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Dean of Sycophants

I’M NOT VERY POPULAR ON SPRING STREET nowadays. (Then again, I wasn’t much liked when I worked there either.) An editor at the Los Angeles Times just accused me of “wanting the death” of the paper. That’s because in recent days, I’ve called on Los Angeles Times editor Dean Baquet to resign. I’ve called out the new publisher as a Tribune Toady and exposed him as a right-wing Reaganite who once advocated illegal-alien “concentration camps.” And now I can even justify those parent company–ordered staff cuts deemed so damn draconian.

All this is my way of counterbalancing the increasing sanctimoniousness that has infected the paper’s coverage of its current chaos and crisis. Those staff petitions, those photos of foreign correspondents wearing T-shirts featuring Baquet in a defiant pose, and all sorts of other slavish nonsense usually associated with cults. Any day now, I imagine a team of carpenters erecting a pulpit for media critic Tim Rutten, whose columns have become insufferably evangelical, and then a crucifix for Baquet, who keeps playing the martyr.

Sure, Baquet takes pains to recuse himself from the paper’s reporting on its abusive parent. Where normally he’d be back-reading all the articles on such a sensitive topic, he’s handed off that editing job to Rick Wartzman, the paper’s West magazine chieftain. But Times readers are still being ill-served.

For instance, no one but me has dared to question Baquet’s disloyalty after his partner-in-complaint, publisher Jeff Johnson, was axed in that shock-and-awe way last week. (Tribune brass ordered the firing 24 hours after Johnson learned that his wife had been diagnosed with cancer. There was no mention by the Times of this classless act.) What an incredible gutless wonder Baquet was for staying put. His decision shows he cared only about his own ass, because clearly he’s still going to have to fire all those staff asses. But then, he knew from the moment he accepted the editor’s gig that layoffs and buyouts were going to be an integral part of his tenure, didn’t he? Baquet maintains that he took the job believing he could keep “bad stuff” from happening to the paper. It just didn’t happen that way. “So I’m still sitting in the chair and still fighting,” Baquet is telling people.

Still, I wouldn’t put it past him to stage some dramatic “pang of conscience” moment in the very near future for maximum publicity value. At least now, journalism can stop characterizing him as “Dean of Arc” and start referring to him as he really is: “Cover-Your-Backside Baquet.” If he didn’t quit in solidarity with Johnson, who sacrificed his job to support Baquet’s refusal to make those deep staff cuts, then Dean looked like a backstabbing weasel. If he did quit, then he’s unemployed, which is never any fun, especially not now, given the lousy state of the newspaper industry. Then again, he’d be a hero to his old employer, The New York Times, judging from the paper’s congratulatory coverage of Baquet and Johnson.

Even Baquet’s cadre of sycophants — his trusted senior lieutenants Doug Frantz, John Montorio and Leo Wolinsky — were backpedaling about their “suicide pact” (vowing that, if Baquet were fired, they’d quit in solidarity). I do know that, before Johnson’s firing, Baquet had contemplated what he’d do if he left voluntarily or involuntarily. He’d said privately that, after working in journalism for 19 years, he’d take a little time, smoke some cigars and finish reading a couple of books. But then he’d get right back in the saddle and find another newsroom job. Explained Baquet: “I had worked in my father’s restaurant in New Orleans, but I know they won’t take me back. That place doesn’t even exist anymore. Though my older brother does own a restaurant.” Sounds like a good, honest move to me — but then, so would Baquet loyally following Johnson out the door.

So what happens now? Baquet could still get fired. Everything depends on the Times’ new publisher, David Hiller, the Chicago Tribune publisher who’s long been tipped as the rising star/heir apparent of the parent company. He’s telling media types like me that, for the moment, he’s going to run silent and run deep. After all, there’s been a lot of loudmouthing on Spring Street. Look, any average Joe could come in off the street and start laying off staffers in such a way that the readership wouldn’t even notice. If I were steering this sinking ship, I’d scale back foreign and national (knowing that, eventually, the parent company will consolidate coverage of that, like McClatchy and Gannett, because of the enormous cost savings) and beef up local news.

I DON’T KNOW ANYONE WHO THINKS the Times is doing even a decent job of covering Los Angeles and its environs, unless editors think the story will win a Pulitzer. Not since the suburban sections became history. Not since Baquet himself ordered the Metro section mutated into a California section (as if Angelenos give a rat’s ass about what happens in San Francisco or San Diego). The truth, of course, is that even if the Times were given a Joan Kroc–sized infusion of cash (such as she bestowed on NPR) tomorrow, barely a penny would be spent on giving Angelenos what they want and need: news about their hometown. That’s something Hiller understands well, because the Chicago Tribune made its reputation on its exhaustive local coverage. Not the Times, whose own motto says it strives to be “the voice of Los Angeles around the world.” Isn’t that ass backwards?

But the question remains whether Hiller is the right guy to lead the paper. Case in point: There is no bigger “hot button” issue in Los Angeles than U.S. immigration policy. And since L.A. has a liberal majority, its predominant views on this subject are progressive. But last week, in its profile of its new publisher, the Times covered up Hiller’s past role in helping formulate an extreme right-wing U.S. immigration policy during the Reagan administration. At the time, Hiller was working in the Reagan administration’s Department of Justice, which was wrestling with myriad detention issues stemming from a sudden crisis of Haitian and Southeast Asian refugees as well as the fallout from Cuba’s Mariel boatlift.

Turns out Hiller, then a special assistant to Attorney General William French Smith, prepared the report by a 1981 presidential task force on immigration and refugee policy recommending “drastic action” to prevent any new flood of Cuban and Haitian refugees into Florida by stopping boats on the high seas and detaining their occupants in what were recognized as concentration camps. Also outlined were policy initiatives for mass deportations back to Mexico of Mexicans in the U.S., illegal-alien-internment-camp proposals, calls for indefinite imprisonment for Cuban boatlift refugees, and national ID cards. All this not only tested the waters for the Reagan administration but eventually laid the legal framework for the Bush administration’s present-day immigration policy as well as its Guantánamo policy. (One specific forerunner was the legal brief Hiller helped write to keep a Mariel-boatlift Cuban imprisoned in a federal penitentiary in perpetuity.)

In other areas too, Hiller, along with his DOJ colleagues John Roberts (now the chief justice of the Supreme Court) and Kenneth Starr (the Pepperdine dean who was the Clinton/Whitewater special prosecutor), helped serve as a funnel for the right-wing think tanks to shape the Reagan administration’s social agenda. By 1985, Hiller was rewarded with a recommendation for the Reagan-appointed post of U.S. attorney for northern Illinois by those with close ties to then–attorney general–designate Edwin J. Meese, a Reagan crony. Just as interesting is that Hiller was described in a 2001 Chicago Tribune story as a “friend” of Donald Rumsfeld, who was a director of Tribune Co. when Hiller was president of Tribune Interactive. The two were squash buddies. “He is one of the most competitive son of a guns I have ever stepped on the court with: quick, great court strategy and riflelike aim. And he did take pleasure in beating me, his junior by 23 years,” Hiller gushed to his paper. Strange that Times coverage of Hiller didn’t include any of this, given that a mainstay of any newspaper’s editorial and opinion pages includes Rumsfeld’s handling of the Iraq war.

True, it would be foolish for anyone to assume that Hiller’s own political positions have not morphed after several decades. But I can honestly say my own opinion of the Times hasn’t changed in that time: The paper’s still a suck fest.


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