I will miss Cathy Seipp. Like Justin Levine, I was not close enough to her to qualify as a close friend. But I did have the privilege of speaking to her many times, mostly at the wonderful Yamashiro gatherings hosted by Scott Kaufer every month. Cathy was a fixture at these gatherings — at least until recent months, when her absence was noticeable — and every month I made it a point to speak to her for a while.
She was always very forthright with her opinions, and blunt in the way she expressed them. A theme that she came back to again and again was that people must be accountable for the things that they say.
For example, I talked to Cathy at length at a Yamashiro gathering held shortly after I had posted that the L.A. Times seemed poised to “push back” against its critics — including, possibly, me. Cathy told me that of course I should expect them to do that (and, basically, I shouldn’t whine about it). She was not mollified by my point that I had only a few hundred readers, while the paper commands a circulation of nearly a million, and has the power to seriously affect people’s reputations. Cathy’s feeling was, basically: tough. I was the one who chose to take on this powerful newspaper — and that’s all well and good, but I shouldn’t expect them not to fight back!
Another example came when I wrote about Dean Baquet’s e-mail to me, in which he declined my request for an interview regarding the paper’s decision to reveal classified details of the Swift counterterror program. He gave a reason in the e-mail, and I was dying to tell my readers what that reason was, because I found it exceedingly lame. But there was one problem: I hadn’t warned him in advance that I planned to publish any response. Unlike my correspondence with the Readers’ Representative, who clearly understands that anything she writes me will end up on my blog, I wasn’t sure that Baquet realized that I had intended to publish any response. So, rather than simply quoting his e-mail, I asked him for permission to publish his reason — permission that he never gave. Under the circumstances, I felt honor-bound not to quote Baquet’s e-mail — although I really, really wanted to.
You’re just completely wrong about that, Cathy told me at another Yamashiro gathering. There’s no expectation of privacy in an e-mail from the publisher of a newspaper to one of its critics. She thought I was being ridiculous not to publish the reason, and told me so. (She was mollified — a tiny bit — by the fact that I told her the reason privately.)
The unifying theme of those conversations was that you have to be held accountable for what you say. Cathy believed strongly in that principle.
Cathy and I had one major thing in common: we both delighted in skewering the L.A. Times. But she had a sort of love/hate relationship with the paper. Newspapers in general were important to her, and while she hated the political correctness of the paper, she didn’t want to see it go. She just wanted it to be better. And I think she felt she could have made it better if they had just published her more often.
And, you know, she was right about that.
I feel grateful for the little time I got to spend with her. My deepest condolences go out to her family and close friends.
UPDATE: I found a comment Cathy left on the Baquet e-mail thing:
Why don’t you just report the exchange between you and Dean Baquet already? I can’t imagine he’d think you’re obligated to keep it off the record. As I told you before, I certainly don’t think you’re under any such obligation, and I don’t know any journalist who would.
See that word “already”? That word is what gave the comment its blunt, impatient force. That’s Cathy, right there. In my head, I can clearly hear her voice saying those words — mostly because that’s exactly how she sounded when she told me the same thing in person. I’m smiling right now thinking about it.
UPDATE x2: Treacher has it just right.
UPDATE x3: As does Matt Welch:
Cathy had an enormous talent for tiptoeing up to the line of polite-society mores, then vaulting across it with a cackle.
UPDATE x4: There’s absolutely no question that Cathy would have appreciated this, from the L.A. Times web site:
That’s right: her obituary is currently the most viewed story on the whole web site.