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It’s Their City, Which They’ll Sell if They Want To

Photo by Debra Dipaolo

Up until Sunday, I can’t say it ever really occurred to me that the Chandlers might sell the Times. The O’Malleys may have unloaded the Dodgers, London sold off its bridge, Joseph’s brothers dealt their sib into bondage and pocketed the change — but the Chandlers sell the Times? Come on. Would Mandela auction off Cape Town, or Herzl part with Jerusalem?

Then again, Mandela believed in South Africa and Herzl in Eretz Israel. The Chandlers, I had forgotten, had long since ceased to believe in either their paper or their city. As the controversy surrounding the Staples Center made clear, Otis Chandler still believed in both, but over the past two decades, Otis had gone from the man in charge to the odd man out. His cousins were in control, and his cousins loathed the paper’s liberalism, its diminished stock price and the strange new city where English-speaking readers were becoming steadily more scarce. His cousins brought in Mark Willes to drive up the stock price, even if it meant closing down some of their prestige properties (New York Newsday, home, at the time, to America’s greatest writer-reporter, Murray Kempton), even if it meant bringing the calculus of business into the Times city room. And, when Willes had done his bit, when the less profitable ventures had been sold off and the stock price had risen and then started to sink, the cousins pronounced his mission accomplished, and went looking for a buyer. On Sunday night, they found one.

It’s not that the Chandlers’ connection to L.A. was based in emotional affinity. To say the Chandlers were invested in this city is to state first and foremost a financial fact: Harry Chandler, Otis’ grandfather, owned a huge chunk — perhaps nearly half — of the San Fernando Valley in the century’s early years. The civic boosterism of the Times in those years was intended above all to create conditions that would increase the value of the Chandlers’ real estate holdings — conditions like the Owens River Aqueduct and the housing tracts and the freeways. A generation later, it had grown harder to say what in their boosterism was venal and what was civic-spirited: When Dorothy Chandler built the Music Center, it was clearly good for the city and clearly good for the value of the Times’ downtown properties.

Otis’ own distinct contribution — the Times of the ’60s and ’70s, which he transformed from a parochial, partisan embarrassment into one of the nation’s finest papers — also enriched both the family and the larger city. It is almost impossible to imagine L.A. evolving from the tight, racist town of Sam Yorty and Norris Poulson into the multiracial metropolis of Tom Bradley without the corresponding evolution of the Times from the paper of Kyle Palmer (its political editor in the ’40s and ’50s and simultaneously L.A.’s chief Republican operative) to the paper of Ed Guthman (its national editor, who in 1973 found himself ranked No. 3 on Richard Nixon’s enemy list, in part for the paper’s sterling coverage of Watergate and Vietnam). Otis’ cousins had grown by then to hate the paper’s politics, but so long as the Times made money, it wasn’t worth the effort to reshape the thing.

Then the Cold War ended, aerospace was shuttered, the local department stores went into receivership, ad revenues collapsed, and the Times stopped making money.

And the Chandlers, who had literally owned this town, found themselves in but not of L.A. Well before the ’90s, the white Protestant business elite they had headed had moved away, to Orange County, to Oregon, to Arizona. During the ’90s, the white Protestant non-elite followed. The city of Donald Douglas and Asa Call became a city run by people with names like Contreras and Villaraigosa. Clearly, when the right price was offered, it was time to sell.

In a sense, the Chandlers both opened and closed the door on the era of L.A.-institution builders. General Otis and his son-in-law, Harry Chandler, owned the town before anyone else did. Soon, though, they were joined by the founders of the local aerospace industry, and the big bankers, and those raffish Jews who built the studios. Many of them flourished, and all of them sold before the Chandlers. We are the second largest city in the United States, but our banks are headquartered in Carolina and Seattle; our aerospace in Seattle and Georgia; our studios in Australia, Canada, Japan and New York; our baseball team in Sydney; and our last oil company will soon have its headquarters moved to London unless the Justice Department intervenes.

Except for Disney, every signature L.A. institution is now absentee-owned. There are more really rich Angelenos today than ever before, but the wealth of Eli Broad and his brethren derives not from South Bay factories or Burbank studios, but from the workings of global finance or the ether of e-commerce. No city in the world has so much of its wealth so utterly decoupled from the local economy as L.A. We still have distinct and important local institutions — Caltech, the County Federation of Labor and, God save us, the LAPD — but none of them are corporate. The Chandlers were simply the last of the L.A. business barons to take their profits and run.

Still, there’s something about the Chandlers’ selling the Times to the Trib that’s different from Lew Wasserman’s selling MCA to Seagram or Peter O’Malley’s selling the Dodgers to Fox. For the Chandlers are protagonists in the civic epic of Los Angeles, as O’Malley or Louis Mayer or Ben Weingart or Asa Call never can be. They shaped and reshaped this city, for worse but also for better, more than any other private citizens in L.A. history. Finally, that’s what rankles about this sale: It upsets no moral code, no political balance, but it violates every mythic convention we know. Aeneas did not bleed his army white in the campaign to establish Rome, only to sell Rome off to Carthage when the price was right.

 

 

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