May 19, 2004,
Los Angeles Times editor-in-chief John Carroll has again slammed critics of the paper's California recall coverage coverage that even many liberals considered remarkably biased against Arnold Schwarzenegger this time in a May 16 op-ed adapted from a University of Oregon speech on newspaper ethics he gave recently.
This isn't the first time Carroll has attacked his attackers. A few days after Schwarzenegger's election in October, he wrote a much-discussed op-ed that not only refused to name the paper's critics but also, as talk-radio host Hugh Hewitt noted at the time, repeatedly dismissed their complaints with terms like "pornography" and "rant." As Hewitt pointed out then, this is "a tactic the legal system brands simply as 'non-responsive.' If he was confident that the reader would agree, he ought to have named names and used quotes."
Carroll does name names this time, with one notable exception the syndicated California political columnist (and former Times staff reporter) Jill Stewart. Obviously, Stewart still sticks in Carroll's craw, but unlike Bill O'Reilly, she isn't big enough for the Times chief to bother coughing up her identity for readers. Instead he chews over it secretively, like a dog hoarding a bone still being picked.
Carroll slams Fox News and (unnamed) websites as "pseudo-journalists" that have "taken on the trappings of journalism" but are really fakers, because they don't seek to "earnestly serve the public." Evidently, Carroll considers opinion journalists who publicly argue their opinions to be, ipso facto, not serving the public. (At least, not earnestly.)
He does grudgingly acknowledge that in this country journalism is open to all: "It is the constitutional right of every citizen, no matter how ignorant or how depraved, to be a journalist." And we're depraved, Carroll apparently thinks, on account of the fact that we're deprived...of the five Pulitzers the Times just won, for one thing, but also of the awareness that the reader (or listener, or viewer) is "a master to be served."
Gee, Officer Krupke, tell us more. Like how, for instance, the Times reader is served by mysterious, information-withholding descriptions such as this: "The worst of the fictions originated with a freelance columnist in Los Angeles who claimed to have the inside story on unethical behavior at the Times." Or this: "Instead of being ignored, the author of the column was booked for repeated appearances on O'Reilly, on MSNBC, and even on the generally trustworthy CNN."
Well, who is she this damned, infernal freelance columnist who managed to hoodwink even the generally trustworthy CNN? For the record, Jill Stewart is a friend of mine (we pseudo-journalists believe in owning up to biases, even if real ones don't always), and although it's convenient for the Times to dismiss her merely as a freelancer, her weekly column does appear in (real? pseudo?) papers like the San Francisco Chronicle, the Orange County Register, and the L.A. Daily News, among others.
But more about Jill in a minute. Let's get back to Bill O'Reilly, whom Carroll did name, complaining that the Fox News host had "embarked on a campaign to convince its audience that the Los Angeles Times was an unethical outfit that attacked only Republicans and gave Democrats a free ride."
Now O'Reilly can be a blowhard, and Carroll makes a good point that the Times broke Troopergate. I should note also that O'Reilly has been known to throw around facts that aren't always strictly factual. When I interviewed him for my old Mediaweek column three years ago, he insisted that the Times "never mentioned [Clinton accuser] Juanita Broaddrick's name, ever."
As it turned out, Spring Street had mentioned Broaddrick's name 21 times in two years at that point. Yes, half those citations were in reviews, listings of Broaddrick's TV appearances or, weirdly, the feature section's gag-of-the-day page, and this contrasted markedly with the Washington Post's 49 mentions of Broaddrick during the same two-year period but still.
This doesn't mean, however, that O'Reilly's gripes about the Times are baseless. During the same conversation, he told me that the paper still didn't have "a columnist that anyone cares about. Look, when they edited George Will's column, that tells me all I need to know."
The Times had recently removed Will's description of Clinton as an accused rapist before running his column on the op-ed page, and I mentioned to O'Reilly that Will had written a subsequent letter to the editor saying the paper was within their rights. But O'Reilly was having none of that.
"Let's face it, George Will needs the L.A. Times, and maybe that's in play here, I don't know," he said. "But when you write an opinion column you're not supposed to have the column censored. This whole area out here has no idea what's going on, unless you watch my show, and then you get the L.A. Times censoring right and left so you tell me. You have the second largest area in the country basically being served by a passive media, which has an agenda. It's a dangerous situation."
So does the Times have an agenda? I'd say yes, but an unconscious rather than Machiavellian one. In Carroll's Sunday op-ed piece, he again defended the paper's decision to run stories about Arnold Schwarzenegger's groping history just a few days before the election (giving his campaign little time to respond), and remains angry at accusations that the these stories were held for two weeks.
Carroll says the stories weren't ready yet. "In journalism," Jill Stewart responded in her post-recall column, "a story is done when the boss says turn it in."
I don't quite buy Carroll's stance that his paper didn't care whether the coverage would help or hurt Schwarzenegger. But I don't quite dismiss it either. I suspect that traditionally poky L.A. Times time may explain Carroll's decision to delay the stories as much as any anti-Arnold nefariousness.
Also, the loudest critics of Times coverage Jill Stewart, Slate's Mickey Kaus, the L.A. Weekly's Bill Bradley, among others are writers, not editors, and writers constantly complain about editors holding stories, which doesn't mean editors are always wrong to do so. Still, my favorite paper's distaste for the recall and head-scratching puzzlement about the popularity of its prime candidate wasn't exactly invisible.
A few days after the election, a well-placed Times source involved in the Arnold investigation called Jill Stewart to complain off-record that with this story, the paper had become a dirt-digging tabloid. Actually, L.A. could have used a real tabloid like the honestly biased New York Post in this case; the stories would have run sooner, and with snappier headlines.
Times recall headlines often managed to be both dull and remarkably condescending, what with their habit of regularly referring to Schwarzenegger as "Actor" "Actor Names Economic Team," "Actor's Team Sprints..." and (my favorite) "Davis, Actor Go Head to Head."
"The clear tilt of the paper couldn't be more transparent," Armed Liberal (who, remember, is a liberal) noted on the group blog WindsofChange.net. "The columnists are the human face the newspaper presents to us, its readers. And in this case, that face was largely speaking with one voice."
As it happens, I'm less outraged than Jill Stewart was about the Times's Arnold coverage, probably because I like Arnold less than she does. (I voted for Tom McClintock.) I also wasn't really unhappy with the Times's groping stories. If 2,000 readers cancelled their subscriptions, so be it. The coverage was certainly entertaining, always a plus at a newspaper and a rare treat at the Times. Columnist Steve Lopez actually worked himself up into some clever pieces even Arnold fans have to admit those "Der Gropenfuehrer" spitballs hit the mark although anyone as overpaid as this faux man-of-the-people should retire the schtick about driving a Nissan Sentra already.
John Carroll arrived at the Times from the Baltimore Sun in 2000, after the Chandler family sold the Times to the Tribune Co. of Chicago. Despite his condescension, he is a respected newsman and considered a big improvement over his predecessors; Michael Parks allowed the infamous Staples Center fiasco to happen on his watch in 1999, and Shelby Coffey III, a legendary waffler who left in 1997, was infamous for delaying stories long past the point of absurdity.
But as Jill, who complained mightily about Coffey when she was a Times staffer, told me, "Shelby never, to my knowledge, took over a political story, became obsessed with a story, left his executive office to act as the project editor," as her Times source says Carroll did with the Schwarzenegger coverage.
"No reporter is going to tell the person who can make or break his or her career that his judgment is bad," she added. "Carroll stepped over the line. If Shelby had done that, we all would have freaked."
Unlike bloggers, talk-radio hosts, and other media gadflys, news executives like Carroll feel responsible, as they should, to try to be objective. They never really can be, of course, but they might at least consider how their own points of view affect their decisions rather than dismissing as "pseudo-journalists" anyone who questions these decisions.
Two years ago, for an American Journalism Review story on blogging, I interviewed Washington Post associate editor and senior correspondent Robert Kaiser, co-author of a ponderous book about the media called The News About the News. "I read things I think I should know, not other people's opinions about what I should know," he said loftily, explaining why he doesn't read blogs.
But every single thing we read in the paper, including hard news, is the product of other people's opinions about what we should know. Problems happen when those in charge believe in their own objectivity so much they know longer know that one simple fact.
Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy's World. She is an NRO contributor.