The Return of Otis

by Stanley Meisler

November 12, 1999

The moment brims with high drama. Riding his motorcycle through the Ojai Valley, Otis Chandler, now 71, suddenly knows he must break years of silence about the fate of his Los Angeles Times. The moment has finally come to speak out and berate the stupidity of the people who now run the paper he loves. He writes a five-page letter, dictates it to city editor Bill Boyarsky and asks him to read it to the staff. Reporters stand and applaud, and soon photos of Otis are plastered over the newsroom. He has become the guardian angel of journalists in distress.

Chandler's emotions were aroused by the scandal in late October over the fishy financial arrangement approved by Times Publisher Kathryn M. Downing for the publication of an issue of the Times Sunday magazine devoted exclusively to the new Staples Center basketball and hockey arena in Los Angeles. Chandler called what happened "unbelievably stupid and unprofessional." Downing, who had already apologized for what she did, claiming ignorance of the mysteries of the newspaper business, dismissed Chandler as "angry and bitter" and accused him of "doing a great disservice to this paper." Chandler retorted that she "could have had a more intelligent and more careful response to this situation."

There is no doubt that the people running the Times have acted like rank amateurs and that their foolishness has aggravated the decay and decline that have characterized the Los Angeles Times in the last few years. Chandler's letter, in fact, is a lucid account of much of the fall. A New York Times editorial called the letter "a striking moment in the effort to protect journalistic integrity from the commercial pressures of a new age in media economics." The praise was thunderous and well-deserved.

But, for someone like myself, who began working at the Times during Otis's heyday and remained there for more than thirty years, the letter coming out of an epiphany on a motorcycle was even more than a clarion call for editorial freedom and greatness in newspapering. It was also a wonderful and bittersweet reminder of the days - lasting perhaps two decades - when the Times was the most exciting newspaper in America and Otis its larger than life publisher.

Before 1960, the Los Angeles Times labored as the butt of American journalistic humor. It was known mainly as an unethical and incompetent, Nixon-boosting, rabidly conservative rag with a retired admiral in Paris as its sole foreign correspondent and three nondescript reporters dishing out drivel from Washington. S.J. Perelman, describing a train journey in those days, wrote, "I asked the porter to get me a newspaper and unfortunately the poor man, hard of hearing, brought me the Los Angeles Times."

All that changed when Otis, a former Olympic-level shotputter with a passion for hunting big game, took over the Chandler family-controlled newspaper in 1960 and, to the surprise of everyone, decided to transform it into a serious rival of the New York Times. Paying the highest salaries in the business, Otis hired the top journalists in America to staff Washington and a host of bureaus overseas. The newspaper entered a kind of golden age with prominent journalists writing their best for a newspaper that displayed them with lavishness and affection and respect.

Otis treated his writers as his own personal representatives. He expected them to fly first class and stay in the same hotels as he did when travelling for the paper. He expected his Paris correspondent to entertain sources at three-star restaurants like Taillevent. He also expected correspondents to perform Hollywoodish feats of derring-do for him. "Go to Chad ASAP," the foreign editor cabled me in the 1970s, "and get Otis's hunter out of jail."

The pampering and flamboyance had a purpose. During this era, the Times editors tried to produce a new kind of journalism. Instead of blanketing the day's news like wire service or New York Times reporters, the Los Angeles Times reporters would write news stories only when the event had a 50/50 chance of making the front page. If it did not, the reporter would devote his or her time to features, background stories and analyses that illuminated the meaning behind the news. This was a difficult craft to practice, and it required reporters who had the experience and authority and artistry to do that kind of job well.

I don't think the Los Angeles Times, as a whole, ever overtook the New York Times. As a former foreign correspondent, I like to think that we did accomplish this in foreign coverage. But nostalgia is probably gilding my memory. Otis was far from a perfect publisher. He made a number of errors in those days. But he had panache - a na´ve, endearing kind of panache, and his paper, always striving to ascend, was a joy to work for. Friends at the New York Times bothered me all the time for news of openings.

But something mysterious happened in the 1980s. Otis seemed to lose interest in his paper and then abandoned it to a corporation dominated by the Chandler family. It is widely suspected that the family turned on Otis as too liberal for their taste and too profligate for their pocket books. Otis either lost the battle or failed to fight. No one else from the family took his place. The Times Mirror Company ruled instead.

Corporate rule reached a climax in the mid-1990s when the board hired Mark Willes as its CEO. Willes, a former executive of General Mills, quickly exhibited a foolish penchant for using the imagery of Cheerios and Hamburger Helper to discuss the news business. Wielding an axe to cut down news sections and fire reporters, Willes was belittled in print (though not in the Los Angeles Times) as the Cereal Killer and Cap'n Crunch. To the joy of most of the family and other stockholders, he announced that he planned to break down the wall between business and editorial at the newspaper. To make sure it was done right, he appointed himself publisher. The Times no longer paid the highest salaries in America, and more than 25 reporters quit to join the New York Times. But the stock price soared.

The recent scandal came straight out of Willes's strictures to unite the business and editorial sides for greater creativity. Downing, a lawyer anointed by Willes as successor four months ago upon his return to full-time duties as Times Mirror CEO, agreed to publish a special issue of the magazine on the new Staples Center and share the advertising revenue 50-50 with the center. The conflict of interest is so blatant as to make the later professions of naivete by Downing sound far-fetched. The writers were not told about the deal and presumably could write whatever they chose about the center. But, once the deal was exposed (by another publication in L.A.), any sensible reader had the right to suspect that the writers were in cahoots with their subject.

The blow to the integrity of the Los Angeles Times has been devastating. Giving into the bitter demands of his staff after some foolish hesitation, Editor Mike Parks has asked the paper's media critic David Shaw for a warts and all investigation. George Cotliar, the popular and respected retired managing editor, will blue pencil it. But I doubt if this alone, even when published on the front page, will restore confidence in the paper.

What is needed is a thorough housecleaning from the top down. Perhaps the hapless Downing will get the chop. But I doubt if the board will ever boot Willes. The stock has more than doubled in value during his reign, and that, in modern newspapering, seems to count far more than a paper's integrity. Willes and others may spew out a lot of promises and safeguards for the future. But the Los Angeles Times will probably continue to decay with more reporters heading for the New York Times if it will still have them. And Otis's letter, so full of wisdom and nostalgia, will seem quixotic, a wonderful and exquisite last gasp.

November 12, 1999
Washington D.C.

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