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Covering the Bosses

NOBODY WANTS TO OFFEND THE BOSS, but what if it were expected as part of your job? Roughly a year and a half ago, L.A. Times reporter James Rainey was assigned to cover the media. Not long thereafter, the Times itself, and its issues with the Tribune Co., became the top media story, and Rainey the official Timesman on the case.

American University journalism teacher Alicia C. Shepard, in an op-ed in the Times last fall, likened Rainey’s job to “covering your parents’ marital woes for public consumption. Sometimes, it seems like Dad is a jerk and making a big mistake. Other times, it looks like Mom is really cool for standing up to Dad’s demands.”

That would seem a precarious position to be in, though Rainey says that even if he had known what it would be like, he would still have taken the assignment.

Shepard was agitating for more transparency from the Times when covering itself, but as Gary Spiecker, deputy editor of the paper’s Sunday editorial section, tells the Weekly, “You’ll note that [Shepard’s piece] appeared soon after the publisher was fired, then the editor was fired and Chicago invaded and the company went up for sale — not exactly propitious conditions for the kind of change she suggests.”

So how is Rainey doing? Many local journalists contacted by the Weekly rate his coverage quite highly, but none envies the position he’s in. Retired reporter Ken Reich, who blogs at takebackthetimes.blogspot.com, calls it “an impossible position,” and says, “I would have said ‘No, thanks.’ ”

Joseph Mailander, a former vice president of marketing at Union Bank, and an L.A. media observer at martinirepublic.com, notes, “You can’t even be on the sidelines and not have a vested interest in the matter, so imagine what it’s like for Rainey. He not only has an interest, as any Times scribe might, he has current, once and future bosses to please.”

Shepard tells the Weekly it’s “one of the hardest jobs in journalism right now . . . It’s a no-win.” And Slate.com’s media writer Jack Shafer offers this backhanded compliment: “I imagine that his job isn’t easy, but he has a variety of sources to cultivate . . . I think he’s a good enough reporter not to get manipulated more than the average reporter gets manipulated.”

HOW MUCH MANIPULATION IS THAT? And more important, when a reporter’s work contains frequent anonymous quotes from that reporter’s own higher-ups jockeying for position, is it even possible for the writer not to be manipulated?

Rainey defends his frequent use of anonymous quotes from sources inside the paper, arguing that under Times policy, names kept from the public are passed on to an editor in the business section, where he normally appears: “At least one editor has to know who you’re talking about and why they have to be anonymous.”

If not for his heavy reliance on off-record Times insiders, he says, he’d barely have a story because, in such a major business deal, on-the-record comment is generally offered only at the beginning and end of the process. “We would have had, I think, at most two stories, one saying that the company’s being, in effect, put up for sale,” says Rainey, “and then we would have had another story saying that they’re extending the period for the sale. And once or twice other than that, there may have been a one-paragraph statement put out.”

David Ehrenstein, a journalist and media critic who has written for the Weekly and the Times, is a very public critic of the media’s extensive use of anonymous sources — making him unusual among journalists. Ehrenstein isn’t assuaged by Rainey’s notion that an editor’s preapproval of an unnamed source prevents spin or protects a reporter from being outwitted by those out to manipulate him.

“That’s sort of like marrying your marriage counselor or your shrink, or something like that,” Ehrenstein remarks. “That really doesn’t mean very much. Now you’re asking me to trust two people? You’ve got to trust the reporter and his editor! So that’s making the bad situation worse . . . [Anonymous sourcing] is all such a game, and the people who lose are the readers.”

For its part, the L.A. Times trots out a stringent-sounding policy against using anonymous sources that manages to give the impression that the paper’s liberal daily use of them has been banished.

The policy breathlessly declares: “We are committed to informing readers as completely as possible; the use of anonymous sources compromises this important value . . . the information they provide can often be verified with sources willing to be named, from documents, or both. We should make every effort to obtain such verification. Relying in print on unnamed sources should be a last resort.”

Pretty much every journalist the Weekly spoke to defended Rainey’s use of blind sources. Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism in Washington, D.C., and a former Times reporter, practically gushed, calling the anonymous material “fascinating . . . I think it’s been almost self-evident why these people are willing to talk but not on the record . . . You don’t need a Buck Rogers decoder ring to know why an employee of the L.A. Times critical of the paper or the company would be speaking anonymously. How would most papers cover a thing like this? How do they? Not with the level of detail, candor . . . I mean, if you want to know what’s going on at the L.A. Times, Rainey’s coverage is probably the best source in the country.”

Several journalists note that other papers covering the Times-purchase story also use extensive off-record information — although probably not from those who employ them. Citing a New York Times article that mentioned some behind-the-scenes goings-on at the Chandler family trust, former Times Mirror assistant comptroller Peter Fernald speculates that high-level leaks are “happening on all sides.”

VETERAN REPORTER REICH SAYS, “It’s obvious that members of the Chandler family and the executives back in Chicago and so forth are not gonna speak on the record about something like this.”

The real question, Reich says, is whether Rainey is effectively using his insider perch to beat other media to uncomfortable scoops. On that count, “I don’t think so,” says Reich. “I think he’s become a better reporter since he got the journalistic assignment, but he hasn’t been as far out front in this story as The Wall Street Journal has been. But, of course, the Journal has the advantage of being an outsider.”

Recently, notes Reich, “In the story he had on [Dean] Baquet going to The New York Times, he left out the place where [Bill] Keller and Baquet both slam Tribune. If you read TheNew York Times story by [Katherine Q.] Seelye, both of them are very dismissing of Tribune, and the quality of the papers, everything. And Rainey didn’t have any of that.”

Moreover, Reich, a colleague of Rainey’s for years, says Rainey is clearly soft-pedaling “the tremendous circulation falloff at the Times. He’ll say that the paper has lost 100,000 so-and-so, but the paper has lost 350,000 subscribers since the Tribune took over. And Rainey never refers to such a high figure. He always takes a smaller time period and a smaller number.”

Rainey defends his track record, saying the Times has a stronger history of writing about itself than some papers. “I think they kinda realize that if they came in here and said, ‘Hey, you’re not gonna write a word about the paper or about the editor or the publisher,’ that just wouldn’t fly,” Rainey says of the corporate owners. “Well, if they do try and do it, no doubt everyone will hear about it. It’s not something that we would put up with.”

Rainey adds, “If someone wants to make a specific allegation, or they think they’ve got some example of that, I’d like to know what they’re saying, just so I can respond to it, or someone else here can respond to it.” (Rainey was equally feisty when the Weekly called to arrange a photograph, declaring, “Why don’t you ask Nikki Finke to draw my stick figure?” then refusing to be photographed.)

Reich’s response? “I don’t think he’s being frank with you, you know? . . . He’s a fairly proud guy, and he’s not going to be willing to divulge his trials and tribulations in this matter. But any reasonably good newspaperman would want to get the bare facts of the circulation loss into the paper. And the fact is that he hasn’t. That he’s passed up that opportunity on several occasions leads me to believe that he’s under a tight leash.”