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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

Some reporters who saw the column asked Karen Wada, one of the managing editors, about it and she questioned Parks--for the third time. In fact, she appears to have been the only editor who pressed him on the issue in the days before the controversy became full-blown.

Wada says she had first learned about the profit-sharing arrangement during a lunch with Alice Short five days after the magazine was published and six days before "The Finger" was published. She says she asked Parks at that time if this were true, and he said it was. "I asked him if he'd known about it, and he said: 'After the fact.' I said that I thought this was a terrible problem. . . . I expressed a lot of very strong concerns."

Wada says Parks "rushed off to some meeting, leaving me with many more questions," so she approached him again, "a few days later," to ask more questions and reiterate her concerns. "My first set of questions were about how could this have happened? . . . Why did it happen? I didn't really get a very clear answer to that." She says he told her that he thought "talking to Kathryn [Downing] was the proper course," but it wasn't clear to her whether he had already talked to Downing or was planning to do so.

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.

A few days later, "The Finger came out."

"More people were asking me about it now," she says. "I said [to Parks]: 'You have to do something because more people are hearing about it, and more people will hear about it.' . . . And we had to do something because that's the right thing to do but also because it wouldn't stay within The Times." But she says she "found it hard to suggest what could be done since I wasn't quite clear on what had happened."

Parks says he has "so many meetings with Karen" that he can't recall those conversations, but "would not dispute" her account of them.

Remarks Dismissed

Not everyone reacted strongly to Barrs' column, though, and there was still no widespread newsroom reaction. Barrs used to work at The Times, still has some friends here and often writes about the paper in a snide, gossipy fashion, so many Times staffers read his column. Few are now willing to say they read his profit-sharing column, though, and those few who did read it say they discounted what he said, as they often do, because his column is so often mistaken and malicious.

Kit Rachlis, senior project editor at The Times and a former alternative newspaper editor, was out of town when the column ran, but he reflects a view widely held at the paper when he says, "So much of his column, especially when it's aimed at The Times, is so filled with childish name-calling and personal vituperation that . . . it's easy to dismiss even when he's accurate and sharply observant . . . even when he's uncovered something."

Article Triggers Outrage

One reader who didn't automatically discount "The Finger" was Felicity Barringer, media reporter for the New York Times. Barringer appears to have had heard reports that The Times was considering a profit-sharing issue of its Sunday magazine for next year's Democratic National Convention (see accompanying story, Page 12), and she was browsing the Internet, looking for further information. When she saw Barrs' column on the Web site for the New Times, she got on the telephone.

The next Tuesday, Oct. 26, her story appeared on the front page of the business section of the Times under the headline: "Newspaper Magazine Shares Profits With a Subject."

Most journalists at The Times say that this was the first they had heard of the Staples arrangement and they were outraged. Most blamed Downing and Willes for having created a climate in which business considerations increasingly seemed to take precedence over news judgment and journalistic values. But much of the anger was directed at Parks, who was quoted in the New York Times as saying, "I really don't know the details on Staples. It was a very complex arrangement."

But the only "details" that really mattered were that The Times had agreed to share the profits from its magazine with the subject of that magazine and that Parks had known that for well over a month. Didn't he tell Barringer he thought the arrangement was improper?

"I did," he says. "I wasn't quoted. I told her that this was an inappropriate arrangement, and we should not have done it."

Barringer says that she didn't quote those remarks because Parks didn't make them. Examining her notes during a recent interview, Barringer said, "There's not a word like that in my notes or in my memory of our conversation. I cannot imagine that I would have neglected to take down notes on any such statement or would have failed to use it. No one's memory or note-taking is 100% accurate, but I would trust my memory and my notes that the issue of propriety was not raised by him."

Integrity Questioned

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