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Press Comes to Shove

Almost any news story involving a professional organization rent by fratricidal conflicts, financial controversy and bitter generational divisions would be catnip to a reporter. But when it comes to the case of a venerable society run for and by journalists, that story suddenly loses its tan line. For most of this year a war of words over the future home of the 450-member Greater Los Angeles Press Club has paralyzed the organization and prevented it from becoming much of a presence on the county’s media landscape. The group‘s lack of profile became obvious during the Democratic National Convention, when the P.C. was conspicuously invisible to the 15,000 visiting members of the media. (Except, perhaps, for a pre-convention meet-the-mayor lunch that the club hosted at Dick Riordan’s restaurant, where journos had to pay for their own Pantry Burgers.)

I belong to the club as member #A8216, having joined, like many others, in the heady rush of its September 1999 membership drive, when the P.C. seemed to be reinventing itself. Until then I didn‘t know much about the group, other than remembering it had a swell club building on Vermont Avenue and having heard that it had been drifting without a headquarters since selling that venue in 1988.

If non-journalists think about press clubs at all, they probably imagine dark, smoky dens filled with hardboiled men and women playing cards and nursing Scotches. The laptop reality for today’s media professionals is far different, however, as the number of journalists who want to stop off for a drink and a bite to eat before heading home after work has been declining for years. The L.A. Press Club‘s old Vermont Avenue redoubt -- a Mission Revival gem -- resembled a small supper club and had its own paid kitchen and bar staff, reflecting a bygone time when business and pleasure mixed more easily.

After conducting an exhaustive search, the P.C.’s board of directors considered negotiating moving into a 1,080-square-foot storefront inside the renovated San Fernando Building. This eight-story Renaissance Revival edifice, which was built by Colonel James Lankershim in 1906 and whose sixth floor once reputedly served as a gambling hub for local businessmen, is part of developer Tom Gilmore‘s efforts to revitalize the downtown location with artists’ lofts, a jazz club and restaurant. To a majority of the P.C.‘s board it looked like a good place at a good rent -- even if it meant getting locked into a four-year lease.

The specific complaint against the proposed headquarters has ostensibly been the address. Located at Fourth and Main streets, the San Fernando Building offers commanding views of Skid Row. Proponents cite the proximity of the gleaming Ronald Reagan State Office Building; its enemies point to the nearness of the Midnight Mission.

The issue began simmering over the past four months, with individuals mailing attacks and counterattacks to the membership. Things came to a boil September 16, when a general meeting, called by Mary Neiswender to discuss and vote upon the move, was held in Patriotic Hall’s Omar Bradley Room. The partisan and bellicose nature of this meeting -- along with the refuseniks‘ superior numbers -- was clear from the start as the anti--Main Street faction badgered president Mary Moore on everything from parliamentary procedures to where in the meeting room she should speak from. Members presented their own views of the proposed new location: one side claimed it was a dangerous no-go zone, the other cited new crime stats that seemed to portray the area as little more dodgy than Westwood Village. Neiswender lamented having to ”step over the homeless“ to get to the new offices, while vice president and Main Street advocate Jill Stewart claimed that ”most homeless people are too drunk to commit crimes.“

That afternoon the vote, augmented by signed proxy statements, went overwhelmingly in favor of instructing the board of directors to cease its efforts to obtain the Main Street space. But then a new controversy immediately broke out over whether the vote was legally binding. This argument continued two weeks later at the annual membership meeting, held last Thursday at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. Things began civilly enough as members signed in, received their two complimentary drink tickets and chatted amiably. People certainly hadn’t dressed for a bloodbath: Patt Morrison wore one of her trademark velvet hats, while treasurer Dusty Brandel sported a brim bearing a pair of roses and Aric Barab wore his burgundy beret.

President Moore opened the meeting by mentioning a trip to Ireland she had just made, comparing the resilience of the Irish and their ability to turn bad situations around, with the P.C.‘s ability to confront its points of contention and move on. But when the agenda eventually reached the discussion of the move, quite a different kind of Irish analogy seemed apt as a rancorous, intractable debate broke out. ”Shut the hell up!“ and ”I don’t care what your attorney said!“ were among the pleasantries yelled by members at each other. It was Patriotic Hall all over again, with the waving of proxy affidavits and the air crackling with parliamentary points of order and motions to overrule those points of order, and claims and counterclaims about the binding nature of the Bradley Room vote. Although the Roosevelt meeting presented a more balanced seating of the two sides, when it was over the P.C. was no closer to deciding on a new home than it was before the meeting. The stalemate over its location continues -- as does the uncivil war among its members. ”This is way more than I bargained for a year ago,“ rued Moore.

The feeling among some P.C. members is that if the headquarters controversy didn‘t exist, it would be necessary to invent it. For proof, they point to what they see as the club’s dysfunctional culture, which, at least from the 1988 sale for $1.2 million of the Vermont Avenue property onward, has nurtured an impressive number of lawsuits, countersuits, tax judgments, court orders and charges of financial mismanagement. The debate over the proposed Main Street site has inevitably been spun as a generational war pitting the club‘s old-timers, many of whom are retired or semiretired, against a new wave of politically committed news journalists who joined last year. Anger at the older members has brought out charges of ageism in a debate that has reduced the sides to Old vs. Young, Suburbia vs. Soho.

This simplistic breakdown is misleading, however. While it is true that the most vociferous and organized of the ”anti“ forces are club veterans like Neiswender, a number of senior members have also voiced their support for Main Street. Likewise, not all of the recently inducted members are sold on the downtown site. To them, the sunny presentations of the neighborhood by its advocates seem like a realtor’s spiel (the area has been nostalgically dubbed the Old Bank District) and they recall how many other times downtown L.A. has been touted as a new hub for artists and communications, only to see the effort implode. Ultimately, members‘ safety fears, not their age or personalities, will have to be taken as a serious factor in deciding where the club moves. ”You can’t really debate other people‘s comfort zones,“ says member John Seeley.

There is one pro--Main Street argument that lies at the heart of the two competing visions for the P.C.’s future. While many of the rejectionists push for moving the headquarters to a venue closer to where more members live and work (Hollywood or the San Fernando Valley), the Main Streeters have said that the chief purpose of the new headquarters will be to serve as a working space for the club‘s executive director and to provide adequate facilities to hold press conferences. In other words, the headquarters would no longer be a spot for members to eat, drink and socialize. Workplace or hangout? -- the answer truly defines the conflicting sides, rather than their fear or lack of fear of crime.

For now the Greater Los Angeles Press Club remains homeless, and the attempts of its board to secure space downtown, stymied, until some other alternative locations can be looked into. Its board of directors has approved a lease agreement with Gilmore Associates but is holding off going forward with the move into the San Fernando Building, uneasy about the potential consequences -- which include a permanently split organization or worse, a breakaway club.

Club president Moore, who has tried to balance the sensitivities of both sides, confessed to feeling deeply disappointed after the toxic September 28 meeting. Stewart was more upbeat, feeling the donnybrook had cleared the air. ”If it were up to me,“ Stewart says, ”it would be, ’Off with their heads!‘ It’s much more fun to be a dictator.“

There is an uneasiness among many members that, after this issue is decided, only more internal strife awaits them. What new debate is likely to gridlock the club and discourage potential members? Some board members would like to see the continued funding of the club‘s new 8 Ball journalism review; others have pushed to support an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit stemming from the Democratic Convention that would force the LAPD to formulate new guidelines on the way it handles the press during civil emergencies; and, in what surely promises to provoke another fight, there has been talk of changing the present bylaws that now require a four-fifths vote of the board to spend money from the club’s $240,000 reserves. What kind of opposition will confront these proposals can only be guessed at. Perhaps, in its own way, the Press Club, like the Los Angeles Dodgers and other frustrated local institutions, is a microcosm of L.A. itself -- the city that can‘t.