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Crossing the Line

A Los Angeles Times Profit-Sharing Arrangement With Staples Center Fuels a Firestorm of Protest in the Newsroom--and a Debate About Journalistic Ethics

December 20, 1999|DAVID SHAW | Times Staff Writer

Many in the newsroom still think that either Downing and Parks initially "just didn't get it"--didn't realize just how serious the transgression was--or that they hoped that if they didn't say or do anything, few people inside or outside the paper would find out about the profit-sharing. Both of them deny those charges. In retrospect, they both say they should have published a disclosure.

"Clearly," Parks says, "I underestimated the impact of the Staples arrangement on our credibility, on the journalistic ethos that we foster, on our standing in the community and in the profession, and for all those things, I have profound regret. . . . My job is not that of a gatekeeper. My job is the leader of the editorial staff of the paper. But I have responsibilities as a gatekeeper, and I failed in those--in part because I didn't know what was going on, in part because I was naive in my belief in our ability to manage a clearly sensitive situation, in part because I asked for but did not take the advice of very experienced colleagues"--those editors, especially Lindsay, who had urged him not to approve the special issue on Staples in the first place.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Monday December 27, 1999 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 2 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Investment conference--Participants in the Philadelphia Inquirer investment conference are selected by members of the paper's newsroom staff but, contrary to what was reported in The Times last Monday, they are invited by Morningstar, the co-sponsor of the conference.

Parks says that when he found out about the profit-sharing and first discussed it with Downing, his primary concern was to work with the publisher on the development of policies that would make sure nothing like this would happen again. Why didn't he issue a memo to the staff, or call a staff meeting, to say just that--to disclose and explain the profit-sharing agreement and his belated discovery of it and to tell the staff of his and Downing's efforts to prevent a recurrence?

As events unfolded over the next six weeks, that question would be asked again and again in the newsroom.

"There was a lot of talk about what the leader of the newsroom had to say about all this," says Henry Weinstein, a veteran reporter who would become one of the most outspoken critics of Downing, Parks and the profit-sharing agreement. "He felt he needed to talk to [Downing] but not to us. The editor owes some loyalty to someone other than the publisher, though--to the staff and to the readers and to the integrity of the institution."

Leadership Questioned

Parks says that he felt it best to handle the profit-sharing matter with Downing privately, rather than criticize her publicly; that was in keeping with his oft-spoken loyalty to her. "There should be no daylight between an editor and his publisher," he has said. Moreover, having been a foreign correspondent for most of his career at The Times, he hadn't developed many of the kinds of close newsroom relationships that editors often have, and most in the newsroom felt that left him even more in Downing's sway and even somewhat estranged from an editor's natural newsroom constituency.

As an experienced journalist, shouldn't he have realized that the profit-sharing arrangement would ultimately become known to others? Should he have urged Downing to disclose it to readers and staff members--or done so himself?

"I wish he had said something," Downing says. "The issue for me is not it getting out and it being an embarrassment. The issue for me is if we needed a disclosure to our readers and our newsroom. I wish we'd done it when we realized the issue."

Many in the newsroom bemoaned what they saw as a lack of leadership from Parks on the Staples controversy, and when asked about that in an interview early this month, he lowered his head, nodded and said, "I can see why they would feel that."

At the time, Parks says, he didn't want to say anything to the staff until Downing formulated a policy statement--or at least "an instruction."

"I needed her to act for me to speak," he says. "Other issues . . . were arising" that involved the relationship between the business and news departments, and he says he wanted her to address them as well. "I was trying to get to a policy statement from the publisher to the business side about what's appropriate and what's inappropriate. . . . My view was that the more encompassing it could be, the more effective it would be."

Parks says their discussions had started before he knew about the Staples profit-sharing deal, and Staples occurred on that "continuum." But the Staples revelations do not appear to have lent any sense of urgency to their talks, and no policy statement was forthcoming.

"There were a lot of other things going on," he says--budget meetings and plans for the redesign of the paper among them.

Downing says she doesn't recall any conversations with Parks about the need for a policy statement on the editorial/business interaction. They had been talking about formulating "a definition of what high-quality journalism means at the Los Angeles Times," she says, "and we may have had those discussions in that context, but none that I remember. I wouldn't quarrel with his memory, I just don't remember."


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