Politics & Policy

The State of The Times

Hoping a mainstream standard saves itself from itself.

You don’t have to agree with every single one of blogger Patterico’s points about what the Los Angeles Times did wrong in 2005 (I don’t) to recognize it is an amazing piece of research as well as a tightly argued polemic. Among the highlights: How the paper’s liberal bias influenced its coverage of the Iraq war, Cindy Sheehan, crime, illegal immigration, and local police shootings. Patterico, the nom de blog of an L.A. prosecutor named Patrick Frey, acknowledges that Spring Street has improved over the past year. And not only because the paper sacked its harrumphing old lefty columnist, the error-prone Robert Scheer–although of course that alone is a major plus.

Since there’s been heated discussion lately about the failings of the mainstream media, I recommend anyone interested in the subject take a look at Patterico’s screed, because most of his points apply not just to Hollywood’s hometown paper of record but to general problems plaguing all big American newspapers. Another screed worth looking at is Times business columnist Michael Hiltzik’s angry response to Patterico this week in his Golden State blog. (Patterico’s reaction: “You know you’ve arrived when an L.A. Times columnist compares you to a dishonest, totalitarian Stalinist apparatchik.”)

I didn’t find Hiltzik’s counterpoints very convincing, but his response is a remarkable textbook example of leftist complacency angered. As it happens, Hiltzik, whom I’ve heard described as “brilliant” and “notorious a**hole” in the same breath, has an interesting history at the Times. He lost his position there as Moscow correspondent a dozen years ago, after he was discovered hacking into co-workers’ e-mail. But instead of being fired or suspended without pay, he was ordered back to Spring Street and reassigned to the business section, where he’s since won a Pulitzer.

Hiltzik is such a knee-jerk case that he actually thinks the left only criticizes newspapers for not doing their job well enough; the right, he insists, complain when papers are trying to do their job at all. Naturally, I see the situation rather differently. But unlike many on my political side of the fence I take no joy hearing about any paper losing readers.

Last month, as it happens, I went on something of a rampage against the Times for its unbelievably lame feature cover story called “Blogging L.A.” This story mentioned neither the two much-hyped L.A.-based commercial blogging enterprises that began last year (the Huffington Post and Pajamas Media), nor any of the nationally known major blogs based in L.A. (Kausfiles, Little Green Footballs, the Volokh Conspiracy, et al.) Instead, Times readers learned about tiny, diary-style L.A. blogs, the kind that defined the medium about five years ago.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, in introducing readers to a different corner of a particular world; a story about New York theater, for instance, certainly could be about oddball off-Broadway shows rather than popular musicals. But shouldn’t these be small shows with some newsworthy angle (like, say, a cult following) rather than those that no one goes to see? And if much of the readership still is rather fuzzy about the general topic (as I suspect the average, aging Times subscriber is about blogs), certainly a few lines putting it in context are in order. For even a minimally competent journalist, that’s just basic.

The Times story on blogs, though, opened with one that got just 15 daily visits and closed with another that no longer even exists. A cynic might have suspected that the paper tried to make blogs seem as boring and inconsequential as possible, in order to staunch the flow of readers and advertisers from newspapers to the Internet.

Or maybe that Times blog feature developed from some weird water-cooler bet: Let’s see if we can’t come up with a cover story on the most banal and inconsequential blogs in the entire city! In which case, I’d say, mission accomplished.

To its credit, the Times let me go on about all this in its Times-bashing Sunday opinion column called “Outside the Tent.” (Last Sunday’s was a list of New Year’s resolutions for the paper from “Outside the Tent” contributors, and is worth a look.) This brought on the predictable bloggy suggestions that I was only miffed because I hadn’t been included in the piece. But I’ve been a journalist for 30 years and a blogger for less than three, and my ultimate loyalty lies with the beleaguered mainstream media. I never enjoy seeing screw-ups like this.

This brings me to the only thing Patterico didn’t mention in his latest screed against the Times, I suppose because he’s more interested in political analysis and hard news: The continued weakness of the paper’s features sections. Perhaps because these were originally thought of as the women’s pages, there’s a lingering unconscious feeling that no one really needs to take them seriously.

But newspaper feature sections, with their comics and advice columns, are how young readers first develop a daily newspaper-reading habit, so the Times isn’t doing itself any favors by tolerating such weak writers in its “Sunday Magazine” and daily “Calendar” pages. It’s sad and strange that the paper hasn’t had a decent features columnist since the legendary Jack Smith died in the mid-’90s.

Not that there aren’t bright spots: The Times “Food” section has been excellent for years, film critic Carina Chocano is very good, and I’ve never read a better gardening columnist than Emily Green, whose sharp prose and enthusiasm for local flora and fauna sometimes make me consider projects that would be completely insane, like trying to find a place in my cramped yard for native oaks. But it’s a serious problem when what ought to be the most stylish sections of a paper are actually the dullest. I only hope that 2006 will bring at least some improvement.

Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.

Catherine SeippCatherine Seipp had been a frequent contributor to National Review Online prior to her death in 2007.


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