Stop Dumbing Down This City


An experimental column in which the Los Angeles Times invites outside critics to mercilessly scold a Southern California newspaper with an admitted imbalance in the ratio of male to female Op-Ed and Sunday Opinion contributors.


Why did fewer than a third of registered L.A. city voters express a preference for mayor three weeks ago? Blaming public apathy is too easy. The question is why the public is so uninvolved, so uninterested in the political life of our city. I believe the chief culprit is our dumbed-down local media.

Representative government operates best where the public is engaged and informed about the important issues of the day, about what we need to know to protect ourselves and pursue our dreams. In the past, a lively newspaper has performed this critical duty. Unfortunately, times -- and the Los Angeles Times -- have changed for the worse.


Today, one finds too little in newspapers about civic life and representative government. What one does find is typically truncated or homogenized for consumption by the lowest common public denominator. The result: At election time, our local political leaders and would-be leaders address a shrinking, ill-informed general audience, increasingly dominated by a small but potent constituency dependent on public employment. I think I know the reason for this poor performance, and Los Angeles deserves an apology from The Times -- regarded nationally as the principal voice of Los Angeles. Absentee owners, recently arrived managers and trimmed-down staff have given disproportionately less attention to the sections -- local news and the editorial, Op-Ed and Sunday Opinion pages -- most likely to be read and referenced by the opinion leaders who drive local politics and the electronic media, all of which depend on The Times for sourcing and reporting.

For example, as we approached the March election, where in the L.A. Times were the insights about the identity and interests of the all-important governing coalitions that form around candidates for office and compete fiercely to run City Hall and spend taxpayer dollars.

Where, to be specific, was the reporting on Bill Wardlaw, Mayor James Hahn’s unpaid campaign manager and the man who oversees what is arguably the principal political coalition in this city, the one responsible for the fact that Hahn sits today in the mayor’s office?

Wardlaw’s behind-the-scenes role as a political kingmaker is legendary in the city among a certain small political elite. But while The Times gave him passing mention in perhaps a dozen pieces, the newspaper never fleshed him out in a profile or substantive analysis. The omission -- just one of many -- speaks unflattering volumes about The Times’ knowledge of and reporting on Los Angeles politics and spoils system.

Things are even worse in Sunday Opinion, where cartoons about the mayor’s race consumed two full pages that could have been devoted to considered opinion in the lead-up to the primary. These amused, but where was any shade of insight about the complex political culture of this city? Where was reference to the demographic and political evolution of South Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley, two distinct areas of our city that have elected state Assembly members with the support of constituents unaligned with the old political order? Absent, probably because the cartoonist is an itinerant scribbler parachuting in periodically from the East Coast.

It also doesn’t help that The Times hired a new editorial and opinion editor without requiring that he live full time in Los Angeles. When media leaders eschew the role of local stakeholders, failing to mingle among those whose interests -- and intrigues -- determine the city’s political direction, then the newspaper sinks to the status of profit center. Subscribers are diminished from citizens to numbers used to determine advertising revenue.

The consequence is a public deprived of the reportage and opinion essays it needs to overcome a collective indifference to the responsibilities of self-governance.

A big-city newspaper achieves distinction as part of a region and a community’s life by demonstrating the relevance of the place from which it hails to the larger national or global scene. Los Angeles qualifies as a global metropolis. Its leading newspaper should urge Angelenos to debate trade-offs and consider hard choices, compelling voters through reporting and commentary that vividly illustrates the policy choices available on the ballot and at the polls, not to mention in other aspects of civic life.

Such a paper would help its readers see the public opportunities beyond their own private interests. Yet little of this does a reader get from The Times’ editorial pages. For this, we pay a communal price in low voter turnout and rampant civic apathy.

The Times seems teetering at the brink of using this apathy as an excuse to earn profits by entertaining -- rather than informing -- Los Angeles.