June 16, 2005,
"My colleagues and I also hope to be out in the community more, explaining what we do and listening to your complaints,” Los Angeles Times editorial-page editor Andres Martinez signed off his "To Our Readers" note on Sunday, outlining the section’s upcoming changes: Freelancers and outside experts writing editorials, readers contributing to online “wikitorials,” dogs and cats living together, etc. “Compliments would be OK as well.”
With that last sentence you can practically hear Martinez trying to duck the “smashed crockery,” as departing editorial writer Jacob Heilbrunn described the reaction to the New York Times the next day. Not only reaction from readers who always complain about any changes to their newspaper but from skeptical colleagues. And because Martinez’s boss Michael Kinsley accidentally left a copy of his plans on a Times Xerox machine last month, they’ve had plenty of time to fume about it.
“I think it’s absolutely crazy to have outsiders writing editorials at all,” Jack Nelson, the Los Angeles Times former Washington bureau chief, told the New York Times. “What happens to the institutional voice?”
But the problem with the L.A. Times is that, unlike the Wall Street Journal or even the New York Times, its institutional voice never has been exactly a voice just institutional. The robotic dullness of those unsigned, written-by-committee pieces about various weighty issues is broken up only by the occasional painful attempt to be humorous and pop-culture aware.
Wednesday, for instance, there was one about how romantic comedy director Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral) is trying to bring attention to world poverty. The editorial concluded, and I kid you not: “Tom Hanks could have been Sleepless In Seattle not only because he was mourning the death of his wife but because U.S. foreign assistance amounted to less than 0.2% of DDP; the email that arrived in You’ve Got Mail could have been a plea from the Make Poverty History campaign; and Harry could have met Sally at a debt-relief rally.”
Reading these things, I often think of physicist Wolfgang Pauli’s comment on a paper submitted by a colleague: “This isn’t right. This isn’t even wrong.” So I certainly can’t fault Kinsley for trying to deossify his section of Spring Street. I can fault him on other points, though. But more about that in a minute.
"'How Can I Kill Him?'"Last month, as it happens, I went to hear Kinsley speak at a Harvard-Radcliffe Club event at the Los Angeles Athletic Club. (Don't get the wrong idea I’m a UCLA girl but came as a member's guest.) Most the audience's questions, some in those superior, east-coast preppie accents that grate on my southern California-raised ears, were about the awful, evil, “McCarthyite” voices on the editorial pages: Max Boot, George F. Will, David Gelernter, and especially cartoonist Michael Ramirez.
“Why do you keep him on?” one guy wailed, in tones that suggested he was wearing a monocle while peering at a cockroach.
Kinsley patiently explained that the Times hasn't run Will's syndicated column in years (presumably some readers still suffer post-traumatic stress syndrome from the horror of the memory) and that a left-leaning editorial board needs to be balanced by some right-leaning signed columns. Regarding Michael Ramirez, he added: "This is the question I get more than any other: Michael Ramirez, how can I kill him?"
He tried to defuse the anti-Ramirez feeling by relating a charming and obviously oft-told tale: Ramirez's mother, “a little Asian lady,” came by the office, and Kinsley, who said he prides himself on being good with mothers, commented that she must be so proud of her Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist son.
“She said, 'I have four other children, and they're all doctors,'" Kinsley added.
Kinsley had some interesting observations about the current state of letters-to-the-editor. “The two areas that the web clearly does better than newspapers are classified ads and participation by the community,” he said, adding that blogs and online magazines are superior here to traditional print media: “The idea of giving everyone who wants one an opportunity to express an opinion puts letters-to-the-editor to shame.”
Of course, the Internet has made coordinated letters-to-the-editor attacks much easier, and Kinsley added that as far as that goes, liberal interest groups actually seem worse (or better, from their point of view) than conservative ones: "I get 300 e-mails in my [personal] e-mail box about Max Boot someone in North Dakota is upset!"
A man in the audience with a Spanish accent stood up to make a heartfelt statement bemoaning the loss of Frank Del Olmo, the late Times editorial writer, because Del Olmo got the paper to adopt the term "Latino" instead of “Hispanic” and also "took a solid stand against the Mexican mafia." (Which I suppose raises the question: As opposed to all those editorial writers who are for the Mexican mafia? But never mind.)
Then a woman said that she has a 20-year-old niece “who lives with me, and it drives me crazy she doesn't know who John Bolton is. She says she doesn't read newspapers because they're just so biased one way or the other.” Couldn't papers serve young, impatient readers, the woman asked, by running both points of view side by side?
“I think that's a bit of an excuse,” Kinsley said carefully, about his earnest questioner's ignorant young relative. He was being polite, of course. Obviously, the poor woman's just got a stupid niece.
“I ain't never voted for no Bush.”Alas, I had to leave before the small dinner that followed the panel discussion. But my friend Luke Ford, a media junkie and porn-industry reporter (and also an Australian-raised right-wing convert to orthodox Judaism) stayed, sat across from Kinsley, and peppered him with his usual tactless questions. Luke reported on his blog:
I ask Kinsley if he had any Republicans writing for him at Slate (I don't recall any being on staff). “Oh sure,” Michael says.
So extra snaps to Kinsley for putting up with Luke. Clearly he’s open to eccentric people as well as ideas, good qualities if you want to shake up a newspaper editorial section by deinstitutionalizing its point of view. My complaint is that he really does seem to disdain Los Angeles writers even more than most east-coast wonks. (Full disclosure: This may seem graceless of me, because I’ve written a couple of Times opinion pieces only after Kinsley came aboard. But I’m not a regular.)
I was reminded of this situation again a few weeks ago when I read David Gelernter’s rant on the Times op-ed page against public schools. Now I think Gelernter’s a wonderful writer I have all his books, and agree with pretty much all his politics but I can't see how another generalized east-coast take on the situation is going to do anything but further enrage the Times's liberal subscription base. (And take it from someone who heard them rail against Gelernter at the Harvard Club last month they really are enraged.) You're not going to change anyone's mind, or even make them think, unless you can demonstrate some awareness of their particular situation.
It's not Gelernter’s fault he's unfamiliar with the particular educational troubles we have here in California. It is his editors’ fault, though, for hiring yet another conservative commentator from across the country. Sigh. O.K., I'll just say it: Another male conservative commentator from across the country. You know you’ve got a problem when Susan Estrich seems to have a point.
Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy's World. She is an NRO contributor.