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Shavian Wisdom 

Wednesday, Mar 29 2000
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As if his 37,000-word EPIC on the Staples Center scandal wasn’t enough, Pulitzer Prize–winning L.A. Times media writer David Shaw has delivered another 4,500 well-chosen words on how he got the story. In this month’s Columbia Journalism Review, Shaw tells how he worked 20-hour days seven days a week, lost 11 pounds and almost missed Thanksgiving in a Herculean effort to get to the bottom of the Times’ secret profit-sharing magazine deal with Staples.

Shaw says he toiled his entire cross-country flight to the Berkshires, taking only an hour off for Thanksgiving turkey before resuming work until the wee hours of the next morning. Sacrificing meals is something new for Shaw, a noted gourmet whose hefty expense accounts are legendary within the paper. His weight loss notwithstanding, Shaw managed to squeeze in a business lunch of shrimp in black-bean sauce and kung pao chicken with former managing editor George Cotliar, who was brought back specially to edit the piece.

Shaw also paints the editing process as a cloak-and-dagger affair, with the writer asking for, and getting, security measures to protect against possible enemies from within. Examples: "burn bags" to dispose of discarded type, and a restricted copy basket created with "Access Level 10," two levels above editor Michael Parks’ clearance. ("The ‘Winter’ basket you requested has been added to your profile," Shaw quotes an e-mail notifying him of the basket’s code name.) At the end of the story, Shaw is all "goose bumps" with his wife and son, watching the presses roll on his opus and pondering how a newspaper’s bottom line is its integrity.

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Now, beyond the self-importance and pomposity of all this, we couldn’t help but think that Shaw might have saved himself a lot of trouble if he had informed the Times, including the possible fifth column, that he "didn’t think it was my job to affix blame or call anyone a liar," as he explains in the CJR piece. The fact is that the Shaw story, however noble in intent, was so long and unwieldy few journalists even got through it, much less figured out what he was saying. At least now we know he wasn’t assigning blame. Our mistake was thinking the worst blow to the paper’s credibility since the kingmaking Nixon years cried out for a ringing "J’accuse!" from one of the nation’s top media critics.

 

GREAT ZEUS

Perhaps the coolest thing about the Mount Olympus neighborhood in Laurel Canyon is the 20-foot-tall sign that welcomes visitors at the entrance. Held up by Greek columns, the massive multicolored marble sign, designed by whimsical Mount Olympus developer Russ Vincent, makes it seem like Zeus, Apollo and the whole gang actually live in the hillside subdivision.

But just a few months ago, the sign was headed for the trash heap. Board members who run the all-powerful Mount Olympus Property Owners Association announced in the September edition of their newsletter, The Olympress, that they had voted to demolish the "crumbling relic."

"There is a general opinion that our nearly 40-year-old sign is tacky, garish, outdated, and that its purpose . . . has changed," read the announcement, written by association president Dr. Mel Remba.

Well, Olympress readers were outraged, to say the least. Turns out most people who choose to live in a neighborhood dotted with random columns and fountains, and veined with streets named Venus, Achilles and Electra, don’t think the sign is tacky and garish at all. To them it’s a beloved historical landmark!

"People were very emotional," said Remba, the chief of the Optometry Department at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. "One guy even threatened to sue us."

At the next board meeting, members of the association voted overwhelmingly to scrap the plans to replace the sign with a new, $25,000 fountain/monument. The replacement project faced other obstacles: L.A. city height restrictions would have limited any new sign to a not-exactly-godlike 8 feet tall.

Remba said neither he nor the other members of the board fought the will of the people.

"We’re a democratic organization. People did not want to lose the historic significance of the sign," said Remba. "It’s a community wrestling with architectural-design issues. It’s tradition versus improvement."

Today the sign is undergoing a major face-lift. The columns have been cleaned up, the electrical system has been rewired, and the marble is slated for a good polishing. And Remba gives a slightly more respectful description of the sign:

"It’s a landmark, and it’s tacky." —Lee Condon

 

 

 

ACAPULCO GOLD

And finally, this just in from Acapulco Restaurants’ regional marketing manager, Julie Ferguson: "The number of people that come into the restaurant really doesn’t benefit, um, the restaurant." Thus spake Ferguson on the occasion of turning down a request for a school-night benefit for Ivanhoe Elementary, in which families would dine at the restaurant in exchange for the profits being shared with their kids’ school. We’re wondering how far this marketing wisdom goes. Hm, let’s see:

Memo

To: Jeffrey Katzenberg

Re: El Dorado

"The number of moviegoers doesn’t really benefit the film studio."

Nope, doesn’t seem to translate.

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