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Silent Times

So what guidance did the Los Angeles Times offer at the end of Election 2000, which its editorial writers called the “tightest presidential campaign in decades,” with “Americans . . . as closely divided as at any time in the last 100 years.”

None.

That’s right. The Times, the nation’s fourth-largest-circulation daily and the leading newspaper in the most populous state in the country, “endorses selectively, on a case-by-case basis,” an italicized note informed readers on Sunday. Nowhere did the Times say it gave up endorsing presidential candidates in 1972, when its rich history of backing Republicans ended with a staff uproar over the Richard Nixon endorsement.

The summary of “Times Endorsements” — the majority of them on statewide propositions and Orange County ballot measures — followed the lead editorial, entitled “Cure for the Initiative.” Two days before an election that the Times itself conceded would have a “huge impact,” Spring Street savants had distilled their concerns to one issue: an “initiative process [that] certainly needs fixing.”

Sunday’s front page seemed to mock the Times’ editorial stance. While The New York Times ran a pair of photos showing Bush and Gore out on the hustings, under a banner headline “With Broad Themes, Rivals Seek To Energize Voters,” the Times offered a photo-finish of another sort — a wide-angle shot of winning jockey Chris McCarron in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs. At least the metaphor wasn’t mixed.

By Monday, the Times’ editorial writers were “Wishing for Inspiration.” Like the half of the qualified electorate who were expected to sit out the election, they couldn’t find any. The paper, however, lacked the courage to push this realization to its logical conclusion, that both major party candidates came up short. Or worse, that Ralph Nader was more than a spoiler.

The Monday non-endorsement said, “In the end, voters will envision Gore or Bush as the new president next January . . . stepping into a silent Oval Office in the White House.What happens from that moment on is what counts in real life.”

George Orwell once commented that muddled writing is a sign of muddled thinking, and the tortured sentences reprinted here from Monday’s lead editorial prove his point. In one careless sentence, the Times writes off the entire campaign and the election, too.

The lack of editorial leadership may end under the paper’s new ownership. “We will undoubtedly reconsider it before the next presidential election,” said editor John Carroll. (By the way, things could get worse. The Chicago Tribune, the other big paper owned by Tribune Co., endorsed Bush.)

Four years can be a long time. Was nothing, then, at stake? One had only to turn elsewhere in the Times to find the kind of news that is fodder for editorial writers. On Sunday, David Savage had a story about the U.S. Supreme Court considering a case that could derail the Clean Air Act. “As Americans go to the polls Tuesday,” Savage wrote, “the Supreme Court will take up an unusually important clean-air case that could crimp the federal government’s power to combat pollution for several years.”

Pending before the high court is a case that might force the EPA to jettison a 30-year-old principle, proposed by the Nixon administration and passed by Congress in the 1970 Clean Air Act, that uses health-based standards for clean air. Big business wants a cost-benefit test when issuing regulations.

For Los Angeles residents, clean air is an abiding issue. Where the candidates stand on this potential threat to the 1970 act, and how both Bush and Gore have enforced existing anti-pollution laws, would seem to have been vital information — not only for Times editorial writers, but for Times readers. Yet, searching through the Times’ eight-page Voter Guide 2000 (leaving aside the editorial page lapses), under a breakdown of “Presidential Agendas,” the explanation of candidates’ environmental stances mentions neither Bush’s abysmal record on smog nor the Clinton administration’s eight years of foot-dragging on enforcing the Clean Air Act in Los Angeles (the city, behind Houston, with the worst air quality in the country). Rather than an evaluation of the specifics — what few there are — the Times guide credulously reprints handouts from the major-party campaign headquarters. And an examination of either party’s record while in power — as in “The past is prologue” — seems too much to ask of a newspaper with an editorial staff of more than 1,000.

One could single out other coverage in the Times that might have aided its editorial and Voter Guide 2000 writers to give definition to the candidates — Henry Weinstein’s coverage of death-row cases in Texas surely underscores the differences between Bush and Gore (both pro-death penalty) and Ralph Nader — but why go on?

The Times is a victim of its own philosophy. “There are a couple of reasons why we decided not to endorse for president this time,” Times spokesman David Garcia explained. “Most people have an idea of who they want to vote for, and there is enough information out there for people to decide on their own. And we wanted to focus on state and local issues, where we could best service our readers.”

The new owners of the Times might want to rethink the unenlightened endorsement policy it inherited. After all, it is the job of a newspaper to inform its readers, not service them.