L.A. TIMES LOSES ITS LIBERAL VOICE, ROBERT SCHEER
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
LOS ANGELES, November 14, 2005 -- It wasn't the greatest week for journalism here in the Golden State. The Los Angeles Times decided - without explanation - to ditch its one authentically-homegrown liberal voice, Robert Scheer.
Now, I fear, even as its news pages grow more interesting its editorial page will be the journalistic equivalent of the globalized economy. The purging of Scheer from the editorial pages of the Times looks like a victory for the right wing. From the political standpoint, there's a bit of hypocrisy involved, as the Tribune Company seems to be saying, "Do as we say, not as we do."
Times columnist Robert Scheer made a name for himself in the mid-1960s by opposing America's misguied adventure in Viet Nam. He served as writer and editor of Ramparts magazine, the leading New Left journal of its time, under editor Warren Hinckle from 1964 to 1969. He is particularly well educated, having done both undergraduate and graduate work in economics, and did further study on arms control policy.
His biographical data in the online Wikipedia (see Wikipedia.org) suggests someone who at least dabbled in the fashionably-left thought of the 1960s period: According to Wikipedia, he had connections (perhaps only as a journalistic interest - the text is not clear) to the Black Panther Party, traveled to North Korea, and wrote on subjects that would have interested the Left at that time. Neo-conservative author David Horowitz (see frontpagemag.com) considers him to be a member of the far Left even today. (Horowitz was originally hard Left and, ironically enough, also a one-time editor of Ramparts - but he adopted the neo-conservative philosophy a few years later and has made a name for himself on the right.)
Scheer's bio at huffingtonpost.com includes much of the same material in the Wikipedia, but omits mention of his east Asian travels or of any research or reporting he did about the Panthers.
Scheer moved to the mainstream, doing magazine work (including the famous Jimmy Carter interview for Playboy) and joining the Los Angeles Times in 1976 as a reporter and eventually as a columnist. As a Timescolumnist, he has been the newspaper's recognizably liberal voice.
He also is a capable reporter.
Here is one example of Scheer's talent for taking a contrarian position and later being vindicated: Scheer had been almost alone in protesting the federal government's prosecution of Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee. Scheer (in remarks that now read as eerily prescient) was highly critical of the New York Times' treatment of the Lee case, pointedly mentioning its uncritical reliance on "government leaks and sources." Scheer managed to find the uncomfortable needle of truth under haystacks of government propaganda.
More recently, he has been a reliable - you might say almost predictable - voice in opposition to President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and the policies they have promoted. Scheer has opposed the Iraq war publicly since before it began.
He was one of the featured debaters at a forum on that subject sponsored by (among others) the Los Angeles Times on March 15, 2003, shortly before the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It is the one time I have seen Scheer in person and although Christopher Hitchens and Michael Ignatieff were marginally more convincing on the need to save the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein's tyranny, Scheer spoke calmly and reasonably convincingly on the other side. What has become more and more clear since then is that Scheer's concerns have been vindicated, whereas Hitchens' optimism (basically mirroring the Bush administration's) has not.
Over the past two years, Scheer has carefully reported the defects in the Bush administration's thinking, planning and execution of the war he has always opposed.
Rumors of Scheer's banishment from the Times editorial pages surfaced a little over a week ago and were confirmed by the columnist himself last Monday. LAobserved.com gives the chronology and provides links to numerous protest pieces. Huffingonpost.com, which will run Scheer's columns in the future, provides the biographical data referred to above.
Scheer attributes his banishment to the antipathy of the Times' current publisher: "The publisher, Jeff Johnson, who has offered not a word of explanation to me, has privately told people that he hated every word that I wrote." This remark has been circulated widely, including web sites referred to above.
Whatever the reason, the removal of the Scheer slot in the editorial pages represents the loss of a liberal voice from the local paper and, more strikingly, capitulation to the right wing, which has opposed his views and wants to see him silenced. Whatever the Times ownership actually intended, their action will be seen as surrender to the right. The announced inclusion on the editorial pages of the monotonously conservative Jonah Goldberg (editor of National Review OnLine) and Max Boot make this crystal clear.
The decision to deep-six Scheer also represents the continuation of a problem at the Times that has been expressed repeatedly by my friend Brady Westwater at LaCowboy.com. Brady's argument is that the Times has been run by people who don't know or appreciate Los Angeles. It was, of course, no secret that former editorial page editor Michael Kinsley didn't even live in California, choosing instead to visit from his Seattle home every now and then. Brady's view is that the Tribune Company ownership not only doesn't know our city, it doesn't even seem to care that it doesn't know. The Times is treated as just one more corporate property by its absentee owners.
The Times' new lineup of op ed columnists has been announced, and it fits Brady's theory pretty well. Along with the right wingers, there are some interesting east-coast academics including Niall Ferguson and Rosa Brooks, New Republic neo-liberal editor Jonathan Chait, the loveable Patt Morrison, and a few others more or less unknown to me. But to quote Brady Westwater's evaluation: "OK - out of the ten, how many of them are new, wonderful uniquely LA voices who will tell us all about the great city we live in? None, of course."
The one geographical exception may be Patt Morrison, who is a longtime Angeleno, gifted writer and all-around wit. But she is not a Mike Royko or Studs Terkel, the sort of ink-stained, cigar chewing tough guy with the ability to turn over rocks and reveal the dark underside of the city on a daily basis.
The Los Angeles Times has been drifting farther and farther from being what it once was, a hometown newspaper. If you compare it with the owners' flagship paper, the Chicago Tribune, the difference is clear. The Trib has managed to hold onto columnists over long and often distinguished careers. Mike Royko, the acknowledged (if unofficial) voice of Chicago moved over from the Sun Times and remained until his death. Bob Greene developed as a Trib writer and flourished for quite a long time (until a sex scandal, not a lack of ability, forced him out). Clarence Page, although now situated in Washington, D.C., developed his skills as a Tribune reporter. He has been featured for many years.
Pick up the Trib and you will read about the city in its news stories and in its columns. The idea of a Trib reporter being ignorant about Halstead Street (I'm feeling hungry just typing this) or the history of Billy Goat's curse on the Cubs would be preposterous. In Los Angeles, we had an editorial page editor who lived closer to the Pike Place Market (it's in Seattle) than to Philippe's (not far from the Times' offices).
The Trib is still an honest-to-goodness hometown paper. However, the Tribune Company is remaking the Times into the journalistic version of the globalized economy. it's like importing a transmission from Taiwan and pistons from China. The Times imports columns by a right wing curmudgeon from the northeast and a college professor from Pennsylvania, and from people who are already widely circulated on the internet from their comfortable east coast sinecures. Robert Scheer, the man who had long since earned his standing as an Angeleno, is no longer wanted.
One curious thing about the Times: Editor Dean Baquet runs the news side of the paper and has nothing to do with the editorial side. The publisher and the editorial page editor (Andres Martinez) decide on who gets to publish op eds, how much space will be devoted to letters, and what the editorial positions taken by the paper will be. So explained Baquet in a public forum not long ago. As the editorial page becomes more and more corporate-dull, the news sections controlled by Baquet are slowly developing a little bit of life.
Steve Lopez joined the Times in 2001 and is the closest thing to a Mike Royko that exists. Recently, Baquet had Lopez do consecutive daily stories on L.A.'s skid row, and ran them on the front page. A recent feature about the way elderly people are being taken advantage of by the legal system was put on the front page, above the fold, and is making waves even as this is being written.
This suggests that the news side of the Times is beginning to question the old, conventional wisdom, and out of that process, a livelier product is developing. This contrasts sharply with the deadening, corporatized approach by the editorial side.
Depending on how long and how far it goes, this disparity between the editorial side and the news side may represent nothing much, or it may represent tension among corporate culture, the old journalism, and the perceived need by Baquet's generation to reform and redesign the very concept of the newspaper.