An experimental column in which the Los Angeles Times invites outside critics to take their best shot at Southern California’s heaviest newspaper.
Did you know that Mayor James Hahn’s marriage had collapsed? And the kids are living with him, not his wife? I didn’t know that. When I tell people I run into, they’re surprised too -- surprised they didn’t know. Why don’t they know? Because these people read the Los Angeles Times! And The Times, in the year and a half since the mayor announced his separation, has mentioned Hahn’s marital situation exactly three times, by my count. Only once -- a piece in the Calendar section six months ago -- was it discussed for more than four sentences.
Now imagine what would happen if a mayor of New York announced that he was separating from his wife. It wouldn’t be such big news -- but that’s because the gossip columns would have been hinting about it for weeks. After the official press release, the story would get tossed around in the tabloids (the New York Post and Daily News). Why did the breakup happen? How will it affect his political future? Was the mayor in the wrong? Is one of the parties angry? Is there another woman?
The Post would play some of this on the front page. Frank Rich would write a New York Times column connecting the event to Jerry Falwell and gay unions. Maureen Dowd would weigh in. Every time the newly single mayor ate dinner at a restaurant with a member of the opposite sex, it would be on the Post’s Page 6. New York would be, at least briefly, buzzing -- thanks, in part, to extensive coverage by a competitive, gossipy press. That’s certainly what happened when Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s marriage to Donna Hanover disintegrated and he started dating a new woman -- now his new wife -- Judi Nathan.
The L.A. Times is too virtuous to have a gossip column -- or even a slew of gabby individual columnists (e.g., Steve Lopez x 5) who can come up with new angles to keep a story like Hahn’s separation alive. This has cost the city greatly. It’s not just that there are any number of reasons why the ostensibly “private” life of the mayor is very relevant to his public performance, though there are. (Here’s one: Our single-dad mayor has no nanny. Does rushing home to try to take care of his children rob from the energy and time he can give to his duties? Two short paragraphs buried deep within a November 2003 piece on the mayor’s “slowed” momentum -- paragraphs 57 and 58, to be specific -- suggested this was exactly what happened. That was the first that Times readers had heard about it in the more than four months since it had started happening.)
Gossip about the mayor’s marriage would serve the larger salutary purpose of reminding us that our leaders are human beings like the rest of us. But the main reason to print gossip is that it’s fun. People want to hear about sex, about crime, about bad behavior and turmoil in high places, about private lives. That’s why high-circulation tabloids in every city on the planet focus on sex, crime, bad behavior and turmoil in high places and private lives. But The Times doesn’t have a tabloid gene in its body.
Sheriffs raid Michael Jackson’s ranch and swab his mouth for a saliva sample, and the sensational news runs on the fourth page of the B section!
A weirdo allegedly beheads a semi-famous blacklisted screenwriter in Hollywood, then carries the head to a neighbor’s house, where he stabs to death a doctor who had been a Fairfax High football captain. It doesn’t make Page A1. Hello?
Crime in general gets such muted coverage you would think Angelenos didn’t routinely kill and rob each other. Times editors no doubt feel crime is too commonplace -- they could fill up the paper every day with stories of scary, violent crimes. But that would be an improvement. I want to know about the attempted rape down my block! The paper’s attitude seems to be, “We’ll teach you what you should be reading about.” Wouldn’t want to play up a beheading, or the dating habits of a bachelor mayor (or, in the future, heaven forbid, a married mayor). Too interesting! Riles the animal spirits.
There’s a larger point here too: A common, and accurate, complaint about Southern California is that the citizens just don’t care about politics the way people care about politics in other big cities. A shocking number of Angelenos wouldn’t recognize a picture of Mayor Hahn, let alone a picture of the president of the L.A. teachers union.
One result of this uninterest is that voters don’t pay enough attention to serious political news, so they’re easily bamboozled in the two or three weeks before election day. Another undesirable civic consequence is that, with the majority too apathetic to exercise its will, intensely involved special interests (developers, unions, litigious “advocates”) and civil service bureaucrats have a clear playing field.
Some blame the sunny climate for our apathetic political culture. Some blame the distraction of the colorful entertainment industry. I blame the stuffy aversion to gossip of the region’s dominant newspaper.
Gossip is not only a promising cure for voter apathy, it’s an inevitable consequence of non-apathy. People will care about politicians they know something juicy about, and they will want to know something juicy about politicians they care about. A virtuous circle! That’s the political culture New York City has. That’s the political culture Southern California needs. But the high-minded Times suffocates it in the crib.
Pulitzer Prizes aren’t going to transform L.A.'s political culture. Gossip might.