The Los Angeles Times frothing fatwa against Trump this week once more highlights the vast gulf between the media’s agenda and actual reality for a majority of Americans
(Note: The author was a contributing writer to the Los Angeles Times from 1992 to 1998.)
By Mark Cromer
When the Editorial Board of the Los Angeles Times unleashed its serialized attack on President Donald Trump this week, perhaps the only real surprise was that the newspaper of record in the City of Angels waited an excruciating two months after his inauguration before issuing its formal Declaration of War against the Trump Administration and not two weeks—or even two days.
With an opening salvo fired on this past Christian Sabbath that decried him as ‘Our Dishonest President’ that has been followed with consecutive daily installments through this week’s editions, The Times bitter rebuke of virtually everything Trump grimly intones a litany of Trump’s alleged crimes against humanity, Mother Nature and all the sweet little puppy dogs that he wants to mass microwave; readers are given Trump the Liar, Trump the Dictator, Trump’s War Against [Fill In The Blank] and Trump the Puppy Murderer (just in case the other stuff doesn’t stick).
Certainly a few elements of its ghastly take on Trump are factual assessments that are probably somewhat deserved by this president who’s still in the infancy of his administration, but in their desperate desire for it to suffer a political crib death The Times’ manifesto has far more glaringly highlighted just how one-dimensional and utterly disconnected—and quite frankly just how cynically dishonest—the newspaper has once more become.
The two-decade transition that The Times legendary publisher Otis Chandler had labored so intensely over to turn the newspaper into a national journalistic heavyweight hasn’t been just eroded or even mostly erased, but rather it has been mercilessly killed by the cuts of a thousand bylines dedicated solely to an editorial narrative that’s elevated far beyond any cumbersome fact or an inconvenient truth that it illuminates.
The Editorial Board’s formal communiqué signifies—with all the finality of a gravestone—The Times return to its roots as a transparent agitprop platform. The newspaper has truly come full circle and most likely irrevocably so.
Few people today outside of historians and print journalists of a certain age know that The Times has a long and storied past as a violent enemy of organized labor that shamelessly turned its news pages into a shill mill for the Republican Party and its associated business interests throughout much of the 20th Century. Unions were smashed, Red-baiters were cultivated, funded and advanced (with Richard Nixon becoming The Times most politically accomplished creation) and the financial interests of the business elites in Los Angeles and across Southern California reigned supreme on its news pages for the better part of the last century.
The dimly lit chapters of such civic institutions like major newspapers used to be taught at university journalism schools back when universities were still open grounds for intellectual discovery and journalism was still seen as a notable profession and admirable craft that carried with it a responsibility to seek, find and report the truth. And even The Times has acknowledged at least in passing the reality of its own journalistically sordid history, albeit to herald just how fundamentally Otis Chandler had managed to change the newspaper as it approached the new millennia.
“To grasp the breadth of the changes, it is necessary to understand what The Times had been. More than merely a newspaper with a conservative editorial policy, it was an openly partisan mouthpiece for the conservative wing of the Republican Party,” wrote the newspaper’s own media critic David Shaw and reporter Mitchell Landsberg in a 13,700-word news obituary for Chandler that The Times published on February 27, 2006. “Not only did it champion GOP candidates, its editors helped select them. Not only did it not, as a rule, endorse Democrats for elective office; it didn’t cover their campaigns. Readers could be excused for thinking that only one political party existed in Southern California.”
From a historical perch in 2006, where the rubber met the road seemed clear enough to Shaw and Mitchell: “Chandler realized that to build up The Times reputation, he had to demand fair and nonpartisan news coverage.”
In April 2017, that reads like the punch line of a sad joke played on the readers of the very same newspaper.
Yes, Otis Chandler knew that dragging the calcified, GOP-machine run newsroom and its boss-laden Editorial Board into the light of a new era of unflinchingly fair and nonpartisan news coverage was critical if The Times was to deliver the journalism its readers (and reporters) deserved. As history would have it, Chandler turned out to be the right scion at the right newspaper at the dawn of the right era, taking the reins from his father in 1960 and running the newspaper as a hands-on publisher through 1980, retiring still relatively early in his life but leaving behind a journalistic heavyweight that had put the East Coast players on notice that great and groundbreaking writing and reporting had a life and happy home West of the Mississippi.
It’s safe to say that just as JFK would neither recognize nor be welcome in the Democratic Party today (though his visage may still be prominently displayed at the Democratic National Convention), Otis Chandler would no longer recognize the newspaper that he gave his working life and his visionary mojo to create, nor would he likely be welcome back into its editorial wheelhouse (though the newspaper still sports a bust of him in its lobby).
With the straightest of faces this week The Times Editorial Board breathlessly declared: “Our civilization is defined in part by the disciplines—science, law, journalism—that have developed systematic methods to arrive at the truth. Citizenship brings with it the obligation to engage in a similar process. Good citizens test assumptions, question leaders, argue details and research claims.”
The pious editorial moralizing then descended into patronizing instruction delivered with an almost elementary school teacher’s tone: “Investigate. Read. Write. Listen. Speak. Think.”
It’s only a wonder they didn’t include “Breathe. Eat. Sleep” while they were at it.
Perhaps that tone is instructive as to just what The Times thinks of its remaining readership, which according to the Alliance for Audited Media had bled out to less than 654,000 paid daily circulation by 2013—a figure that has likely slipped into the mid-500,000 range today. To put that in context, The Times has lost more than 60% of its paid readership base over the past two decades and in 2009 Real Clear Politics listed The Times in its report on the ‘Top Ten Newspapers In Trouble’ in the United States.
That prognosis has not improved.
The reasons The Times has been bleeding readers for so long are many and not so easily explained with either the dawn of the digital age or greedy private investment groups that saw towering newspapers purely as commodities to be exploited as such, both of which have played significant roles, but The Times decision to weaponize its newsroom and deploy it daily in pursuit of its own sociopolitical agenda has also played a critical role in the collapse of its readership base. Yet as The Times hemorrhaged readers, the stridency of its editorial dogma-infused news coverage only increased, an ideological synchronization of its newsroom to its Editorial Board that could be easily spotted by readers in stories all over the daily broadsheet, but none more so than any story that touched on mass immigration and particularly the waves of illegal immigration that have poured relentlessly across the southern border for more than three decades.
In one of the largest sustained migratory human waves to ever cross a national frontier in recorded history, illegally or otherwise, the ‘Mexodus’ as it became known among many Californians had vast and profound implications for the millions of American citizens living in The Times Southern California core circulation area. Schools, hospitals, county clinics, local jails, state prisons, county social services, affordable housing stock and virtually every other element of life in Southern California was dramatically impacted by the endless rolling surges of economic refugees fleeing the collapsing state of Mexico, but The Times approached this fundamental and involuntary remaking of the Golden State as something to not simply be accepted—and the newspaper demanded that it must be—but also celebrated.
As The Times Editorial Board routinely heralded it: mass immigration was a human tide that would lift all boats, at least all the boats that needed lifting, whether it was immigrants reinvigorating the local economies by starting their own businesses or enriching school districts with infusions of cultural diversity or jumpstarting dormant or underperforming industries that relied on labor-intensive work that soft, lazy Americans were increasingly reluctant to perform for low wages.
This perspective, which is now effectively enshrined at the newspaper as an indisputable truism, was not just contained to proclaiming it repeatedly from The Times Op-Ed pages, though that real estate within the newspaper has long jettisoned any commitment to featuring a wide range of conflicting or adversarial viewpoints on the issue and settled into a static platform for a near-fanatical repetition of the Party Line. On immigration in particular, viewpoints that challenged the newspaper’s orthodoxy on the issue were systematically frozen out, dismissed and often virulently attacked with toxic smears meant to silence any naysayers of note.
But The Times has also infused its news reporting with inviolable strictures on the subject as well, turning Otis Chandler’s commitment to developing a reputation for fair and balanced reporting on its head—and then smashing its head into the ground.
Gone were those glorious days of reporters seeking the truth no matter where it led.
The era of news management and narrative shaping had arrived, or in the case of The Times, simply returned.
If reporters from The Times were reporting on and writing about public school districts that were imploding under the weight of exploding populations of students that couldn’t speak English, were financially impoverished and were lagging years behind their academic grade-level, the reporters could explore the symptoms of the dysfunctional chaos that was ravaging the classrooms and laying waste to the schools academic environment, but the underlying cause of mass immigration was an editorial no-go zone and reporters were expected to focus on ‘solutions’ which invariably was more funding and higher taxes.
If reporters from The Times were reporting on and writing about immigrant-related crimes, the reporters were to downplay or erase altogether any connection to the crime and an immigrant’s status as long as the immigrant was the suspect. But if the immigrant were the victim of a crime at the hands of an American citizen—and most especially of the Anglo variety—then the immigrant’s status was to be made central to the story and an immediate, clear and compelling correlation to the suspect’s race and national identity was to be highlighted and then underlined as a potential anti-immigrant hate crime.
If reporters from The Times were reporting on and writing about any effort to enforce America’s immigration laws, whether along the border or at workplaces or in jails across the Southland, they were to gin up the “immigrants living in fear” angle, sensationalizing the prospect that federal immigration efforts were leaving entire communities huddled in the shadows too terrified to carry on with daily life. Immigration detentions and deportations were to be portrayed at its most benign as something that ‘tore families apart’ and more malevolently as something that carried the sinister whiff of Nazi Germany.
If reporters from The Times were reporting on and writing about the environmental degradation of ecologically sensitive areas or once scenic wildlife areas around the state, but particularly in the foothills cresting across the base of the San Gabriel Mountains in the Angeles National Forest, it was expected they would steer clear from connecting the dots between human pressure on the shrinking wild land, the expanding human footprint into the urban-wilderness interface and Southern California’s population growth because population growth in the state has been driven almost exclusively by immigration and births to immigrants for decades now. So reporters at The Times could chronicle the grotesque degradation of Azusa Canyon, as long as they did not get into the weeds of what destroyed it. A once pristine wild area where anglers could hike deep into its hillsides, past its legendary ‘bridge to nowhere’ and fish undisturbed its river and occasionally even spy a big horn sheep high along the steep canyon walls, Azusa Canyon was overrun with people who carpeted its canyon floors with soiled diapers, smashed beer bottles and all manner of detritus, as well as painting the canyons with graffiti from the street gangs in the valley below.
And if reporters from The Times were reporting on and writing about entire industries throughout Southern California that were reconfigured with an almost exclusively immigrant labor force—from construction jobs to automotive repair shops to landscaping crews to hospitality positions—resulting in the virtual elimination of hundreds of thousands of American citizens from those payrolls, then reporters were expected to focus on the plight of the immigrants who were being exploited by the various captains of those industries, but never the fate of the American workers that were forced from their jobs. In the construction industry in particular, where once well-paid, skilled-labor positions in concrete, framing, dry walling and roofing evaporated as illegal immigrants were brought in as lower-paid replacement workers (or ‘scabs’ in the old union vernacular), The Times focused its news pages on the new illegal workers struggle for better working conditions and higher wages while remaining devoutly silent over the fates of the tens of thousands of American workers forced out of the building worksites across the region.
In actual fact, The Times never started advocating for a ‘living wage’ or reporting on the social movement in support of it in Los Angeles until the industries where living wages were being fought over were completely dominated by immigrants. When hotel maids and janitors were English-speaking, working class whites, blacks and Chicanos, well, The Times apparently figured fighting for a living wage for Americans just didn’t carry the same journalistic panache.
Readers of The Times need not be journalistic scholars to recognize the advocacy in the reportage that now dominates the newspaper, they don’t need an Enigma machine to decipher some insidious coding that is peppered around its pages. The bias is brazen. The newspaper has published entire stories on immigration-related issues that don’t feature even a single quoted or cited source in opposition to The Times position, as was the case when a veteran reporter of the metro desk wrote about the so-called ‘sanctuary movement’ that has sprung up in recent years as some churches sought to hide illegal immigrants facing deportation. While sourcing a half-dozen or more voices offering soaring quotes to defend the practice and espouse the nobility of the cause—and yes, those voices should be heard—his reporting featured not even a solitary perspective in objection despite their being no shortage of opposition to it all over the state.
Sourcing ratios and quote placements and the quotes themselves are all carefully structured in The Times news stories, appropriately weighting and framing the articles to best reflect the musings of the Editorial Board. In The Times today, news stories on immigration, the death penalty and, of course, the presidency of Donald J. Trump, are like Super Bowl halftime ads: nothing is accidental and nothing is left to chance in the messaging.
Otis Chandler once told his Washington bureau staff that he was prepared to spend as much money as it took to best the Old Gray Lady in New York, to put the hurt on that smug bitch with an LA Times headlock, but he knew that the deepest pockets in the world wouldn’t amount to much if they merely funded the type of agitprop machine that he had inherited at the dawn of Camelot in America. Chandler’s willingness to spend big and creatively to bulk up a news operation across the globe stands in stark contrast with The Times management team today, for whom “identifying new efficiencies” has become its Maoist-like chant each time the latest layoffs, cutbacks and closures are announced.
Beyond shuttered bureaus, skeletal news sections, disappearing beats and the odd tumbleweed blowing through the newsroom these days, Chandler would also likely grimace or maybe just puke at what has become of The Times news pages as well as its editorial section, where a once formidable proving ground of opposing ideas and viewpoints has vanished into a desert of philosophical sameness, a single lens view.
Among the stars in the galaxy of accomplishments that Chandler created at The Times, few shone brighter than editorial cartoonist Paul Conrad, who for three decades masterfully explored every facet of American life and human nature at its finest and at its worst. But his rapier wit and consistent powerhouse delivery—people actually bought the paper to see the latest Conrad and “Did you see Conrad this morning?” was a real question for a lot of readers for a long time—would likely be scorned at the newspaper today where predictability is the watchword. Conrad was a liberal, but he was also thought provokingly surprising and he frequently skewered, nay, impaled, the elites of the state, nation and world no matter what their political identity or affiliation.
His poignant and provocative take on abortion in 1976, featuring a crucified baby with a sign atop the cross that read ‘Abortion On Demand’ and an inscription of ‘Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do…’ would simply be unpublishable at The Times today and would likely get him warned if not fired outright. David Horsey’s editorial cartooning today is a weak shadow of Conrad’s epic work and while he does occasionally pull off a chuckle-worthy illustration, Horsey never surprises, never confounds and never brings one to pause for thought. His illustrations reflect the political will of the Editorial Board in every respect and deviate from it in none.
There is still solid reporting and great writing to be found on the pages of The Times, there is still some wonderful journalism to be savored there, but those stories are now found mostly out on the fringes and cover events, issues or conflicts in which the newspaper’s Editorial Board has not staked out a clear position. The less editorial skin the newspaper has in the game, the more well rounded and nuanced the reporting and writing becomes.
Thus, the journalists at The Times know that they must continue to use the figure of 11 million illegal immigrants when referencing that population in the United States—a figure that has remained static on the pages of the newspaper for more than a decade and is based on virtually nothing more than a figure conjured forth from a cauldron of limited census data and projections from pro-mass immigration think tanks. Far more detailed studies of the illegal immigrant population in the United States, such as Bear Stearns 2005 epic undertaking, suggests the figure could be as high as three times that figure. When asked about the newspaper’s use of the figure of 11 million, Anna Gorman, the veteran immigration reporter for The Times, admitted she had no idea whatsoever if it was accurate or not, it was just the number the newspaper used.
And they continue to use it without fail, almost stoic in their belief that no one will either notice or care.
In 1999, nearly two decades after he had left the publisher’s desk at The Times, Otis Chandler briefly came back into play around the newspaper, chastising the management team and its then publisher for compromising the newsroom’s integrity with an ill-advised advertorial for Staples Center.
“If a newspaper, even a great newspaper like the Los Angeles Times, loses credibility with its community, with its readers, with its advertisers, with its shareholders, that is probably the most serious circumstance that I can possibly envision. Respect and credibility for a newspaper is irreplaceable,” Chandler wrote to the staffers of The Times.
While Chandler’s words back then reportedly electrified a beleaguered and betrayed editorial staff, in the 18-years since the newsroom and the rest of the paper has finished surrendering its hard won credibility with the community and with its readers, carelessly tossing it away in favor of a religiously zealous pursuit of the world it believes we all should want to live in rather than the world we actually do.
At the Los Angeles Times today, Donald Trump may be damned, but it is the newspaper that is now once more dishonest to its very core.