The LA Times Blames Us for the Election
By Bob Gelfand, March 12, 2013
LA POLITICS - The LA Times has turned itself into a Jewish Mother joke.
Here's an old example of the genre. A Jewish Mother gives her son two ties for his birthday, a green one and a red one. The next morning, he comes down to breakfast wearing the green one. She looks up at him and says, "You didn't like the other one?"
In the more modern version, the Jewish Mother is the Los Angeles Times, as played by star columnist Steve Lopez. To Lopez, we Angelenos were bad children because we didn't vote in Tuesday's election.
Let's consider the particulars. Last Thursday, the LA Times went full frontal (page, that is) with a Steve Lopez column titled "LA's Walking Dead." That's you and me he's talking about. We're too apathetic to get out and vote. That's implicit in his comments. We're too lazy to make the important decisions -- he says that directly.
What he has missed is the failure of the Times to bring the election alive. It's the last remaining major newspaper in this part of the country, and it is as dull as dishwater and as uncontroversial as a television game show.
Why didn't the Times do something to bring this election alive? It could have done that easily enough. The accumulated scandalous acts of the many candidates provided plenty of fodder. We could have witnessed an old fashioned crusading newspaper doing what a crusading newspaper is supposed to do, and we would have become energized as an electorate.
But to do so would have meant that the Times had to invest a small amount of resources and a large amount of journalistic integrity. I think the Times had the resources available. The integrity is another question.
Here's an example of what the Times could and should have been doing all along. This strategy would require only modest staffing and would have resulted in a more interesting election. It would also do a world of good for our suffering city.
Step 1: Just assign 2 reporters to follow the Los Angeles City Council, not as stenographers, but as serious investigative reporters. One of the two would concentrate on reading and learning the campaign contributions made to each of the City Council members. The other would follow the doings of the City Council itself, as it doles out favors to developers, municipal employee unions, Hollywood studios, and itself.
Step 2: Then, once a day, print a front page story detailing how votes in the City Council are connected to all that money. Don't just write the usual vague (but cynical) stuff. Give the details.
Name names. Show how the real estate industry gets what it wants. Connect a vote on a zoning issue with specific campaign contributions. Show why the billboard industry seems to escape taxation in spite of its huge profits (A note to the reader: I keep asking how much the billboard industry pays in taxes, and nobody -- and that includes the Chief Administrative Officer -- has been able to tell me. If they are paying lots of taxes or fees, let me know and I will write it up. But if the industry is not paying its share, then think about the fact that you were all just asked to vote for higher sales taxes.)
And now for the fun part. As each city election approaches, consider each incumbent and one by one, report on whether he or she served the public interest or quietly served the interests of the money donors.
And one last thing, the part that requires one more little bit of integrity. Make it clear who should not be reelected. Don't dither or vacillate or hide in vagueness. Tell it clearly.
Since I seem to like starting paragraphs with the word And, here's one more:
And lastly, hold candidates accountable for the kind of campaigns they run. If they are sending out mud-spewing mailers, call on the voters to defeat them. If they have a history of sending out last minute hit pieces, do the same.
None of this seems all that hard to do. An institution the size of the L.A. Times could do it easily enough. The only things stopping it are institutional inertia and the financial interests of the newspaper's owners.
The inertia part shouldn't be that hard to get past. It just requires that the paper recognize that it is part of a dying breed, and that to avoid extinction it needs to find a paying gig. Running juicy bits about the people who rule us should sell a few papers. One other hint -- don't run your juiciest bits on the internet for at least a month after they appear on doorsteps and newspaper racks.
What about the financial interests of the Times' owners? It's not exactly a secret that newspapers tend to avoid writing negative things about their biggest advertisers. In the past, it was the automotive industry and real estate who enjoyed the most protection.
The problem for the LA Times, in common with most surviving American newspapers, is that advertising revenue has fallen enormously as the internet has grown. Not long ago, I bought a used computer using the internet site craigslist as my information source. I didn't even think about checking the newspaper ads. Newspapers have taken a huge hit in their classified ad revenues due to this kind of internet competition, but they still collect a lot of money from the automotive and real estate sectors.
That's the quandary. The LA Times and other papers could conceivably rebuild according to a business model that involves telling the truth about politicians and businesses. It might work, or it might not. Integrity demands telling the truth, but staying in business might demand the opposite. It all depends on how much dirt you have to dish on automotive interests and on real estate, as compared to how much advertising you lose as they retaliate.
But those are economic issues, not the driving emotional force of wanting to write the truth for the people of Los Angeles.
Getting back to the Steve Lopez column -- however you slice it, the L.A. Times didn't drive voters to the polls last Tuesday. The paper as a whole wrote the usual balanced pablum and gave a so-so endorsement or two, and that was it. So please don't give me guilt over our collective failure as an electorate. If there is collective guilt, then the majority of it lies with you, the news media.
That's pretty much the conclusion of this piece, but if you want to stick with me for a little while longer, I would like to show a little of what reporters might be doing.
As I mentioned above, the first step is to dig up the dirt. Some people would think of it as something
other than dirt. In fact, the current Supreme Court likes to think of campaign contributions as freedom of expression. All I can say is that our local investors must be very expressive people, and here's how we can show it.
It's not that difficult. You just go to the city ethics commission site and look for the pull-down menu
with the names of all the candidates and office holders. Pick one, indicate the office he or she is running for, and then click on the Search Now button. After that, it's read 'em and weep.
What will you find?
Let's do one City Council incumbent who cruised to an easy victory. The candidate (basically an OK guy, as far as I can tell) was essentially running unopposed, but collected well over two hundred thousand dollars just in the past couple of years. Here's a few of the special interests that have been slipping dollars into his reelection fund: Anawalt Lumber, the AFT union, the AFSCME union, Anheuser-Busch, AP Properties Ltd of Chicago, Illinois, and the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles.
And that's just the A's. If you scroll down the screen, you run into multiple contributions (what an interesting word it is -- contributions) from Yellow Cab, and there's the LA County Medical Association, and the Parking Association of California.
Notice that last one, the Parking Association of California, because the parking business is one of the more contentious subjects in Los Angeles politics. There are several movie studios and associated executives, and something called The Happy Ending Bar (insert your own joke here).
And then there are the realtors and real estate agencies and developers and their companies, more numerous than the stars in the sky or your fingers can count.
And remember, this is a fairly new member of the City Council, somebody who is not a major power broker.
But all these businesses and public employee unions and real estate interests insist on putting money in his reelection envelope.
If you click back to do another search, pick one of the real power brokers on the City Council or pick one of the mayoral candidates. This is where it gets scary. The money flows and flows. Most candidates who seem to have any kind of a chance get money from the parking interests, the outdoor signage industry, towing companies, public employee unions -- basically anyone and everyone who needs a favor from your elected officials, particularly when that favor involves costing you, the public, money.
But you have to get into the details. We have that old cliche about knowing where the bodies are buried. In the case of Los Angeles and its municipal government, they're buried in plain sight. Funny how the news media doesn't bother to spotlight them.
Afterword: In the middle of the last decade, the one we sometimes refer to as "the oughts," I wrote a weekly column about the mass media for American-Reporter.com, concentrating on the failings and occasional triumphs of the news media. It was a fun time, because the job was (to borrow an awful cliche), shooting fish in a barrel.
It was also a depressing time, as the media were a combination of right wing talk radio, spineless newspapers, worthless television news shows, and an emerging, but still barely formed, internet presence.
I practiced my craft, such as it is, under editor Joe Shea, who still runs the American Reporter [www.american-reporter.com], the world's first internet daily newspaper. Today, we have numerous internet sites that do what I sought to do, but so much better. I have only to mention Kevin Drum and Josh Marshall as the creators of a new and better journalism.
One of the questions we all asked in that earlier decade was whether big city newspapers and medium sized newspapers would survive. The answer is not yet clear. The last remaining local competition, in the form of the Daily Breeze, Daily News, and Press Telegram, have been merged in all but name, and yet don't quite thrive, barely surviving amid rumors that the whole set will quietly devolve into a purely online presence not too long from now.
Perhaps it's time to revive a bit of the old On Media. There's lots to talk about, particularly here in Los Angeles.