THE Public Broadcasting Service’s long-running documentary series “Frontline” currently is airing a multi-part exploration of the financial, technological and conceptual turmoil through which the American news media is passing.
It’s called “News War,” and a substantial part of this week’s installment was devoted to the situation here at the Los Angeles Times. As anybody who cares to know already knows, this newspaper has been gripped by uncertainty and unrest for much of the time since its purchase by the Chicago-based Tribune Co. The paper’s editorial and business staffs have been substantially reduced, as has the amount of space allocated to journalism. Two publishers (John Puerner and Jeffrey M. Johnson) and two editors (John Carroll and Dean Baquet) have come and gone over the last five years because they felt the demands for cuts had gone too far. Johnson and Baquet, in fact, lost their jobs after going public with their objections.
Johnson, Carroll and Baquet were all prominent voices in the “Frontline” piece, sympathetically interviewed by veteran investigative journalist Lowell Bergman. All three men came across on camera pretty much as those of us who worked with them believe they are: accomplished, highly intelligent, thoughtful professional journalists, passionately committed to the principle that newspapers have an irreducible obligation to serve the public interest.
The documentary also introduced its viewers to a guy who pretty much personifies the forces that are undermining American newspapers owned by publicly traded corporations. In this case, the voice belonged to Charles K. Bobrinskoy, vice chairman and director of research for Ariel Capital Management, a Chicago-based money management firm whose 6% stake in Tribune makes it the company’s fourth-largest stockholder.
According to the transcript of Bobrinskoy’s interview, which is posted on “Frontline’s” website, he believes the “problem” with the Los Angeles Times is that its editors and writers only care about being read by their “peers across the country, by politicians in New York and Washington, by people who give away Pulitzer Prizes.” The Times’ editors, he told Bergman, have “decided that they have to be a national newspaper with international coverage. They’ve got over 20 foreign bureaus, including bureaus in Istanbul and Cairo. Nobody is reading the L.A. Times wanting to find out what’s happening in Istanbul....
“The demand is for a very strong, high-quality, local newspaper, focused on the things that people in L.A. care about: style, Hollywood entertainment, local government, local sports, local issues like immigration.... All of the Mexican American immigration issues should be front and center in the L.A. Times.”
Worst of all, according to Bobrinskoy, the Los Angeles Times has been wasting its time trying to explain to you “why Bush went to war in Iraq,” when all you wanted to know was what to wear to the next premiere and how many points Kobe scored last night. That’s because at Ariel Capital, “we’re saying that’s a role for probably three national newspapers: the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and USA Today. Each has its own niche. All three are national newspapers. We don’t think there’s any demand for a fourth.”
Those of you who were hoping to find out about the world and the rest of the United States by reading the Los Angeles Times will be just as happy when you realize that what you really want is to be well dressed.
For the sake of his clients, one can only hope Bobrinskoy knows more about picking stocks than he does about L.A. and Southern California.
As Times Editor James O’Shea told the paper’s staff in an e-mail following the show, “Mr. Bobrinskoy knows as much about newspapers and the needs and news appetites of the readers of the Los Angeles Times as I know about astrophysics. Everyone should keep in mind that ‘analysts’ of the stock market are the same ones who advised people to buy stocks such as Enron. I could fill the Grand Canyon with the misinformation that people such as Bobrinskoy have spread.”
What’s even more interesting about O’Shea’s views is that they were utterly absent from the PBS documentary, despite the fact that he was interviewed extensively and a transcript of his comments was posted on the network’s website. During their on-camera interviews, two former Times editors, Carroll and Baquet, made shrewd and convincing points about the risks that excessive cost-cutting pose for The Times and other newspapers. Viewers never got the chance to hear O’Shea make this point about where the paper’s current editor thinks its journalism ought to go: “I don’t think the Los Angeles Times can be successful by relying on someone else to cover the world for it.... People here want more than that from the Los Angeles Times.... Being the Los Angeles Times is being a major newspaper in America, covering not only the city but also the nation and the world.”
The Times’ current publisher, David D. Hiller, was interviewed on camera, but somehow these comments of his never made it out of the editing room: “I continue to believe [in] doing great foreign and international reporting, particularly in a market where so many of our communities -- our ethnic communities -- [are] first-, second-generation immigrants.... To some extent, the whole distinction between foreign and local, world and local, breaks down in a community as diverse and cosmopolitan as Los Angeles....
“This is the entertainment capital of the world, so we need to own entertainment, and we’ll do entertainment better than anybody. We do it now, and we’ll continue to. We’re going to continue to have major foreign reporting coverage. We’re one of the best at it currently. But one of the things we may emphasize, for example, is the unique role that Los Angeles has as the gateway to the Pacific Rim. That’s a part of the story that’s different here for the West Coast and for Los Angeles than, say, it might be for an East Coast paper.... My plan and expectation is that being a world-class provider of foreign and national news is going to continue to be one of the hallmarks of the L.A. Times.”
It’s mysterious and troubling that those sentiments weren’t given equal weight with a stock-picker on PBS this week. Had they been, viewers would have been able to consider a more complex reality: While this newspaper’s corporate owners may continue to disagree with the journalists on the ground here about how best to serve the public’s interest, they do not diverge -- as Hiller’s and O’Shea’s comments show -- on what that interest is. Viewers also might have been given the opportunity to conclude that views of professional investors like Bobrinskoy about the future of American newspapering make perfect sense until you know something about the facts on the ground, and then they’re clear for what they are: perfect nonsense.