One of the first indications that I was caught in a no-win game came during my first months in the Los Angeles newsroom. There was an ongoing discussion at the upper levels of the paper about ethnic designation. Mexican-American? Chicano? Hispanic? What should be official style for news subjects with brown skins and Spanish surnames. I was smart enough to avoid taking sides, but I quickly learned that Frank Del Olmo and several others were actively lobbying for “Latino” as the proper designation. And Latino was accepted into the language, mostly because it was the biggest, most-inclusive term. Political freight is added to the everyday language in just that way.
And I also learned very quickly that other terms were to be battlegrounds, fighting words. “Illegal alien?” That was a pejorative, not to be encouraged. Part of the objection was to “alien,” which seemed to conjure up science-fiction images. But even the term “illegal” was examined and questioned. I was informed rather haughtily by one leading activist, during an editorial board luncheon, that these people were not really “illegal,” only “undocumented,” since they had only violated an administrative rule, not a law, by entering without inspection. (Note to Patterico: This is where today’s argument over felony vs. misdemeanor status for illegal entry really began.)
These battles were always polite, bloodless affairs, usually limited to quiet sniping and careful consultation over “policy.” As with most corporate infighting, it was considered bad taste to openly confront one another. Instead, complaints and comments went around the object of the complaint and were registered on the increasing numbers of assistant metropolitan editors, the priestly class in the cathedral called The Times. When I started out, there were two or three of these minions but the last I heard, there were upwards of twenty of them overseeing coverage. Every piece of copy ran through them and was cast and recast to their standards and perceptions before it was submitted to the editorial cardinals for placement. The truly effective journalists became not the digger-reporters but the infighters who could work the levers of editoral power. They were the team players, the conventional thinkers, the masters of Times orthodoxy.
Newspapers are and always have been the conveyors of conventional wisdom. The true powers in the newsroom were and are not necessarily the people whose bylines stand at the top of any story. The true powers are the subeditors, editors and influentials who set the conventions that govern decisions about what was news, who was right in any particular dispute and who deserved the subtle and not so subtle support of the news pages.
Often stumbling and running afould of the conventional wisdom, I lurched through a number of verbal and political minefields during my tenure as the Times immigration and border expert. I did some stories that genuinely broke ground, hinting at the complexity and increasing urgency of the issue. But lots of my efforts were blunted or turned aside. My news judgement was questioned when I proposed doing a story about a Border Patrol helicopter being knocked out of the sky by a gang of immigrants throwing rocks on the bank of the Tia Juana River. (Not really worth a story, and besides, it sounds alarmist.) I did a fairly straightforward (I thought) story about immigrant gangs like the Mexican Mafia and Nuestra Familia and was told by one of my supervisors that it shouldn’t have run at all because it amounted to “institutional racism.” (At first I thought he was kidding. Then I remembered that he and several other Latino reporters, including Frank Del Olmo, jokingly referred to themselves as “the Brown Brotherhood.” At that point, I decided I wasn’t merely “insensitive.” I was the enemy.)
I did do some stories that I regarded as sound and even important. I covered the proceedings of a select commission on immigration chaired by Father Theodore Hesburgh of Notre Dame. But the commission’s two years of hearings and deliberations come to nothing, mostly because there was no consensus to be had. I watched serious academic studies of immigration and migration get trashed by activists with clear agendas. And I watched raw emotionalism and sentimentalism become substituted for reasoned news judgment.
This latter artifact was a direct outgrowth of the shift in The Times editorial view of the people we could never quite properly name, the migrants or immigrants, the mostly Mexican sojourners who had been coming north for more than a century but who were now streaming across the border by the hundreds of thousands, even millions. (That was another point of contention: I regularly wrote about number of apprehensions on the Southwest border, a rough but legitimate measure of migratory pressure. And just as regularly, I was called upon by my colleagues and superiors to defend what many of them saw as merely alarmist rumor-mongering, not reportage.)
The paper increasingly became compelled by “human face” of immigration and there’s no question that compelling stories of human suffering are available along the border. In truth, there are also huge numbers of human-interest stories about triumph, empathy and great kindness. But the easiest stories to sell to the editors seemed to be the ones that focused attention on the plight of the exploited Latinos coming across the border. The politics of ethnic identity became a powerful force in the newsroom. The Times, trying to stay in touch with an increasingly diverse community in Southern California, worked hard at proving how attuned it was to the interests and concerns of the Latino.
Those interests were, of course, defined by a relatively narrow group of activists and adherents, namely Latino staffers and their regular news sources. Diversity of opinion was not encouraged. Latinos who were born in the United States and those who had endured the rigors of legal immigration were not always happy to see “Los Mojados” in the community, but such friction was not a proper subject for polite coverage. As a white guy with a somewhat conservative bent, I regularly missed the nuance that informed my own paper’s coverage.
I did, however, perform occasional and exceptional service of the sort that was probably more common in the 1970s than it is today. More than once, I was called in by members of upper management and asked to run interference with the Immigration and Naturalization Service in behalf of persons of special interest to the paper. None of these intercessions were improper, in the legal sense, as far as I could tell, but I was always a little uneasy about asking favors in behalf of Otis Chandler’s maid from upper-level bureaucrats of the INS. Oddly enough, none of my bosses or the INS bureaucrats ever seemed to be troubled by the request, so who was I to cavil. (Remember, this was a different era, one in which traffic tickets could still be fixed without too much trouble. In those days, I was told by the managing editor that any reporter who couldn’t hide a parking ticket in “miscellaneous expenses” was not being inventive enough.)
Over time, though, my enthusiasm for the job began to wane. I realized I had been thrust into an untenable position from the beginning in an effort to separate two warring factions. Actually, it was no longer true that there were two factions in the newsroom. The anti-immigrant point of view had begun to fade from organized labor coverage as unions paid more attention to enrolling immigrants regardless of legal status.
There were personnel changes, as well. The man who had invented my beat as a political expedient left The Times. His replacement was less than enthusiastic about trying to find a middle ground on the issue of immigration. I found that nuanced stories about the social and political implications of the process became harder to sell.
I tried to change the focus of the beat, focusing more on the Border itself, but I still felt stymied. The Border was a fascinating, Hobbesian place with tons of stories about drug smuggling, as well as immigrant smuggling. Northern Mexico was in chaos with political and economic power falling more and more into the hands of trafficantes and the public officials they corrupted. But The Times seemed not just apathetic but antagonistic to covering those issues. Some of that attitude came from folks for whom Mexico seemed farther away than it was; the rest grew out of Latino defensiveness, it seemed to me. Crime stories that reflected badly on ethnic groups were to be discouraged as “institutional racism” or worse. (I believe that the same kind of ethnic defensiveness played a major role in The Times failure to understand what was happening in Southern California’s black communities and in some of the other immigrant communities of the region. For many years, it was much easier to sell stories about white crooks and criminals than it was to sell stories about Latino, black or even Russian organized crime. I was always frustrated by that anomaly because it seemed to me that organized crime had a much more profound effect on immigrant communities than it should. But my outlook never got traction in the newsroom.
Toward the end of the 1970s, the powers in the newsroom decided that the paper didn’t really need a full-time immigration or border specialist after all and I went back to general assignment work. My own pleasure in the work of reporting began to diminish, as well. I was coming up on that dread watershed for a newsman, the Big Four Oh. I had done most of the usual general assignment stories already, and writing an Easter Sunday lede on the weather story gets to be boring the fourth or fifth time you’ve done it. About 1980, I transferred back to Orange County, a much shorter commute for me, and had some fun trying to put that place on the map in the face of antipathy from the Townies, as we used to call the editorial staff at First and Spring.
But after a while, even that got stale. I was constantly reminded of a saying I used to hear from one of my mentors, an old salt named Gordie Grant.
“Just remember, Maxwell, every reporter has to figure out what he’s going to do when he finally grows up.”
And I decided that I was more likely to enjoy following my own brand of contrarianism in the freelance world and in the world of fiction. I finagled a short leave of absence to work at home, freeing my extraordinarily talented wife up to launch a career in her own novels. In the process, we launched a parallel career in the world of crime fiction. At the end of that leave in late 1983, I faced the choice of going back to the paper or striking out in another direction. I chose to leave, although the metro editor did ask me to come back for six months, covering the security preparations for the 1984 Olympics. That last period under the umbrella of the paper was more than enough to convince me that I didn’t want to go back to the infighting and back-biting of the newsroom. I left for good on August 14, 1984.
I noted with some irony that a couple of eulogies for Otis Chandler, who died earlier this year, suggested that the Los Angeles Times reached its zenith in 1984 and then began its slow decline. Is there a relationship there? I think not.
Well, maybe not.
The Times is still there, of course, although many of the people I worked with are not. Several years after I left, the paper began a series of editorial downsizings. People began receiving big wads of hard cash to disappear, something that I had done for free. The buyouts became more and more attractive, reaching well into six figures. But the enticements were enough. The paper went through economic hard times, and mismanagement as well. It was sold to The Tribune Company and buyouts slowly became pushouts as more and more of the people I had worked with were squeezed or encouraged to leave. Finally, late last year, more than eighty journalists, mostly veterans, were removed from the payroll, one way or another. It is a mark of the depth of the cuts, and of the tenacity of some of my colleagues, that many among that last cadre were people I had punched typewriter keyboards with in the 1970s and 1980s.
Without intending to insult anybody who lived through those years, I would have to say that the Los Angeles Times of today, under Tribune ownership, is probably a more even-handed paper than it used to be. There are still sacred cows in the newsroom, I am sure, but they don’t seem to be as numerous as they once were. Compared to the Times-Mirror days, there are fewer taboo subjects, fewer pet projects of the sort that we reporters used to call “policy stories.”
Not all of that change comes from corporate leadership. Some of it comes from personnel change. I don’t recall what happened to Harry Bernstein, the old-line labor writer, but Frank Del Olmo rose through the ranks and into editorial leadership. He was associate editor when he suffered a heart attack at his desk in 2004 and died. His obituary and eulogies were fulsome. They reflected his political leadership at least as much as his journalistic accomplishments, as was fitting. He had a significant effect on the paper and on the Southern California Latino community he helped to invent and define. Reflecting on his career, and on mine, I come to the conclusion that he understood something I never quite grasped, that journalism is far more political than its practitioners are comfortable in admitting.
The last thirty years of newspapering has been difficult. I was indoctrinated with the theology of objectivity, a hangover from the 50s and early 60s, and I still think journalists owe it to their subjects and their readers to be fair. But objectivity has been supplanted by several other schools of thought, all of them more openly political. Journalists are still reluctant to admit it, but they play the role of advocate more freely than they ever used to.
And the orthodox journalists have, in Hegelian irony, generated their own antithesis in the medium we are now enjoying together, the Blogosphere. In blogs, former colleagues like Kevin Roderick and Ken Reich have found satisfying and profitable ways to spend their engery. My old colleague and nemisis, Bob Scheer, who was ousted last year in the last wave of editorial downsizing, has discovered that he doesn’t need the loudspeaker of The Times to get his point across. I don’t need Otis Chandler’s printing presses to publish my point of view.
And Patterico, whose electrons I have so profligately used here, may be as powerful in his way as are the folks who stayed behind at The Times to man the burning ramparts of MSM.
Posted by Evan Maxwell, guest blogger.