David Shaw, 62; Prize-Winning Times Writer Forged New Standards for Media Criticism
David Shaw, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Los Angeles Times writer who set new standards for media criticism with his hard-hitting examinations of the American press -- including his own newspaper -- died Monday evening. He was 62.
Shaw died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles of complications from a brain tumor that was discovered in late May, said his wife, Lucy.
“David believed in journalistic independence, and he definitely practiced it,” said John S. Carroll, editor of The Times. “As a critic, he was fearless in exposing the shortcomings of his own newspaper, his colleagues and his profession. His findings weren’t always popular, but they earned him a national reputation for insight and integrity.”
Since 2002, Shaw had been writing about two of his passions, food and wine, for the paper’s weekly Food section. He also continued to reflect on the media in a column that appeared in Sunday Calendar.
But for most of his 37 years at The Times, Shaw used his energies to dissect trends and issues in the print and electronic media.
“He became a kind of educator for the general public who could come away from his many articles with a greater understanding of the news,” said Ben Bagdikian, a media critic himself and former dean of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. “His detail and clarity of writing was an enormous contribution to journalism.”
Among Shaw’s targets were movie criticism, best-seller lists, editorial cartooning, the use and abuse of political polls, the perceived influence of editorial endorsements in politics, coverage of the abortion issue, restaurant criticism, the Pulitzer Prize selection process, coverage of the pope and obituary writing.
“He had real clout in the craft,” said Jim Naughton, former president of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies and former executive editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. “If the White House criticized your work, you looked for the political motive. If David Shaw criticized your work, you looked for ways to improve your work.”
“We are in the age of transparency in journalism,” said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism and a former colleague of Shaw’s at The Times. “David was the first guy outside washing the windows.”
Shaw was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1991 for his four-part series examining coverage of the McMartin molestation case. The case, which gained national attention, involved allegations that more than 60 children had been subject to sexual abuse and satanic rites while in the care of the McMartin Pre-School in Manhattan Beach. The legal proceedings dragged on for seven years, and ultimately no one was convicted of a crime.
Shaw’s series began a day after the not-guilty verdicts were announced in January 1990. Among other conclusions, he found that most of the reporting was reactive rather than investigative. He also discerned a failure to carefully examine how the prosecution’s case was developed and filed.
“Such reporting,” Shaw said, “might have raised questions about what [then]-Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner later conceded was ‘incredibly weak’ evidence in the case.”
The Times’ coverage was included in Shaw’s criticism.
Although his beat was not unique in American journalism, his work was. An exhaustive and tenacious reporter, he would take months to investigate a story, talking to hundreds of sources, some of them several times. His pieces usually consumed at least two full inside pages after beginning on Page 1.
Shaw’s beat was created in 1974 by William F. Thomas, then editor of The Times. In Thomas’ view, the subject that the news media -- including The Times -- covered most abysmally was itself. Thomas, Shaw later wrote, thought that the inability of the press to explain how it worked and quickly admit its errors was a key reason for declining circulation and a loss in credibility.
Thomas “wanted me to write about the press as I had written about other subjects -- to provide long, thoughtful overviews on broad issues confronting the press today, to analyze, criticize and make value judgments, to treat my own newspaper as I would any other, to write as if my stories were to appear in some other publication (say Harper’s or the New Yorker),” Shaw wrote in New York magazine some years ago. The article ran under the headline “Newspapers Can Dish It Out but Can They Take It?”
In 1999 Shaw most notably fulfilled the mission conceived by Thomas, when he filed a tough-minded, 37,000-word analysis of the factors that led to what became known as the Staples Center scandal.
The newspaper and the sports and entertainment center had agreed that year to split profits on the sale of ads in a special issue of the Los Angeles Times Magazine devoted entirely to the new arena. The agreement was signed during the tenure of Publisher Mark Willes and carried out by his successor, Kathryn Downing, both novices in the newspaper business.
The deal violated a primary tenet of journalism: that papers should not enter into business deals with those they cover.
Times staffers were kept in the dark on the profit-sharing agreement.
When the arrangement was reported in a local alternative newspaper and then the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, it created a firestorm of protest within the Times newsroom.
Shaw lobbied -- and the staff pressured -- then-Editor Michael Parks to allow him to write an authoritative account explaining the causes and conditions that led to the business deal.
To maintain Shaw’s editorial independence, he and Parks agreed that the report would not be seen before publication by Parks, Downing or Willes, who still held the posts of chief executive and chairman of Times Mirror Co. Times Mirror owned the Times until Tribune Co. purchased the company in 2000.
The report was edited by George Cotliar, a retired managing editor of the paper widely admired for his integrity.
After a six-week investigation, Shaw found that the breakdown of the traditional wall between the editorial and business sides of the newspaper -- a change championed by Willes -- had desensitized some top editors and managers to ethical problems.
Shaw was also highly critical of Downing and Parks for their handling of the situation.
His report was published in a special section Dec. 20, 1999. It covered 14 pages and included two accompanying articles, one a basic explanation of why journalism is different from other businesses.
“David had complete control of what he wrote,” Cotliar recalled recently. “Working with him day to day, I was terribly impressed. He was the consummate reporter and extremely careful.”
Shaw’s opus was generally credited with helping to quiet the storm of criticism from journalists within the paper and throughout the industry. It also helped subscribers regain their faith in The Times.
“That piece of work helped save the L.A. Times,” Rosenstiel said, “because it demonstrated to people in Los Angeles that this paper would investigate itself.”
The son of a photoengraver, Shaw was born Jan. 4, 1943, in Dayton, Ohio. His family moved to Southern California when he was 3 and settled in Compton.
Shaw began writing for the Compton High School newspaper. After graduating, he enrolled at Pepperdine University but transferred after two years to UCLA, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in English in 1965.
While at UCLA, he began working as a reporter for the Huntington Park Signal. Three years later he moved on to the Long Beach Independent. At the Independent, he won notice for a five-part series he wrote in 1968 about Max Rafferty, a Republican who was running for the U.S. Senate against Democrat Alan Cranston.
During the campaign, Rafferty was critical of the country’s youth, denouncing what he saw as a decline in patriotism as opposition to the Vietnam War was steadily increasing.
Shaw pointed out that Rafferty himself had been less than eager to serve his country during World War II after being classified 1A: fit for military service. Rafferty, Shaw reported, twice appealed the classification and was reclassified 4F -- physically, mentally or morally unfit for service -- because of what Rafferty said was a case of “flat feet.”
“The standing joke in the town,” Shaw wrote referring to the Mojave Desert community of Trona where Rafferty spent much of the war years as a teacher, “is still ‘Max Rafferty celebrated V-J Day by throwing his cane away.’ ”
Shaw’s series was credited with striking a sharp blow to the Rafferty campaign. Cranston went on to win the election and serve 24 years in the Senate.
Shaw joined The Times not long after the Rafferty series ran. For his first six years at the paper, he offered in-depth pieces on an array of subjects, including gambling, teenage drug use, black militancy, court reform, crime and football.
That changed when Thomas called him into his office in 1974 and said he wanted Shaw to take on a new assignment: covering the media, including The Times.
To maintain the appropriate level of independence to do the job, the two agreed that Thomas would edit Shaw’s pieces himself and that the two of them would agree on the subject matter. Shaw’s work would be kept secret, with only a designated copy editor, supervising copy editor, layout editor and Thomas seeing the pieces before publication.
After they reached the agreement, Thomas added another thought:
“Going in, I told him that he would lose every friend he had on the staff.”
Armed with what Shaw himself once described as his “abrasive self-confidence,” as well as the editor’s blessing and an almost unlimited amount of time and resources, he fulfilled his new role with zeal.
Thomas said that after six to eight months, “it became clear that the reading public” loved his stories.
“They thought it was gutsy stuff” to talk about the news-gathering business in this manner, he said.
But as Thomas predicted, the stories were often greeted with dismay by the staff. That was especially true when Shaw scrutinized the work of his own colleagues, who had “always felt immune from criticism,” said Bill Boyarsky, a retired city editor, columnist and political reporter for The Times.
In looking at various parts of the paper, Shaw stressed accountability. Initially, this was somewhat startling to those who wrote for feature sections.
In his series on movie reviewing, published in the 1970s, he quoted one source as saying that The Times’ primary critic -- now retired -- had a reputation as “the Will Rogers of film criticism; he never met a film he didn’t like.”
In his series on restaurant criticism, Shaw said The Times’ critic -- now also long retired -- “praises virtually every restaurant she writes about.”
Shaw wrote, “On those rare occasions when even she cannot, in good conscience, praise the food, she praises the decor or the service or the prices or the silverware.”
Only once did he say his paper had the best coverage on a topic. That was in 1975, when after weeks of reading the sports sections in 30 leading newspapers, he came to the conclusion that the sports coverage in The Times was tops in the nation.
He would later write that he regretted that estimation, noting that it was seen as self-serving.
“Never mind that I had deliberately included in the story twice as much criticism as praise of the Times sport section,” Shaw said in the New York magazine piece. “I had committed the unpardonable sin: I had praised my own paper in my own paper. It is not a mistake I have made again.”
Admirers of his work cite one series in particular that showed Shaw’s eagerness to blaze new ground on a topic. That was the four-part report, published in 1990, on coverage of the abortion issue, which scrutinized journalists’ cherished self-image of impartiality.
For the series, he reviewed print and television coverage of the issue over an 18-month period and interviewed more than 100 journalists, as well as activists on every side of the abortion debate.
He found “scores of examples, large and small, that can only be characterized as unfair to the opponents of abortion, either in content, tone, choice of language or prominence of play.”
Writing in the National Journal last week , William Powers noted that the series “dramatically shifted the paradigm of abortion coverage, overnight.”
Among Times staffers there seemed to be no middle ground on Shaw and his media examinations. His colleagues either liked it and him or they didn’t.
“He wasn’t bothered by staffers who came up to him to criticize his work,” Boyarsky said. “He would discuss it in a civilized manner.”
Some rank-and-file journalists grumbled that his focus was generally on reportorial failures and that he was far less pointed in criticizing failures by editors.
Boyarsky said that criticism was generally off the mark.
“The reporter is the key person in the [news-gathering] process,” he said. “You can be a skeptical editor, but as an editor you have to go on what your reporter ultimately tells you. Shaw put the responsibility on the reporter. He thought they should be held accountable.”
On April 9, 1991, the day Shaw won the Pulitzer Prize, colleagues gathered around his desk, but it was not the large crowd that usually materialized on such an occasion. Champagne was poured, but many of the bottles were returned to the kitchen unopened.
Shaw said he was “thrilled, delighted and proud” to accept the award and seemed to take in stride the fact that his efforts put him at odds with many of his co-workers, some of whom had simply quit speaking to him.
Shaw wrote five books over the years. In the 1970s, he worked with Wilt Chamberlain on an autobiography of the basketball center’s life, titled, “Wilt ... Just Like Any Other 7-Foot Black Millionaire Who Lives Next Door.”
More recently, he took on political correctness in “The Pleasure Police: How Bluenose Busybodies and Lily-Livered Alarmists Are Taking All the Fun Out of Life.”
Shaw was not a flashy dresser and drove the same Nissan for years. He did go to extraordinary lengths, however, to eat well and enjoy good wine.
“Fine dining -- the entire food and wine experience, in any cuisine -- is my only extravagance,” he once wrote.
Shaw, who developed his passion for food and wine in his mid-30s, would plan his travel not around his hotel or plane reservations but according to what bookings he could make in some of the better restaurants in the world.
In one oft-told story, he flew into Switzerland for dinner at his favorite restaurant, Fredy Girardet, after the owner and chef of the eponymous restaurant announced that he was retiring. Shaw ate dinner and flew back to California the next day after spending all of 19 hours in Europe.
But as much as he savored food and wine, he also loved the interesting people and stimulating conversation that went with the dining experience.
In 2002, he began writing the Matters of Taste column for the Times Food section, and he quickly became a major part of the section’s personality.
Colleagues recalled him as extremely helpful in sharing his vast knowledge of food, wine and dining. He was generous toward readers with his time as well, occasionally going so far as to help them plan a vacation’s worth of meals abroad when they asked for his suggestions.
His column approached the world of food and wine from a deeply personal perspective, whether it was describing dinners at home with his family or at some of the grandest restaurants in the world. He also continued to offer sharp critiques on everything from Dodger Stadium hot dogs to the high markups on wine in restaurants.
Piero Selvaggio, a friend of Shaw’s and the owner of Valentino, a leading restaurant in Santa Monica, said that “dining is a form of art that isn’t taken as seriously as it used to be, but David was one of the last who enjoyed this pleasure.”
“He loved great food,” Selvaggio said. “He covered everything with a passion. The food world will miss him enormously.”
Shaw was married three times. His first marriage, to Alice Eck, ended in divorce. His second, to Ellen Torgerson, ended with her death from cancer in 1983 -- a subject he wrote about emotionally and eloquently in The Times.
In addition to his wife, Lucy Stille, whom he married in 1988, and their son, Lucas, Shaw is survived by his stepchildren, Jordan and Chris Torgerson; three step-grandchildren; and a sister, Barbara Holme of Denver.
A memorial service is pending.
Times staff writer Lianne Hart contributed to this report.
Read a selection of David Shaw’s criticism at latimes.com/shaw