincere intensity His concrete clarity... Stalin is the moon, the maturity of man and the peoples.
"Even by the standards of 1953 it's repulsive," said Roman Genn, my friend and National Review contributor, when he called up to complain about the Dorfman piece and send me the Stalin eulogy. "Neruda was not even a sympathizer he was an active agent. We have no idea how much blood is on his hands in Spain, and I don't mean just fascist blood we don't care for."
Roman is an artist who grew up in the Soviet Union and immigrated to Los Angeles in 1991 at age 19, when he began drawing caricatures for the Times op-ed pages. He values that gig. But he was so irritated by the clueless nature of the Neruda piece that he called some Times editors to complain.
"They told me, 'Well, we all remember history differently,'" Roman recalled. "I said, 'You don't run favorable stories about Nazis.'"
My other déjà vu Times moment last week was the paper's Mar. 23 editorial condemning Israel's assassination of Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin. The "murder" was wrong in the Times's eyes because, for one thing, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw disapproved of it in strong terms. Unlike Condoleezza Rice, who "unfortunately said only that Hamas was a terrorist organization and Hamas one of its planners." Also, Yassin was "a 67-year-old wheelchair-bound quadriplegic." And therefore, you know, pitiful and weak.
What explains much of all this is journalists' need to pat themselves on the back as friends of the oppressed. As I said, the Times is getting more hardheaded. But it's about time that it does and you don't have to be an extreme Ariel Sharon supporter to see bias in its Mideast coverage.
I still remember an astonishingly sob-sistery front-page Christmas Day, 2001 story by correspondent Tracy Wilkinson. The headline: "Arafat Forced to Miss Mass in Bethlehem." The opening sentence: "In a centuries-old tradition, worshipers congregated here Monday where Jesus is believed to have been born and ushered in a joyless Christmas made all the more somber by Israel's refusal to permit the participation of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat...."
Did the Times actually mean that a Christian holiday was "joyless" because a Muslim terrorist wasn't there to help celebrate? Apparently so. I imagined the L.A. Times version of Little Women for Palestinians:
"Christmas won't be Christmas without President Arafat," grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.
Really, as last week reminded me, you could still fill a whole book with parodies of L.A. Times stories. But I'll leave it to someone else to come up with that particular anthology unless you're making an offer.
Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy's World. She is an NRO contributor.