The following commentary by Jamie Court, president of the Santa Monica-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, and author of “Corporateering”, was published in the Los Angeles Times on Sunday, April 24, 2005:
Outside the Tent is an occasional feature in which the Los Angeles Times invites an outside critic to lament as deplorable some aspect of a Southern California newspaper whose book fest is bigger than any on that other coast.
My alma mater, Pomona College in Claremont, used to call itself the “Harvard of the West” until the school recognized that becoming a great college meant finding its own unique voice, not imitating the creme de la creme of East Coast institutions.
The Los Angeles Times suffers from the same syndrome. The newspaper’s East Coast focus increasingly comes at the expense of Western voices and perspectives. Looking east for direction may be natural for the former New York Times managers now in charge in Los Angeles. Transplants include Managing Editor Dean Baquet, Deputy Managing Editor John Montorio and Editorial Page Editor Andres Martinez. Editor John Carroll is also an East Coaster, from the Baltimore Sun. But the L.A. Times should strive to be more than the “New York Times West.”
Pursuing the ghost of the Gray Lady — the Eastern icon of newspapers — could be a worthy endeavor if it simply meant giving reporters the time and money to do stories right at a time when the newsroom budget is under fire from its Chicago-based owners. The East Coast editorial mentality I take issue with is a high-brow view that caters to an elite intelligentsia, as opposed to the more populist Western view that life and news center on real people and everyday concerns. In the hard-news arena, for instance, it seems to me that the eastward view of editors has resulted in national and international news displacing local and California stories.
The first change came years ago with the disappearance of the Page 3 state section in favor of international news — the New York Times model. Even now, with the world watching Arnold Schwarzenegger, state news is increasingly relegated to the paper’s bowels. Despite having the fifth-largest economy in the world, California isn’t the leading character on Page 1. On most days, as I count, only one local or state story appears on A1. Often that Metro story appears below the fold. Column One stories — those features that usually run along the left side of A1 — also show the disproportionate emphasis on national and international issues and events.
In the feature sections, too much valuable real estate is devoted to East Coast perspectives. The Book Review is overwhelmed by East Coast reviewers and authors. Calendar dedicates one of four standing columns to “New York, New York.”
And the editorial and opinion pages are dominated by East Coast thinkers. Op-Ed Editor Nick Goldberg is from New York. He and Martinez report to Michael Kinsley, who was dean of East Coast liberal political cognoscenti as editor of the New Republic and Harper’s and now commutes from his home in Seattle. Their problem is over-relying on Eastern viewpoints on the opinion pages that are the only places in the newspaper where Angelenos and Californians can speak in essays.
Kinsley’s CNN colleague, Margaret Carlson, a Washingtonian, is a regular columnist. Columnist Max Boot lives and thinks in New York. Kinsley and Martinez each have a weekly column — in addition to controlling the editorials and publishing their friends and Times colleagues. Every column by Martinez has been about a national or international issue, except two, including Wednesday’s semi-local take on international soccer rivalries. Kinsley did no better except for one local issue he was forced to address in his column recently — the lack of female voices on his opinion pages.
Kinsley & Co. seems to be trying hard to woo the Washington and New York elites to the page. It’s as if catching the attention of Capitol Hill, the U.N. and Wall Street is the goal, not exposing subscribers to fresh voices. The irony is that Kinsley’s East Coast friends have to read his opinions online because you can no longer buy a national edition of The Times at the news stand.
The “compete in the East” mentality became evident to me when Kinsley took over in Los Angeles and quickly wrote a New York Times book review that tackled the character, as much as the latest book, of New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks. Although Kinsley’s fond of taking aim at East Coast opinion organs, his columns have not once mentioned Schwarzenegger by name.
Under Kinsley and Martinez, the editorial page similarly suffers from an East Coast elite view of law, economy and politics. A page once rooted in the community and the views of community leaders appears increasingly to strive for opinions that might turn heads at East Coast power centers.
“Most of us probably feel we couldn’t be free without newspapers,” Edward R. Murrow said. “That is the real reason we want the newspapers to be free.” The shackles The Times most needs to shed are its concern over how it looks in the East rather than how well it informs the West.