A Conscientious Employee

The voice on the other end of the phone was calm and reassuring, the kind people need to hear during a fire or earthquake. You’d 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 Reich’s 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 -- I’m 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 UCLA‘s Dialysis Center losing a patient’s medication. Like most of his columns, this one was imbued with Reich‘s personal involvement in the case, as he consults his own pharmacist for an opinion about the ramifications of the center’s 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 complainant‘s daughter to UCLA, where she is told her father will receive $181 in compensation.

“Certainly,” Reich’s column concluded, “there aren‘t allegations of anything less than fine actual medical treatment by the center. But I’d 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 UCLA‘s 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, didn’t 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 Weekly‘s 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. “I‘m 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 wasn’t intended to be a step toward noncoverage of consumer issues,” Carroll told the Weekly. “One column was killed because the editors felt it didn‘t really say very much.”

One of Reich’s 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 Pawel’s decision to terminate it: “I feel badly that it was a tiff with Bill and will always remain friends with him.”

Reich doesn‘t believe the canning of his UCLA article had anything to do with the paper’s 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, Reich‘s 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, aren‘t these interesting questions?’” (Reich denies this, saying the article wasn‘t 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.

“I’m 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 isn‘t so today. I think we should be valued and not despised.”

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 it’s 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 it‘s important to talk about the changes in the paper -- I don’t believe in getting on the train just because someone said so.”

Editor Carroll says the end of Reich‘s column is not an omen for the paper’s columnists, or a sign that Reich himself is in peril. “We‘re 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, Reich’s consumer adventure has come to an end.

“The Times has given me many great assignments, and I‘m very grateful,” Reich says. “But it’s 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 I‘m no longer here, you’ll know it wasn‘t voluntary.”

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