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My Secession Confession

”You pissed off a lot of people,“ attorney David W. Fleming, rebel commander, is telling me in his 25th-floor office with the commanding view of the San Fernando Valley. ”I‘d get calls -- ’Did you read this?‘“

Pissing off people, I figured, was part of my job. As a thrice-weekly columnist in the Los Angeles Times Valley Edition from April 1993 to November 1998, cranking out close to 700 columns, I aspired to the RoykoBreslin standard, not unlike the approach Steve Lopez brought to the Times a year ago. ”A column ought to have blood pumping through it, whether you’re smacking the [expletive] out of someone or defending someone,“ Lopez was quoted as saying in an August 6 Washington Post article by Howard Kurtz. Here‘s how Lopez defined his mission: ”to enlighten, to provoke, to entertain, but also to deflate self-important fools, undress the high and mighty and take batting practice on wayward politicians.“

The approach requires a devil-may-care swagger, a thick skin and also thick-skinned editors, who seem to be in short supply. Kurtz cites Lopez as an exception in an era in which ”many metro columnists are polite or parochial or tend toward soft-feature blandness.“

(I wrote some of those too.) As it happened, my editor was C. Shelby Coffey III, who once suggested that my columns should give readers ”a pointillist portrait“ of the Valley. For a sec there I thought he said ”pointless,“ but no, he meant my work, over time, should be sort of like a warm, fuzzy painting by Georges Seurat. Sunday in the Valley with Scott -- and Tuesday and Thursday too!

My years as a columnist were seldom devoid of backstage strife. This was one of many reasons why, not long after the Valley Edition was downsized and my column terminated, I opted for a voluntary buyout, bringing a bittersweet end to a 24-year association with the Times that had begun when I was an 18-year-old copy messenger. But it is the public strife of secession, and my role in that drama, that recently got my name back into the Times.

”Secession proponents are still outraged,“ L.A. Times media critic David Shaw wrote, ” . . . by the writings of Scott Harris, a Valley Edition columnist in the ’90s, who called secession advocates ‘Valleyistas’ and likened elements of the secession process to a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta.“ In his assessment of how the Times and Daily News have covered (and slanted) secession, Shaw noted that many breakup proponents considered the Times condescending and were offended when their complaints were characterized as ”whines.“

I certainly used that term a few times and heard those complaints. I tossed and turned that night after reading Shaw‘s story. Had I done the Valley and L.A. wrong?

Certainly I underestimated the Valleyistas. Now it’s embarrassing to read a January 1996 column that dismissed Assemblywoman Paula Boland‘s original secession bill as ”phony baloney . . . a gimmick . . . posturing.“ I chided the Daily News for hyping the results of a phone-in poll as ”breakaway fever.“ That day, when I should have used a scalpel, I used a chainsaw. The Daily News fired back in an editorial, accusing the Times and me of ”belittling the Valley.“ That was the first big flare-up in an old-fashioned newspaper war in which rivals demonstrated a knack for shaping the news to serve their own self-interest.

It is now well-documented that Daily News managing editor Ron Kaye dictated the pro-secession spin of the paper’s news and editorial pages. In a few dozen columns, I countered with the anti-Valley-centric spin, sometimes with a tone secession leader Richard Close described as ”caustic.“ Much of my scorn was aimed at the Valleyistas‘ and Daily News’ crusade, now moot, for a special election that would have given Valley voters alone the power to divide Los Angeles, effectively disenfranchising most Angelenos. These were complaints I characterized as ”whines.“

Then-Mayor Riordan, who now lamely questions the morality of secession, initially -- fecklessly -- endorsed the concept of a Valley-only election, nurturing the movement when he had his best chance to squelch it. At least it was good column fodder.

Times editorials also inveighed against secession, of course. But the most embarrassing bias could be found in the news pages. A glaring example is a June 6, 1996, news story, overlooked in Shaw‘s critique: ”Times Poll: Only 46% of Valley Residents Back Secession.“ Only? And did this mean 54 percent oppose secession? Um, no. The poll found that only 35 percent of Valley voters opposed secession and 19 percent were undecided. Had the survey concerned ear-wax abatement, the headline might have said: ”Times Poll: Valley Wants Ear Wax Out.“

 

So why was the Times staff so quick to collectively criticize and downplay secession and the issues it raised? Looking back, it boils down to a self-interested set of mind. We of the mighty Los Angeles Times have always had a stake in the epic idea of Los Angeles; in our world, Valley secession was all but inconceivable, even laughable. Jeff Brain, the Valley VOTE president, now tells me that the tone of the paper helped galvanize true believers: ”There’s no greater joy than to do what people say you cannot.“

Talking to Brain, I now better appreciate how Valleyistas perceived me as a kind of functionary for the amorphous, monolithic newsprint bogeyman of L.A.‘s downtown establishment. ”The Valley perspective“ was something I was supposed to learn on the job. And I should also confess a dirty little semisecret, revealed here for the first time in print: The Times’ so-called Valley columnist never lived in the Valley.

This was not something I advertised, but if people asked, I would tell the truth -- that I lived in Mount Washington. Not a sin, but I still dreaded the day Richard Close or another Valleyista would needle me in a press release or a letter to the editor. I had always expected that the Daily News, whose editors must have known, was waiting for the perfect moment to out me as a journalistic carpetbagger. But it never happened.

Truth is, when editors recruited me from the Metro staff for the Valley gig, they said moving to the Valley was a condition of the job. It seemed like a good idea to me too. So a ”For Sale“ sign went up at my home, and I started house hunting -- a fact candidly noted in an introductory column that, alas, readers never saw. Coffey, hovering over the birth of the new Valley Edition, spiked that first column without telling me why. Shelby, I suspect, wanted something I would have considered patronizing. As it happened, the column I banged out to replace it may have done more to annoy the lurking secessionists. With another police-tax measure on the ballot, the column explained how the Valley, thanks to the two-thirds super-majority threshold imposed by its beloved Proposition 13, had historically voted down attempts to increase the size of the LAPD. (It would do so again.)

Had Shelby not killed my original column, I may well have moved to the Valley because I‘d have felt a commitment to readers. As it was, my home languished in a slow market, and in a few months the pressure to move melted away. Editors, who were otherwise pleased with my work, became preoccupied with my desire to use the forbidden phrase ”Dutch treat.“

I’m not making that up. In those post-riot halcyon days of identity politics, when even the word riot was controversial in L.A., Coffey in late 1993 signed off on editorial style changes so sensitive that they sought to restrict several terms most of us considered innocuous. Only a few weeks earlier, in a piece poking fun at the extremes of political correctness, I‘d expressed my surprise that ”Dutch treat“ had become suspect. Now that the Times was embracing these extremes, I figured I owed readers a follow-up column. Again I wrote a light piece angling for laughs, not outrage, and editors nervously passed it up the chain of command. Shelby killed it.

Strange but true: That evening I dutifully participated in a panel discussion co-sponsored by the Times at the Sherman Oaks Library. Our topic, if memory serves, was ”What Political Correctness Means to Me.“ That night, I decided not to tell tales out of school. I swaggered like a snail.

A few days later, my phone rang. It was the Post’s Kurtz, who‘d obtained a copy of the new guidelines and my spiked column, which had electronically made the rounds of the Times. Kurtz’s subsequent article, in which I was quoted mildly expressing my disappointment, helped turn the Times into a national laughingstock.

Pundits roasted Coffey. Under the headline ”The Thought Police Strike Again,“ the Boston Globe‘s David Nyhan quoted Kurtz’s piece and included this line: ”Free Scott Harris!“ A friend in Maine called when he saw my name honorably mentioned in Vanity Fair. I got my 15 minutes, but a colleague helped put it all in perspective. ”How does it feel,“ he asked, ”to be so well-known for a column that was never published?“ Better-known, in fact, than any that were published.

How did it feel? Like one of those situations where the only thing worse than doing the wrong thing was doing the right thing. In the village of the L.A. Times, Shelby was our emperor, and I was the boy who most publicly declared that the editor had no clothes. All in all, this probably wasn‘t a wise career move.

 

I tried to fight the good fight, and had a few more columns mangled as a result. Ridiculed from coast to coast, Shelby did some awkward backpedaling, and the style excesses were eventually excised. But I have long believed that the controversy damaged my prospects for advancement; indeed, I was eventually demoted, though no manager ever used that term. In 1996, just as the secession story began to heat up, a Metro ”redesign“ cost me my cherished weekly spot before a much larger readership. To Valleyistas who might think this was part of a plot to downplay secession news, I would simply suggest that personality politics mattered much, much more.

It’s fair to wonder whether, if I had actually moved to the Valley, my perspective toward secession would have softened. The best-case scenario, I imagine, would have been analysis so well reported and insightful that editors would have budgeted more space to explore the Valley‘s grievances and less for, say, that fourth O.J. sidebar.

I don’t think so. No matter where I slept, the deeper truth was that I lived at the L.A. Times, where the idea of a downsized L.A. was all but unthinkable, even as the Times was getting downsized itself.

Once my column was exiled to the Valley, I could better appreciate the Valleyistas‘ sense of martyrdom. In late 1997, my grudging respect for their resilience showed when I suggested that, if the Valley actually seceded, the least Riordan could do was to fly chef Paul Prudhomme from New Orleans to prepare my crow dinner.

In my last year as a columnist, as the Valleyistas gained momentum, my mood was often bitter, my ambition beaten down. The Vals, however, had nothing to with it. When I complained to Times brass about unfair treatment, about the belittling of my column, they thought I was whining.

”We have to quit meeting like this,“ I wrote in my swan song to readers, hundreds of whom had contacted me over the years. I assured them that nothing scandalous had happened -- ”no bloody glove, no stained dress.“ But I also wrote: ”On the bright side . . . I finally have the life experience to write the kind of darkly comic novel I like to read.“

And now here’s Lopez telling Kurtz how he gets his greatest response when he takes ”politically incorrect“ stands. I can only shake my head and smile.


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