The voice on the other end of the phone was calm and reassuring, the kind people need to hear during a fire or earthquake. Youd never guess that it belonged to a man who had just lost his three-year beat as the Los Angeles Times consumer-affairs columnist and now faced an uncertain future after 36 years at the paper. In a town whose highly visible TV consumer advocates tend to be either speakerphones for utility-company executives or apoplectic buffoons, Ken Reichs weekly column, An Equal Chance, meticulously investigated readers complaints about everything from HMOs to missing baggage by engaging the conflicting sides in a kind of conversation about their disputes.
We always knew we were pushing the limits -- Im rather critical at times of the business community -- and we always had the feeling it was touch-and-go with my column.
But last week touch-and-go became push-comes-to-shove, when Times city editor Bill Boyarsky killed a Reich column about UCLAs Dialysis Center losing a patients medication. Like most of his columns, this one was imbued with Reichs personal involvement in the case, as he consults his own pharmacist for an opinion about the ramifications of the centers losing a bottle of Talwin, a potent painkiller that is often used illegally as a heroin substitute. Someone could go to jail, the pharmacist tells Reich, who later accompanies the complainants daughter to UCLA, where she is told her father will receive $181 in compensation.
Certainly, Reichs column concluded, there arent allegations of anything less than fine actual medical treatment by the center. But Id imagine it will be careful to keep better records in the future.
The column makes UCLA look like crooks, Boyarsky e-mailed Reich, an impression increased by your quote from your pharmacist and your aside about UCLAs medicine prices. For these reasons, I am not going to run this column.
The action by Boyarsky, who has backed Reich in past run-ins with Times higher-ups, didnt seem like such a big deal until Reich took the matter to Metro-section editor Miriam Pawel, who informed him that, as a matter of fact, the paper had planned to do away with the column next month anyway. (Boyarsky did not return the Weeklys calls; Times spokesman David Garcia said it would be inappropriate to comment on the meeting between Reich and Pawel.)
Reich then fired off a terse, 75-word e-mail to Times staffers worldwide. Im stepping down as a columnist, effective immediately, he announced, adding, I hope to stay with the Times, if that proves possible.
The official word is that the downing of An Equal Chance was not a signal that consumer-affairs matters are to be downgraded. At the moment, Times editor and executive vice president John Carroll says what form, exactly, such reportage will take in the future is up in the air. This wasnt intended to be a step toward noncoverage of consumer issues, Carroll told the Weekly. One column was killed because the editors felt it didnt really say very much.
One of Reichs recent columns was titled Conscientious Employee Can Make All the Difference, a headline that, ironically, could sum up his career at the Times, a tenure that has ranged from high-profile national political news to reports on the insurance industry, as well as a virtual seven-year assignment covering L.A.s battle to first capture, then host the 1984 Olympic games.
Reich says his troubles began when his longtime editor Tim Rutten was moved from his editorship of the city-county bureau to a staff-writing position in the Southern California Living section. What especially pains Reich is that the end involved Boyarsky, because the city editor had been the person to first interest Reich in fronting An Equal Chance in 1998, and who had argued for its continuation in the face of Pawels decision to terminate it: I feel badly that it was a tiff with Bill and will always remain friends with him.
Reich doesnt believe the canning of his UCLA article had anything to do with the papers protecting the university. (In 1999 the Times had floated, but ultimately dropped, a profit-sharing arrangement with UCLA Extension involving a commercial real estate conference.) Rather, he suspects that management was displeased with his own less-than-reverential treatment of business. One 1999 Reich column that was questioned by his superiors featured a complaint about the Mike Miller Toyota dealership, which is a major Times advertiser. And Pasadena medical-malpractice attorney Arlan Cohen alleges that last year a Reich column regarding Kaiser Permanente was toned down by, he suspects, Reichs superiors. Something happened, Cohen recalls, between the time he and I had last spoken and when the column came out. He said it would mostly run as we discussed, but when it came out it was this vanilla article full of He said this, they said that, and, gee, arent these interesting questions? (Reich denies this, saying the article wasnt as militant as Cohen probably would have liked.)
The termination of An Equal Chance (the name derives from a passage in an Abraham Lincoln speech) comes at a time when the overall feeling among many staffers has been upbeat and optimistic since the Chicago Tribune conglomerate bought the Times last year. On the other hand, the paper is in the midst of a massive re-shuffling that has many wondering about their desk assignments at Temple Street. Among the graying staff reported to be taking early retirement through buyouts, according to an anonymous source at the Times, are Nick Williams, deputy editorial-page editor; national-desk staffer Jim Bell; and Boyarsky himself, who reputedly has moved up his exit by six months to March.
Im 62 now, Reich says about the departure of veteran staff members, and when I first came here there were people in their 60s, but that isnt so today. I think we should be valued and not despised.
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More important to Reich than matters of age is what he believes to be a movement at the Times to devalue columnists and their individual, hard-to-inventory voices. Under Otis [Chandler] it was Let a thousand flowers bloom, he says, but now its a more anonymous paper. A lot of people have been moved around at the Times. Some of this has been good, but a lot of it has been done in a peremptory way. I believe its important to talk about the changes in the paper -- I dont believe in getting on the train just because someone said so.
Editor Carroll says the end of Reichs column is not an omen for the papers columnists, or a sign that Reich himself is in peril. Were making changes in every part of the paper, Carroll says. Ken is in excellent standing here -- no one has even raised the question of him leaving.
Nevertheless, Reichs consumer adventure has come to an end.
The Times has given me many great assignments, and Im very grateful, Reich says. But its not enough to work for a company, you should be a good citizen within it as well. I hope to retire on June 21, 2005, my 40th anniversary, so if you call and Im no longer here, youll know it wasnt voluntary.