It is time for this blog’s fifth annual review of the performance of the Los Angeles Times, which long-time Patterico readers know as the Los Angeles Dog Trainer. Previous annual reviews can be found at these links:
This year’s installment covers a number of topics, including the 2008 election, the U.S. Attorney scandal, and many others. It summarizes an entire year’s worth of work documenting omissions, distortions, and misrepresentations by this newspaper. The evidence is voluminous, but hopefully entertaining. If you have half as much fun reading this as I did writing it, you’ll enjoy this post considerably.
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Without further ado, let’s get to the bias:
Nothing says “institutional arrogance” better than sticking with a story you know is wrong. So I have decided to open this year’s edition with two blatant examples of this newspaper deliberately misleading its readers.
RICHARD SERRANO DISTORTS QUOTES IN THE U.S. ATTORNEY CONTROVERSY
In his reporting on the U.S. Attorney firing scandal, reporter Richard Serrano engaged in a pattern of distorting quotes to portray the Bush Administration in a poor light. In one story he used an ellipsis in an extremely misleading fashion, to remove critical context from a Kyle Sampson quote. Serrano misquoted Sampson again regarding a critical e-mail about Carol Lam; the paper issued a correction after I brought it to their attention.
In a third incident, Serrano was accused of misquotation by one of the fired USAs, Bud Cummins. Mr. Cummins later personally wrote me and specifically told me that he had told Serrano the story was wrong.
Incredibly, the paper refused to correct its misstatement of Cummins’s quote. Even after I passed along Cummins’s e-mail to me — in which he had said: “I promise you the story was wrong” — the paper still refused to issue a correction.
This is the worst kind of “gotcha” journalism. Cummins had no reason to lie about the misquotation. Moreover, he told me that he had been interviewed by reporters across the country, and nobody else had gotten the story so badly wrong. The paper’s editors knew — knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt — that the subject of their interview said their story was wrong. Still, they didn’t care to tell readers the truth.
TIM RUTTEN MISLEADS READERS ON SCOTT THOMAS BEAUCHAMP
Another stunning example of institutional hubris occurred when Tim Rutten wrote an error-filled column about Scott Thomas Beauchamp. Beauchamp was a U.S. soldier in Iraq whose accounts of soldiers’ misdeeds were published in The New Republic and later questioned by several bloggers. Rutten’s lazy column about Beauchamp contained five provably false assertions. Among his errors was the claim that Beauchamp hadn’t spoken to TNR editors for weeks. Rutten also falsely maintained that a document related to the Beauchamp investigation, called a “Memorandum for Record,” did not exist.
Making the mistakes wasn’t the real problem. The real problem was that the paper didn’t correct a single one of these errors. Further, the paper employed obvious sophistry to justify its refusal to correct the mistakes. The most shocking to me was the fact that, although TNR had admitted only an “error,” Rutten said that TNR had admitted an aspect of Beauchamp’s story had been “concocted.” An “error” and a “concoction” are obviously two very different things. I couldn’t believe that the Readers’ Rep, whose job revolves around correcting errors, couldn’t see the difference. If the paper called every error a “concoction,” then the paper’s editors have “concocted” plenty of things themselves.
Rutten’s misrepresentations on the Beauchamp matter were so blatant, and the paper’s refusal to correct them so indefensible, that it brought to mind a natural question: what else is this paper lying to its readers about?
Rutten also violated the paper’s policy against the use of self-serving anonymous sources. The Readers’ Rep initially seemed to acknowledge this. But we were later told that the editors didn’t think he had violated the policy. Bottom line: Tim Rutten can do no wrong.
Next: a return to traditional topics, including anti-Republican/conservative and pro-Democrat/liberal bias in all facets of the news — starting with the current 2008 presidential campaign.
In a story about the Republican YouTube debate, the paper wrote a story that tried to downplay the extensive connections between several questioners and Democrat candidates. That story said one Obama supporter had blogged for Obama on a “social networking site” — as if he had been extolling Obama’s virtues on, say, Facebook or MySpace. The paper didn’t tell readers that the “social networking site” in question was BarackObama.com — Obama’s official campaign web site.
The paper gave Hillary a big sloppy wet kiss in October, and followed it up with a sycophantic front-page puff piece on Hillary in November — relying on The Power of the Jump to bury her negatives on the back pages.
By contrast, the paper has been especially hostile to Fred Thompson. The editors ran a so-called analysis of Fred Thompson’s prosecutorial career — but omitted statistics that deprived the story of critical context, allowing editors to be more sensationalistic about his alleged failures.
The paper ran a story with the unnecessarily provocative and unfair headline: “Will Fred Thompson’s racist role have political repercussions?” The article exaggerated the significance of Thompson’s fictional TV role. For example, according to the article, when I had asked how Fred Thompson might get smeared, my commenters had “immediately” mentioned Fred Thompson’s “racist role” in an old TV show. “Immediately” turned out to mean “in comment 35 of 38 comments.”
The paper did manage to land some blows on Thompson, but did so in classic “trust me” Big Media style, showing a strange reluctance to provide evidence until pressured by bloggers. The paper alleged that Fred Thompson had lobbied for an abortion rights group, pointing to minutes of a meeting of the group’s leadership — but initially failed to publish those minutes. After some prodding, the paper finally published the minutes. But in that same story, the editors continued the pattern of “trust me” journalism, repeating a story online that didn’t meet the paper’s standards for publication in the print version of the paper.
The paper had once claimed that Sandy Berg(l)er had taken no original documents, but this year it emerged that we don’t know that. The paper had no immediate coverage of this revelation.
Barbara Boxer took a jab at Condi Rice for not having any kids — certainly an embarrassing gaffe. The paper had no coverage of that — even though the New York Times did. Similarly, late in the year, Nancy Pelosi had an embarrassing moment when she said that Republicans “like” the Iraq war. The L.A. Times didn’t seem to notice.
Speaking of Pelosi, the paper had a ridiculous piece portraying her as a centrist.
The paper’s protection of Democrats extended to several other figures. The editors characterized a legitimate ad against Harold Ford, Jr. as “racially tinged.” The paper waited until after “Dirty Harry” Reid was safely re-elected to report on one of his questionable land deals. And the editors published an entire article about Bush’s use of the word “Democrat” as an adjective describing Democrats. It’s offensive, dontcha know.
The pro-Democrat spin was never so silly as when the editors touted an obviously lame study claiming that Democrats have superior brains. I’m sure they would have been equally uncritical if the findings had been the opposite . . .
The flip side of pro-Democrat bias is anti-Republican bias, and once again, the editors did not disappoint. The paper deliberately implied that Dick Cheney had leaked Valerie Plame’s identity — saving for the back pages the fact that there was no evidence of this. And the paper blatantly misstated the sixteen words from President Bush’s January 2003 State of the Union address. I called them on it, providing clear proof of their error — but they refused to issue a correction.
The editors’ bias was evident in whom they relied on as experts. Who better to go to for a quote than Larry Johnson? He’s the guy who once made the charming comment that Karl Rove’s mother had killed herself because she hated Rove so much.
Continuing the anti-Rove bias, the paper characterized a lawyer’s affidavit as swearing that she had heard a telephone conversation in which a political operative said Karl Rove had sought to have Don Siegelman prosecuted. But the lawyer herself said the operative had not necessarily said that.
THE EDITORS AND THE INTERNET: THROWING OFF THE BUNKER MENTALITY? NOT QUITE . . .
In January, the paper announced it was going to work on its Web presence. An L.A. Times article said:
[Los Angeles Times Editor James E.] O’Shea employed dire statistics on declining advertising to urge The Times’ roughly 940 journalists to throw off a “bunker mentality” against change and to begin viewing latimes.com as the paper’s primary vehicle for delivering news.
But some questioned O’Shea’s commitment to shedding the “bunker mentality” when the paper unveiled its new Internet Headquarters:
In all seriousness, when the paper announced it was expanding its Web presence, I offered some suggestions, mostly revolving around greater communication and openness.
But the paper didn’t listen to me, and the editors’ flirtations with the Internet continued to lack transparency — as became evident during the Episode of the Comments That Never Appeared at the Readers’ Rep Blog . . . and also during the Saga of the Amazing Disappearing Blog Post.
The Episode of the Comments That Never Appeared at the Readers’ Rep Blog
But then I started to notice that it was taking a long time for comments to be approved. And then I wondered whether critical comments were being published at all — and I encouraged readers to leave polite critical comments — and let me know if they didn’t get published. Overwhelmingly, they didn’t.
You’d think that if any blog at a newspaper’s Web site allowed critical comments, it would be the blog of the ombudsman, whose job it is to field complaints about the paper’s coverage. Allowing critical comments in that space would provide a laudable and transparent forum for discussing the paper’s shortcomings, with the goal of improving the paper’s fairness. Sorry, not at this newspaper.
In fact, when we last checked in at the Readers’ Rep blog in December, the latest post — I kid you not — was a “roundup of kudos” for the paper. How very hard-hitting! As for comments . . . well, there had been only two comments posted during the previous month.
So much for Jim O’Shea’s pledge to throw off a “bunker mentality” against change . . .
The Saga of the Amazing Disappearing Blog Post
The Saga of the Amazing Disappearing Blog Post occurred in October, when an L.A. Times blog post about John Edwards’s alleged extramarital affair mysteriously disappeared. I e-mailed the blogger about it — and while he didn’t respond to my e-mail, the blog post reappeared minutes later, in an abbreviated format. The blogger had previously left comments about how it would be “censorship” not to discuss the issue. Oddly, even when the post reappeared, his comments about “censorship” had disappeared.
Further investigation revealed more and more and even more passages that had been deleted. There had been so many deletions and other odd occurrences that I decided to do a timeline. I thought the editors needed to do a disclosure to explain what had happened. Because I am always looking to help out the editors, I wrote a suggested disclosure for them. The paper did finally come clean — but it was clear it had taken my pushing to accomplish this.
Big Media Arrogance Falls Flat
In October, the paper bragged about its top-rated blog. But my blog had more page views.
In a line I will never let the editors live down, an L.A. Times columnist compared blogs to an outbreak of crab grass.
THE IRAQ WAR
As evidence of momentum against the war, the paper cited John Murtha — a guy who had been against the war for well over a year.
Blogger Greg Tinti showed how the paper used the Power of the Jump to spin information about the connections between Iran and Iraqi forces fighting U.S. troops.
On a positive note, in January, the paper finally started reporting on the U.S. success in turning around al Anbar province. They continued the reporting in May. (Of course, blog readers had known about this since at least the previous November, if not before.)
WAR ON TERROR
Meanwhile, columnist Rosa Brooks told us that al Qaeda merely “got lucky” on 9/11.
The paper used classic liberal bias techniques to scare readers about the new FISA legislation.
Charles Johnson noted that the paper appeared to give credence to Iranian claims despite the fact that Iran had used fauxtography to support those claims.
The paper published personal details about pilots flying covert missions for the CIA — for no discernable journalistic purpose other than to show that they could.
EXAGGERATING THE U.S. ATTORNEY SCANDAL
As noted at the head of this post, the paper’s reporters and editors consistently tried to make a big deal out of the U.S. Attorney firings, even when the facts flew in the face of their pet theories. The paper employed classic techniques of liberal bias to embarrass the Bush Administration with this controversy.
In a particularly egregious piece of propaganda, the paper utterly misled its readers about the firing of Carol Lam. The paper tried to convince readers that Lam was targeted because she was investigating Randy “Duke” Cunningham — even though she was targeted months before the Cunningham investigation was even a gleam in any FBI agent’s eye. I wrote an angry (but polite) letter to the Readers’ Rep. The paper refused to correct this incredibly misleading article, writing me an e-mail that showed no regard for how readily the average reader was certain to be misled.
In their original article about Lam, the editors questioned the timing of an investigation of Jerry Lewis, which the paper described as an expansion of the Cunningham investigation. But the Lewis investigation was done, not by Lam in San Diego, but by Debra Yang in Los Angeles — a fact that undercut the editors’ theory.
The paper pretended that concerns over the U.S. Attorneys were manufactured after the firings — even though these concerns had been discussed before the firings as well. This was no isolated incident. Another article about the U.S. Attorney controversy similarly ignored all contemporaneous concerns about the USAs’ performance.
The paper tried to suggest that Bush was improperly pressuring a U.S. Attorney to agree with a questionable view of executive privilege. Problem was, Bush’s view was steeped in precedent and probably correct — and there was no evidence the U.S. Attorney disagreed.
The paper’s view of executive privilege was remarkably malleable, depending on the circumstances. Were the Democrats likely to overcome Bush’s claim of executive privilege relating to the U.S. Attorney controversy? The answer was “yes” when it helped the Democrats to answer the question “yes” — and “no” when it helped Democrats to say “no.”
It’s always fun to read the way the L.A. Times talks about tax cuts, or tax revenue that might be lost when courts rule a tax illegal. The paper always adopts the view that the loss of tax revenue is the end of the world, and will force dramatic and devastating cuts that cannot be withstood. For example, the paper portrayed an illegal phone tax as a venerable tax that couldn’t be lost. It was entertaining to compare how other publications treated the same issues. Hint: they were far more even-handed.
Columnist Rosa Brooks saw only one difference between legal and illegal immigrants: their level of courage. The idea that their legal or illegal status might be important apparently did not occur to her.
Despite what Michael Hiltzik had assured me the previous year, it became clear that L.A. County checked only a fraction of jail inmates for their immigration status. The paper buried statistics showing that L.A. County could deport 34,000 criminals from its jail system each year, given sufficient resources.
The paper misstated the requirements of Special Order 40, which the paper claimed prevents police officers from asking about the immigration status of suspects. Actually, it doesn’t. I demanded a correction. Two weeks later, the paper was issuing corrections about critical issues like whether a photograph of chocolate depicted walnuts or pecans. But there was no correction on Special Order 40. The eventual result was more like a non-correction correction.
When the Bush Administration actually talked about cracking down on business that employed illegals, the paper naturally highlighted employers’ complaints.
A story was published that conflated the difference between legal and illegal immigrants — leading to a rare correction.
I support gay marriage, but unlike the editors of The Times, I try not to let my biases interfere with basic common sense. Ignoring this principle, the editors published an ignorant editorial that castigated Arnold Schwarzenegger for not signing an illegal law establishing gay marriage. The law had a basic constitutional flaw, as it would have attempted to reverse a ballot initiative without a referendum, in violation of the California Constitution. Blogger Xrlq persisted in seeking a correction, but none was forthcoming.
When the California legislature voted to legalize gay marriage, the editors considered the news so insignificant that they buried it in the middle of a story about another bill.
The paper initially downplayed black-on-white hate crimes in Long Beach, assigning a low priority to the story, and running articles deriding the prosecution evidence. The minors were later found guilty (in the jargon used in juvenile court, the petitions against them were sustained).
There was another prison race riot early in the year — further evidence of the editors’ naivete when they claimed that it would be “preposterous” to argue that there is a compelling need to segregate prisoners by race in these modern times.
In reporting on the “Jena 6″ controversy, the paper did what it does best: play up the racial angle at the expense of accuracy and fairness. The paper also reported that the victim in the Jena 6 beatings had hung nooses at the school. Of course, this was wrong; the reporter obviously assumed it after hearing his liberal colleagues at the water cooler talking about how the beating had been understandable. The editors corrected the error after I brought it to their attention.
David Savage told readers that some experts think partial-birth abortion is safer. He didn’t mention that other experts disagree.
The paper reported on efforts to ban partial-birth abortion — but the editors couldn’t quite bring themselves to say exactly what was being banned.
This is the third year in a row that the Year in Review has discussed the Myth of the Church That Lost Its Tax-Exempt Status Over an Anti-War Sermon. That’s because this is the third year in a row that the paper has run a misleading story on the topic.
DAVID SAVAGE AND LIBERAL BIAS ON SUPREME COURT COVERAGE
In writing his roundup of the Supreme Court’s term, the paper’s legal affairs reporter David Savage was a complete drama queen — overselling the concept of a New Conservative Hegemony at the Court, and distorting the facts in the process.
Savage wrote another scare piece about how Scalia’s views could become the majority. As it turned out, Scalia ended up in the majority in many of the cases Savage mentioned — but Scalia’s views often weren’t joined by Justices Alito and Roberts. (For example, Scalia and Thomas said they would overrule Roe v. Wade. Alito and Roberts refused to join that portion of Scalia’s opinion.) The fact that Alito and Roberts were more moderate and restrained than Scalia didn’t prevent the paper from printing a dishonest screed by Erwin Chemerinsky that falsely suggested that Justices Roberts and Alito were extremist conservatives.
Savage’s bias was evident in his differential treatment of Justices Thomas and Stevens. He wrote a transparently unfair piece about Clarence Thomas that regurgitated the tired canards about Thomas that leftists seem to enjoy vomiting out. By contrast, he wrote a puff piece on Justice Stevens. Hardball for conservatives, softball for liberals. It doesn’t get much clearer than that.
ANTI-POLICE AND LAW ENFORCEMENT ATTITUDES
This newspaper’s bias in favor of criminal defendants and against police is well-documented. One particularly flagrant example emerged when we learned about a man whom the L.A. Times had lionized in 2005 as an ex-gang member who had supposedly turned his life around. This year, the L.A. Weekly revealed several interesting allegations about the man’s background. According to police, for example, this “ex-gang member” was an active Mexican Mafia gang member who had ordered a hit on a police informant. Six months later, the L.A. Times finally reported the information on the “ex-gang member” — but didn’t mention anything about the puff piece they had run on him two years earlier. Best to keep that part quiet.
When the LAPD released the transcript of the Board of Rights hearing in the Devin Brown shooting — a hearing that exonerated the officer — the paper initially buried the story. The paper’s subsequent stories repeatedly emphasized the secrecy of the proceedings, although the editors had seemed perfectly satisfied with the equally secret Police Commission proceedings. What was the difference? The editors liked the Police Commission proceedings, because they had resulted in a ruling against the officer.
In a story about a confrontation between the LAPD and protesters at an illegal immigration rally in MacArthur park, the paper listed the casualties — but failed to mention the injuries sustained by officers. The editors later issued a correction, forced to acknowledge that, yes, officers’ injuries count, too.
In June, when it became clear that a gang crackdown had prevented murders, the paper praised the crackdown — even though editors had criticized the crackdown just months earlier.
For years, the paper had pushed for a change in the LAPD’s shooting policy that would bar officers from firing at cars driving at them, in most situations. Inevitably, a case came up where the new policy may have caused an officer to be shot. I didn’t trust the paper to investigate the question.
The paper ended up mentioning the policy — but insisted on publishing the name of this undercover police officer. (The paper ended up having a decent defense: the mayor had announced the name in a press conference. Still, why was this paper the only print outlet I found that printed the officer’s name?)
ANTI-POLICE AND LAW ENFORCEMENT ATTITUDES: THE L.A. TIMES LIONIZES CONVICTED FELON STEPHEN YAGMAN
The paper’s anti-law enforcement attitude was never so egregious as when the paper carried water for civil rights attorney (and now convicted felon) Stephen Yagman. Yagman, a civil rights attorney who filed hundreds of cases against the LAPD, quickly became a favorite of the folks at the L.A. Times. Yagman said the things about the LAPD and conservative judges that the editors wished they could say out loud. This year, Yagman was convicted of over a dozen felonies, with a loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars. But The Times barely covered Yagman’s trial, leaving the real work to the L.A. Weekly. When Yagman was convicted, the paper did what it always does in stories about him: it repeated his baseless slanders against conservative figures (including a judge I clerked for) as if those slanders had merit.
After his conviction, the paper still treated Yagman as a respectable figure. The editors managed to quote Yagman in a story about overcrowding at the L.A. County jail — without mentioning that Yagman wasn’t then a practicing attorney, because he had been convicted of thirteen felonies. Would the paper have shown similar courtesy to a notoriously right-wing attorney? Not on your life.
Other news outlets noted Yagman’s nervy request to be “punished” by teaching morality to undergraduates. The irony led to amusing headlines in papers across the state — but not a word appeared in Yagman’s hometown L.A. Times.
Yagman even sued the State Bar for suspending his law license. All he did was get convicted of more than a dozen felonies! The L.A. Times didn’t tell us about that either.
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT: PARIS HILTON TRUMPS STORIES ABOUT MURDERED INNER-CITY GIRLS
Crime reporter Jill Leovy started the Homicide Blog, which tracks all homicides in Los Angeles. Leovy has generally been one of the bright spots at the paper — and proved it again in a great piece called “Their Names Die with Them.”
But the editors didn’t always see Leovy’s tireless reporting on homicides as worthy of space in the print edition of the paper — at least when compared to the terribly important story of Paris Hilton’s jail sentence. The emphasis on Paris Hilton stories was driven by advertising — and exacerbated by the availability of Web tools that can measure which stories bring in the most hits. Desperate for eyeballs, the paper gave us wall-to-wall Paris Hilton coverage — but didn’t have room for even a single word in the print edition for Quanisha Pitts, a murdered teenaged girl in Compton. If it weren’t for Leovy’s Homicide Blog, Quanisha’s death wouldn’t have been reported at all.
There was also plenty of space to list every soldier from every state in the nation killed in Iraq — in the California section. Why was a political statement about out-of-state soldiers’ deaths worthy of space in the “California” section of a Los Angeles newspaper, when there was no room for a story about a murdered girl from Compton, in Los Angeles County, California?
The paper actually went though millions of records to do a front-page investigative report on the critical Paris Hilton story. Amusingly, it was fatally flawed, just like most studies of the criminal justice system. Another Paris Hilton story proved my point about the “Power of the Jump” — when an article misreported a fact about L.A. County jails because of the misleading way it had been presented in a front-page article last year.
And oh! the drama of it! In one article (of many) on Hilton, the editors described the heiress as “beleaguered” — a rather odd term for an heiress.
(For what it’s worth, I did think Ms. Hilton’s fame bought her slightly harsher treatment from City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo — and when Rocky’s wife turned out to have some suspended license problems of her own, it was a positively joyous experience to watch Steve Lopez knocking Rocky around.)
The paper did a story about Lane Garrison’s sentencing for vehicular manslaughter — and punted on the issue of how much time he would serve . . . a question that has a right and wrong answer.
The editors repeated their utterly clueless call for peremptories to be removed from the jury selection process in criminal trials.
OP-ED: NIXING DUNPHY WHILE SAVING SPACE FOR NONSENSE
The anonymous LAPD officer and excellent writer going by the name “Jack Dunphy” had yet another column nixed by the paper. As far as I can tell, Dunphy no longer writes for The Times— but thanks to my “lower standards,” he does blog here sometimes. Three cheers for my “lower standards”!
I thought the paper’s decision to effectively stop publishing Dunphy was short-sighted. For one thing, since the paper publishes three unsigned opinion pieces every day (they’re called “editorials”), I thought they might cut Dunphy a break.
Although the paper didn’t seem to have room for Dunphy, it did somehow manage to find room for a laughably embarrassing “op-ad” by a sewer pipe company CEO, talking about our country’s need to replace sewer pipes. It later emerged that the CEO had placed similar op-ads in papers across the country, all seeking to create demand for his repiping services. The L.A. Times was simply the latest victim of the CEO’s astroturfing publicity campaign.
Honorable but anonymous cops apparently don’t qualify as publishable authors, but sock puppeteers just might. Jim Newton, the new editorial page editor, said that he would “absolutely” consider making Glenn Greenwald a columnist. Hey, Michael Hiltzik is still putting out articles on Page One; why shouldn’t Rick Ellensburg get in on the act?
Meanwhile, the op-ed page was a mixed bag. There were some truly wretched pieces, like the op-ed that mocked Vietnam vets as crazy guys with post-traumatic stress syndrome, Harleys, and lots of guns. Or the op-ed that argued that Jews are crafty and shrewd. Or the op-ed that said the paper was biased in favor of Israel. (Must be the influence of those crafty Jews!) Yeah, and I’m biased in favor of the L.A. Times!
Also, the editors continued to insist on publishing Erwin Chemerinsky, and Erwin Chemerinsky continued to insist on saying things that weren’t true. I mentioned one example above, in the section on the judiciary. Chemerinsky also said in an op-ed that Daryl Gates had always blamed the Rodney King beating on Rodney King, when in fact, Gates had believed the King officers had engaged in excessive force. (By the way, Chemerinsky, like the Times editors, is a big fan of Stephen Yagman. No surprise there; all these people are peas in a leftist pod.)
Patterico commenter David Ehrenstein appeared in the pages of the paper, calling Barack Obama a “Magic Negro.” Your view of this op-ed probably depends on your view of Ehrenstein. I have a soft spot for the guy.
The paper’s editorials are always very serious and geared towards weighty topics — like the one about Sanjaya.
On the bright side, the editors had the wisdom to publish Andrew Klavan and Ed Whelan. And LAPD supporter Robert C.J. Parry let the L.A. Times have it — in the pages of the L.A. Times. As for editorials, I was pleased when the editors encouraged Democrats not to be obstructionists on Bush’s judicial picks.
OP-ED: THE ANDRES MARTINEZ NON-SCANDAL “SCANDAL”
Despite the sometimes uneven quality of the op-ed section, I have always maintained that it is perhaps the strongest section of the paper — the place where the paper’s hidebound institutional bias is less pervasive than it is on the news pages. I was something of a fan of editorial page editor Andres Martinez — and when he had an online chat, I asked my readers to participate. (None of you bothered. Lazy bastards.)
Unfortunately, Martinez ended up resigning over a silly flap revolving around his decision to give a “guest editor” spot to Hollywood producer Brian Grazer. It emerged that Grazer was represented by the same P.R. firm that Martinez’s girlfriend worked for. Even though she had not personally represented Grazer (a fact that many didn’t seem to understand), the section was scrapped, and Martinez resigned.
After Martinez resigned, there was a brief but entertaining period of chaos as Martinez and his loyalists said some surprisingly candid things about the paper. Martinez himself issued an eye-opening statement blasting the newsroom’s “agenda” and snidely referring to the paper’s “ostensibly objective news reporters and editors.” The paper’s Tim Cavanaugh followed suit with some unusually frank observations about the paper’s culture. The New York Times‘s David Carr talked about how warring factions in the newsroom used blogs to fight each other.
I was popping a lot of popcorn around this time, and just generally sitting back and enjoying the fun.
As admittedly delightful as all of this was, the whole Grazergate thing really didn’t seem like much of a scandal. After all, if the editors were truly concerned about the things that matter, they wouldn’t have been so concerned with Andres Martinez and guest editors and girlfriends who were P.R. flacks. Instead, they would have saved their concern for the fact that their paper was habitually lying to its readers.
Accordingly, I began to suspect that the real underlying issue was an ideological coup by leftists seeking to maintain liberal control over the op-ed pages. My theory gained strength when Martinez himself appeared to endorse this theory — and named the people who had convinced publisher David Hiller to scrap the section.
The people whom Martinez fingered as the architects of his demise were leftists like Tim Rutten and Henry Weinstein. Rutten denied that a cabal of leftists had swayed Hiller; according to Rutten, Hiller had seen the problem right away. But there were a few problems with Rutten’s story. First, Hiller himself told the New York Times that he had to be convinced . . . by a group of leftists including Tim Rutten. The idea that Hiller was super-sensitive to perceived conflicts took another hit when it was revealed that, for a guest editor spot, publisher Hiller had suggested Donald Rumsfeld — his former squash partner. That didn’t seem like a big ethical violation, but it seemed pretty goofy — and it undercut Rutten’s version of events considerably.
Not only was Rutten predictably dishonest, he was also predictably self-righteous. Mickey Kaus joyously mocked Rutten’s sanctimoniousness.
Although Andres Martinez had resigned as of March 22, the paper still had him listed as the Editorial Page editor on March 31. That’s our newspaper! Always on top of every development!
In light of the flap over Martinez, it was odd how conflicts rules didn’t seem to apply to Chuck Philips. The paper had an interesting story in which a jailhouse informant changed his testimony after Philips wrote a story proclaiming the inmate’s innocence. There’s more to the story, including a Suge Knight connection — but that’s another story for another day . . .
Speaking of conflicts, I wondered whether Bill Plaschke had disclosed the fact he had written a book about Tommy Lasorda in his articles about Lasorda. The list of potential conflicts certainly did seem to be piling up.
The paper promised to do an internal investigation into the matter to see whether Martinez had compromised the integrity of the op-ed page. Months later, in early October, I wondered what had happened to the report. It turned out that the internal investigation revealed that Martinez had done nothing wrong — but, inexplicably, this was never published in the L.A. Times. In a bizarre twist, the fact that an L.A. Times editor had done nothing wrong ended up being published first on my blog.
COLUMNISTS: TIM RUTTEN
In addition to the dishonest columns already discussed, Tim Rutten had some other notably misleading columns.
For example, Rutten claimed that Rush Limbaugh’s defense of his “phony soldiers” remark was “baroque.” Not unless “baroque” has been redefined to mean “simple and straightforward.” Rutten may have had an equally “baroque” explanation for his claim that Michael Mukasey refused to say whether torture was illegal, when Mukasey expressly had.
Rutten pontificated about how newspapers shouldn’t be profiting from Anna Nicole Smith’s death. Ironically, right under his column were some Anna Nicole Smith-themed Google ads.
As an ostensible media critic, Rutten had, in reality, been doing op-ed pieces for ages. In November, the paper made it official.
Credit where credit is due: Rutten did have a good column criticizing Big Media silence on renewed threats to Salman Rushdie. The man is capable of writing good and incisive commentary. I just wish he’d do so more often.
COLUMNISTS: JOEL STEIN
FINANCIAL WOES AND PERSONNEL LOSSES
Early in the year, it was clear the paper was going to be sold. David Geffen talked about buying the paper. He’s so moderate, he thinks the Clintons are fascists! The paper was ultimately sold to Sam Zell.
But Zell couldn’t stop the paper’s continuing problems with plummeting circulation. In June, the paper put a Band-Aid on its financial woes with a voluntary buyout program. Fully 57 staffers took the voluntary buyout, including a couple of my favorites: Bob Sipchen and Roy Rivenburg.
The paper became so desperate for revenue, it decided to sell ad space on the front page, prompting me to observe: “Deaths are harder to watch when they’re slow.”
In an apparent attempt to increase its circulation numbers, the editors keep trying to give away free papers. When another free edition of the paper landed on my doorstep, I wondered: do the stalking laws apply to this behavior?
A former L.A. Times reporter admitted to lying to get a story. I would have been happier if he just hadn’t lied to readers.
GETTING BEATEN BY THE COMPETITION
Under Jill Stewart, the news section of the L.A. Weekly kicked the L.A. Times around on local stories. For example, the L.A. Weekly investigated the case of a firefighter who sued the city for millions because he was fed a couple of bites of dog food in a prank. The L.A. Weekly detailed the firefighter’s own history of pranking other firefighters, while the L.A. Times slept.
An L.A. drug ring was funnelling money to Hezbollah — and this was reported, not by the L.A. Times, but by a New York paper.
MISTAKES, WE MAKE MISTAKES
The paper made numerous mistakes — but so do we all. What made the paper’s mistakes notable is the way that they tended to benefit the left side of the political spectrum. For example, the paper smeared the Swift Vet group by falsely claiming that they had coordinated their activities with the GOP. I told the paper about this error the day the article came out, and spoon-fed them the proof — not bad for a crab-grass blogger — but it still took them nine days to issue the correction
The paper flubbed a basic fact about the length of Scooter Libby’s prison sentence, claiming that a criminal defendant had no criminal record, when he did. I immediately spoon-fed them the details necessary for a correction — but 10 days later, no correction had appeared. The paper finally corrected the error, 13 days after I brought it to their attention.
In covering the forced integration cases, David Savage appeared not to know the difference between a plurality and a majority opinion. The paper corrected its error regarding Roberts’s opinion — after I brought the error to the paper’s attention.
The paper claimed to have found a former Supreme Court justice named “Hamburger.” What was next? Justice “Hamburglar”?
One article quoted female attorney Blair Berk — but referred to her as a male.
I notified the Readers’ Rep about the “Justice Hamburger” and “Mr. Blair Berk” errors. I picked up the corrections on both errors on the same day.
An article about polonium-210, the radioactive isotope that killed ex-K.G.B. agent Alexander V. Litvinenko, had some basic errors. Informed of them by the folks at Cathy Seipp’s site, I published a post noting two of those errors, and a correction was issued as to those two errors within days.
The paper can’t even be bothered to get the names of military operations right. (I don’t think they ever corrected this one.)
The paper made an error concerning Victoria Beckham, giving me a journalistic justification for publishing a photo of Victoria Beckham. (And now I have another.)
Sometimes the paper’s errors were embarrassing and easily avoided, showing the need for better copy editors. For example, an incoherent editorial about Justice O’Connor showed no sign of David Shaw’s famous “four experienced Times editors.”
There was a very public flap over a story about the Armenian genocide.
An entire column about HBO’s original programming didn’t mention “Entourage” once. OK, this is no big deal — but I like “Entourage.”
The paper gave readers bad advice about what to do in a fire — in the middle of the worst fire season in years.
The material in this post was collected from last year’s posts from this blog. If you are disgusted by the L.A. Times, and/or you have enjoyed this post, you’ll want to become a regular reader. Please remember to bookmark the main page and return often. And I’ll end with another plug for Bloglines subscribers. Remember that you can subscribe by clicking on this button:
P.S. Thanks to DRJ and See Dubya for reading drafts of this post and making valuable edits and suggestions.
P.P.S. Thanks to rhodeymark for pointing out a typo in the section on race. (I initially wrote the crimes were white-on-black. As rhodeymark notes, “if that were true, they would still be running A1 stories about it.” Heh.) And aunursa caught my error in saying that the California legislature voted to “ban” gay marriage, when of course they voted to legalize it. Thanks to these commenters, I was able to correct these typos within hours, as opposed to the 9-13 days it seems to take the L.A. Times to correct their errors.