Drama (and democracy) at the L.A. Times


(Is Dean Baquet on his way back to New York?)

On Friday, via The New York Times business section, here, we learned that:

The editor of The Los Angeles Times appears to be in a showdown with the paper's owner, the Tribune Company, over job cuts in the newsroom.

In a highly unusual move, Dean P. Baquet, who was named editor last year, was quoted yesterday in his own newspaper as saying he was defying the paper's corporate parent in Chicago and would not make the cuts it requested.


"I am not averse to making cuts," Mr. Baquet told the paper. "But you can go too far, and I don't plan to do that."

The paper reported that Scott C. Smith, president of the Tribune Publishing division, had asked the paper's executives to come up with a plan for trimming their budgets, but when Mr. Smith visited Los Angeles late last month, they had produced no such plan.

Mr. Baquet "made his opposition to further cuts clear and said there was no need for further discussion," the paper reported.

In today's WSJ (here, $), meanwhile, the story is continued. "According to people familiar with the matter, Mr. Smith recently broached the idea of job cuts on top of roughly 300 made last year, but that "Los Angeles Times Editor Dean Baquet and Publisher Jeffrey Johnson have been balking at a recent request for job and cost cuts made by Mr. Smith."

The public declaration of war by the paper's editor and publisher have understandably buoyed the staff. Today, in the LAT, here, Tim Rutten writes:

ANYONE who cares about newspapers and who believes they have a constructive role to play in the lives of their communities and in the service of our American democracy cannot help but be struck by the contrasting events that unfolded 3,000 miles apart late this week.

In Manhattan, the chairman and vice chairman of the New York Times Co. told the Securities and Exchange Commission that they plan to cut their own pay over the next two years and will use the savings to "reward exceptional performance" by employees not usually eligible for bonuses. New York Times Publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. and International Herald Tribune Publisher Michael Golden -- both members of the family that controls the company -- said they will forgo a combined $4 million of their own money over the next 24 months to create the incentive pool.

But in the Chicago Tribune, here, Phil Rosenthal writes, "Johnson and Baquet may have raised morale in their newsroom on Spring Street, but they risked raising hackles at the Tower on Michigan Avenue," and asks:

Then why are Johnson and Baquet making their case so public?

Even with the backing of 20 Los Angeles civic leaders who sent a letter to the Tribune board last week urging it "to resist economic pressures to make additional cuts" at the Times, Johnson and Baquet may make Smith and Tribune Chairman and Chief Executive Dennis FitzSimons less amenable to compromise, not more so.

On the other hand, if Johnson and Baquet dig in their heels, do Smith and FitzSimons really want to bring the Times a third publisher and third editor in the last 18 months?

The Journal plays up the local leaders, mostly rich liberals like billionaires David Geffen and Ron Burkle who want to buy the Times and save it from the penny-pinching cost-crunchers in Chicago. It's a pretty good idea from a personal standpoint for these guys because while Wall Street does not like newspaper stocks, they remain pretty damn profitable. Deep down in both stories, we learn that the paper reported that its operating profit margin was 20 percent, higher than that of the average Fortune 500 company.

What none of these stories mentions, however, is what popped into my head when I first saw last Friday's Times story. Before I read the story I held the opinion that editors who face down their corporate owners exist largely in the movies. And while the L.A. Times covers Hollywood, it does not live there. So these guys must know something. What can it be? Can it be that Chicago will back down? Perhaps, but how can they know that, and if they did, why would it be happening publicly? Do they know that one of their white knights will buy and save the paper from the Windy City meanies? Again, I don't see how. The LAT is a cash cow for Tribune, and what's more, it provides content for all of its publications and so its cost can be amortized across the entire operation.

Then I remembered this story in New York magazine, in which we learn that relations between New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger and executive editor Bill Keller remain "scarred by Sulzberger's initial rejection of Keller and that their interactions still tend to be awkward. ... Keller depends on Sulzberger to protect the paper from Wall Street -- but no one can protect Keller from Sulzberger. Keller meets with him three times a week to discuss business at the paper, a part of the job he loathes." The story also contained this amazing quote from Keller's wife, Emma Gilbey:

As [Times reporter Judith] Miller's controversial role in the [Valerie Plame] case leaked out in the press, Keller took off on a preplanned twelve-day trip to the paper's Asia bureaus. He was under intense pressure, and it was viewed by some as a convenient escape from the turmoil at home. "It was absolutely fucking awful," recalls Gilbey, who was traveling with him. "If he had come back because of Judy -- what message are you sending to the foreign desk as opposed to the Washington desk? If it had been, 'I've got this one lunatic at home and I'm not coming ...' The Times has, like, a million children -- well, actually only 1,200 fucking children -- and they got left behind at home."

Add those two quotes together -- the one where he's supposed to hate meeting with his boss and the one where his wife calls Times reporters "1,200 fucking children" -- and throw in most of the rest of the story, including particularly his handling of the domestic spying story, and the current executive editor does not appear to be long for his current job. Remember, Sulzberger had no choice but to pick Keller when Howell Raines spontaneously combusted, but to do so, he had to pass over the opportunity to pick Dean Baquet, who was not only liked and admired at the Times as a great newsman, but is black, and so would have made history.

So here's my prediction: The Tribune Company will not cave because large corporations do not cave into public threats from their employees. But neither will Baquet, who had to know that too. Given what's going on in Times Square, therefore, I'm guessing that within six months, Baquet will be back in New York, running The New York Times, with Keller on the op-page, if that's what he wants. Meanwhile, unfortunately, the L.A. Times will lose its position as one of the premier papers in the country and recede into the kind of position occupied by the Chicago Tribune. It will remain profitable, but not nearly as important. And of course, newspaper journalism will be the poorer for it.

The one part of my scenario that doesn't fit is what happens to this heroic publisher, Jeffrey H. Johnson. "Johnson comes out from Chicago and goes native," Steve Lopez, a columnist for the paper, told The New York Times. "He's had a stiff drink of the Dean Baquet Kool-Aid and he's on the team." (Johnson said he agreed with Mr. Baquet that "newspapers can't cut their way into the future. We have to carefully balance economic realities with serving our readers.")

As I said, I don't entirely get it, but bully for him. Whatever the personalities involved, Lord knows, I have my problems with these institutions, but we have a battle for the fundamental value of journalism in America taking place in L.A. and Chicago right now, and the long-term health of our democracy depends on its outcome. While we all understand that journalism is a business, right now it's a business that's bringing home 20 percent profits. If that's not enough for the Tribune Company, they should find another way to make money.

Jonathan Chait, of whom I am usually a fan as just about the only mini-Kinsley who comes close to pulling it off, goes off in a bad direction, here, when he complains about all the indignities inflicted upon liberal hawks. He writes: "One difference between Vietnam and Iraq is that the former was conducted mostly by Democratic administrations, while the latter has been conducted by a Republican one. Liberal hawks (like me) believe that this mostly absolves us; it wasn't us who conducted this debacle." He argues as follows: "The argument that the Iraq war had no chance to succeed has an undeniable surface appeal. Things are going so badly there that it's hard to imagine how it could have turned out differently. But the more we learn about the war's conduct, the more we learn that the administration didn't just make the normal sorts of mistakes that inevitably occur in wartime; it was almost criminally negligent. The Bush administration literally refused to do any planning for the occupation. They invaded before all the available troops were in place, staffed the Coalition Provisional Authority with underqualified hacks vetted solely on the basis of ideological loyalty and rashly disbanded the Iraqi army, which could have provided some early order." Later he adds, "The funny thing is that, in other contexts, liberals don't dispute the notion that Bush administration incompetence caused otherwise preventable catastrophes. Almost no liberal believes otherwise when it comes to, say, the response to Hurricane Katrina. If Bush could have bungled Katrina this badly, isn't it just possible he could have done the same thing in Iraq?"

Well, here's my question to Chait and all the other poor liberal hawks, who, last I checked, were still dominating punditocracy debate and much cultural discussion, together with conservative hawks: Just who did you think was going to carry out this invasion? Turning a thousand-year dictatorship with a mélange of ethnic and religious conflicts simmering beneath the surface when you know next to nothing about their culture, and care even less, seems to me to be a pretty tall order. We knew everything we needed to know about this bunch of lying incompetents before the war began.

As the great Kinsley himself wrote (after the war began, but based on years of evidence):

"What's going on here is something like lying-by-reflex. If the opposition accuses you of saying the world is round, you lunge for the microphone to declare your passionate belief that it is flat." The ferocity is often accompanied by insouciance. What is odd about the Bush technique is that frequently no one in the administration appears to concern himself with whether such deceptions are necessary or even credible. Kinsley adds, "Bush II administration lies are often so laughably obvious that you wonder why they bother. Until you realize: They haven't bothered. If telling the truth was less bother, they'd try that, too. The characteristic Bush II form of dishonesty is to construct an alternative reality on some topic and to regard anyone who objects to it as a sniveling dweeb obsessed with 'nuance,' which the president of this class, I mean of the United States, has more important things to do than worry about."

And Chait himself wrote the great TNR story about the Bush administration's dishonest incompetence when it came to homeland security, titled "The 9/10 President." Not a day goes by that the papers do not have some story about the administration's lethal combination of incompetence, dishonesty, ideology, and corruption that leads to massive amounts of unnecessary death and destruction. Here's today's. Naturally, ex-Bush cheerleader Little Roy buys into this self-serving analysis completely.

How about a little credit to those who had it figured out from the first? Sullivan treated Bush's opponents as a "potential fifth column" but the fact is they had the potential to save the country and the world from catastrophe, if only the smart folks had listened.

Pierre Vidal-Naquet, 76, RIP. We note of his many works, here. "Mr. Vidal-Naquet was committed in particular to refuting the work of Robert Faurisson, a French academic who has claimed publicly for decades that the systematic extermination of Jews in Nazi gas chambers never took place. At the end of an essay on Mr. Faurisson in 'Assassins of Memory,' Mr. Vidal-Naquet wrote: 'Anyone can dream of a society in which Faurissons would be unthinkable and even attempt to work toward its realization. But they exist just as evil exists -- around us and in us. Let us be happy if, in this gray world that is ours, we can accumulate a few parcels of truth, experience a few fragments of satisfaction.' " And we salute him.

Steely Dan to Wes Anderson: The perfect convergence of rock snobbery and film snobbery.

Reviews, correspondence to come.

Thanks for showing up, everyone.

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