My Secession Confession 

Ex-Times columnist looks back on his days covering Valleyistas

Wednesday, Oct 9 2002

”You pissed off a lot of people,“ attorney David W. Fleming, rebel commander, is telling me in his 25th-floor office with the commanding view of the San Fernando Valley. ”I‘d get calls -- ’Did you read this?‘“

Pissing off people, I figured, was part of my job. As a thrice-weekly columnist in the Los Angeles Times Valley Edition from April 1993 to November 1998, cranking out close to 700 columns, I aspired to the RoykoBreslin standard, not unlike the approach Steve Lopez brought to the Times a year ago. ”A column ought to have blood pumping through it, whether you’re smacking the [expletive] out of someone or defending someone,“ Lopez was quoted as saying in an August 6 Washington Post article by Howard Kurtz. Here‘s how Lopez defined his mission: ”to enlighten, to provoke, to entertain, but also to deflate self-important fools, undress the high and mighty and take batting practice on wayward politicians.“

The approach requires a devil-may-care swagger, a thick skin and also thick-skinned editors, who seem to be in short supply. Kurtz cites Lopez as an exception in an era in which ”many metro columnists are polite or parochial or tend toward soft-feature blandness.“

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(I wrote some of those too.) As it happened, my editor was C. Shelby Coffey III, who once suggested that my columns should give readers ”a pointillist portrait“ of the Valley. For a sec there I thought he said ”pointless,“ but no, he meant my work, over time, should be sort of like a warm, fuzzy painting by Georges Seurat. Sunday in the Valley with Scott -- and Tuesday and Thursday too!

My years as a columnist were seldom devoid of backstage strife. This was one of many reasons why, not long after the Valley Edition was downsized and my column terminated, I opted for a voluntary buyout, bringing a bittersweet end to a 24-year association with the Times that had begun when I was an 18-year-old copy messenger. But it is the public strife of secession, and my role in that drama, that recently got my name back into the Times.

”Secession proponents are still outraged,“ L.A. Times media critic David Shaw wrote, ” . . . by the writings of Scott Harris, a Valley Edition columnist in the ’90s, who called secession advocates ‘Valleyistas’ and likened elements of the secession process to a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta.“ In his assessment of how the Times and Daily News have covered (and slanted) secession, Shaw noted that many breakup proponents considered the Times condescending and were offended when their complaints were characterized as ”whines.“

I certainly used that term a few times and heard those complaints. I tossed and turned that night after reading Shaw‘s story. Had I done the Valley and L.A. wrong?

Certainly I underestimated the Valleyistas. Now it’s embarrassing to read a January 1996 column that dismissed Assemblywoman Paula Boland‘s original secession bill as ”phony baloney . . . a gimmick . . . posturing.“ I chided the Daily News for hyping the results of a phone-in poll as ”breakaway fever.“ That day, when I should have used a scalpel, I used a chainsaw. The Daily News fired back in an editorial, accusing the Times and me of ”belittling the Valley.“ That was the first big flare-up in an old-fashioned newspaper war in which rivals demonstrated a knack for shaping the news to serve their own self-interest.

It is now well-documented that Daily News managing editor Ron Kaye dictated the pro-secession spin of the paper’s news and editorial pages. In a few dozen columns, I countered with the anti-Valley-centric spin, sometimes with a tone secession leader Richard Close described as ”caustic.“ Much of my scorn was aimed at the Valleyistas‘ and Daily News’ crusade, now moot, for a special election that would have given Valley voters alone the power to divide Los Angeles, effectively disenfranchising most Angelenos. These were complaints I characterized as ”whines.“

Then-Mayor Riordan, who now lamely questions the morality of secession, initially -- fecklessly -- endorsed the concept of a Valley-only election, nurturing the movement when he had his best chance to squelch it. At least it was good column fodder.

Times editorials also inveighed against secession, of course. But the most embarrassing bias could be found in the news pages. A glaring example is a June 6, 1996, news story, overlooked in Shaw‘s critique: ”Times Poll: Only 46% of Valley Residents Back Secession.“ Only? And did this mean 54 percent oppose secession? Um, no. The poll found that only 35 percent of Valley voters opposed secession and 19 percent were undecided. Had the survey concerned ear-wax abatement, the headline might have said: ”Times Poll: Valley Wants Ear Wax Out.“

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