IT’S A LOT LIKE those grainy tokusatsu kaiju, sci-fi horror films where the gigantic mutant dinosaurs — or, in this case, “newsosaurs” — spend most of their screen time beating the crap out of each other when what they really should be doing is fighting those outside forces that threaten their very survival. So it was with a mixture of amusement and bewilderment that I watched The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times re-engage each other the past week in a battle for personnel within the incredibly shrinking world of print media. On Tuesday, the NYT made a big freaking deal about what was a foregone conclusion: bringing back fired LAT editor Dean Baquet, this time as Washington bureau chief and assistant managing editor. It followed New York Times executive editor Bill Keller’s very public boast about how anyone at the LAT was his for the taking. (“[The Washington Post will] probably go hire all the good people from the L.A. Times .?.?. All the good people who are left after we’ve finished our own hiring.”) In reaction, new LAT editor Jim O’Shea angrily told me Tuesday he’s fed up with Keller.
“Somebody sitting in New York isn’t a god of journalism. I personally don’t take shots at their paper. I don’t feel that enhances my stature as an editor. And so, if someone feels that’s how they have to play big, then that’s their business,” said O’Shea. “But it’s posturing. He thinks I’m going to let them pick me off? I’m telling you right now I’m going to fight hard to keep everyone I’ve got. We’re just as good as the NYT. Believe me, working there isn’t a walk in the park, either.”
Yet how ironic that the future of both papers is similarly precarious now that Wall Street is pressuring their parent companies over lousy financial performances. It’s the same sick story on both coasts: Declines in advertising and increased online competition have slashed earnings at both media corporations. The LAT’s Tribune Co. put itself up for bid, but that auction concluded unsatisfactorily Wednesday. Neither the Burkle/Broad nor the Chandler family offers for the Big Media company were deemed “an appropriate premium” above the current share value, insiders tell me, so a management-led solution is now in progress. And even though The New York Times Co. is in a state of denial because it’s protected by family ownership, the corporation has posted five straight years of slumping stock culminating in a reported $648 million loss for the fourth quarter of 2006 as it absorbed an $814.4 million write-down on its New England colonies, in particular the Boston Globe, which is shutting its foreign bureaus (something the Tribune Co. would love the LAT to do). Which is why Keller’s show of Baquet-induced bravado this week looked all the more ridiculous when he claimed the NYT is “perhaps the last great American news organization that is not in retreat.”
“For all their sense of superiority, The New York Times Company’s problems with the Boston Globe are not unlike Tribune’s problems with the L.A. Times,” O’Shea retorted.“The only difference is that we still have the ownership situation uncertain. Until that’s clarified, I don’t know what the future holds. I should add, for the paper or for me.”
Usually, the naming of a new Los Angeles Times editor is a much-ballyhooed event during which a lot of ink is spilled on hosannas from journalists far and wide. But O’Shea’s appointment not only didn’t have any accompanying fanfare, it was tantamount to a funeral, since it spelled the death of the 15-month-old anti-cutbacks rebellion led by Baquet and his cadre of sycophants. From the start, O’Shea was dismissed as a 63-year-old short-timer shuffling his way into retirement, even more so because he came in with only a two-year contract to stay in Los Angeles. (His wife of 33 years, a museum spinmeister, didn’t even move west.)
Considered a newspaperman’s newspaperman (isn’t every managing editor?) with a background in foreign, national, business and investigative news, he was seen as a Tribune lackey, there to carry out every parent company order to the letter. Ironically, O’Shea at first tried to broker a peace between Baquet and publisher David Hiller, who came out here from Chicago gunning to fire Baquet. O’Shea urged both men to work together for at least a few weeks. It was impossible. So O’Shea took over reluctantly, moving from a downtown hotel (“It was kinda depressing”) to a month-to-month furnished rental in Pasadena. Now the quintessential Chicagoan, in both style and substance (there’s nothing slick or manicured about this guy, from his ill-fitting suit to his crooked teeth), is rapidly becoming another Los Angeles cliché.
He now has leased a Manhattan Beach condo and a Lexus. This editor who before Christmas knew only that Westwood was near UCLA has been “out to the Valley and other areas. I rode around with the police one night into South-Central and Rampart. I’ve been taking very long bike rides, which is a great way to see things. I’ve even found myself sitting here and debating, ‘Should I go to Chicago this weekend?’ Because when I look at the ocean out there, I think, ‘What’s the point of going somewhere else?’
“At first, Los Angeles was a culture shock,” O’Shea continued. “Chicago was so much more compact. This is different. It’s absolutely fascinating — the city of the future where we have to deal with multicultural/multilingual issues the world is going to face. I say to myself, ‘Holy cow, how do you cover it?’”
At the newspaper, he has outlined grandiose plans for an aggressive transformation of the LAT’s state-of-disaster Web site as well as the newspaper’s near-nonexistent local coverage and its coma-inducing reporting and writing. “There’s some pretty well-written stuff in the paper. But my emphasis is on shorter articles,” O’Shea explained. “People don’t have a lot of time. So I’ve been saying to editors that we don’t work hard enough for readers. We need to give them the information up-front and fast so they can make a decision about whether they want to read the story.”
MEANWHILE, BAQUET OUGHT TO come clean about the real nature of the too-close relationship he had with the Billionaire Boys Club (Burkle, Broad, Geffen, etc.) whom he and/or his surrogates were actively wooing to return the LAT to local ownership. It wasn’t clear until Tuesday just how long O’Shea’s tenure would last with Baquet in exile at his home in Santa Monica, literally waiting for the results of the Tribune auction. His NYT return only followed the Tribune Co.’s quiet rejection of the Broad/Burkle overture. As it was, fat cats Eli Broad and Ron Burkle submitted their joint bid just a day after Baquet was forced out of his job November 7 and had been talking with him both before and after. Not only did they urge him to remain in the L.A. area until the auction was over, but also assured Baquet the top spot at the paper again after their expected takeover. Baquet clearly placed himself in an ethically challenging position. Nor could he see how it undermined his public-relations crusade as Dean of Arc to preserve the editorial integrity of the LAT in the face of Tribune Co.–ordered staff and budget cuts.
So why is it that only I bristle at how Baquet on Tuesday tried to downplay his links to the rich locals bidding for his erstwhile paper? He characterized his interactions with the Billionaire Boys Club as “some casual conversations” with Broad and Burkle, even claiming he kept his personal distance because he might someday be in the position of directing news coverage of them if they won the paper. Baquet also parsed that he’d never met that other potential suitor, David Geffen. Oh, puh-leeze. All the evidence clearly shows that Baquet was actively and anxiously courting Broad himself and through surrogates, and Geffen through his managing editor Leo Wolinsky. I myself reported that, not long before Baquet became editor, Jeffrey Katzenberg sought a meet-and-greet during which the mogul announced that Geffen really wanted to buy the newspaper. It’s also common knowledge that, not long after, Geffen in September 2005 invited Wolinsky to his Beverly Hills estate, and together they discussed Geffen’s buying the paper with Baquet’s blessing. Baquet himself kept meeting with L.A. civic leaders while on the prowl for yet more potential suitors. I’ve also already reported that an LAT investigation of Burkle, the grocery magnate and gossip magnet, had began in April 2006 and continued aggressively until it was abruptly back-burnered after Burkle’s name surfaced as one of the paper’s billionaire suitors.
It’s peculiar that Baquet is considered a breath of fresh air for the NYT Washington bureau after the stink left behind by Judith Miller’s ethical lapses. I understand there has been tension between the Washington bureau and the NYT headquarters for some time, and that managing editor Jill Abramson actively pushed to remove chief Phil Taubman. Baquet, meanwhile, has told pals again and again over the years that he’s always wanted to be the chief of a big, busy Washington bureau because “it was the one thing he had not done.” Ironically, Tuesday’s changes now mean that Baquet will be in direct competition with Abramson, as well as editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal and deputy managing editor Jonathan Landman to be heir apparent to Keller, a situation that will prove endlessly entertaining for NYT staffers in the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, with Baquet finally gone, O’Shea can star solo in the LAT’s continuing horror show.