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SPECIAL REPORT / CROSSING THE LINE

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

Parks told his seven visitors that he hadn't decided yet who would write the story and who would edit it, and a discussion ensued about whether it would best be done by someone inside the paper or someone outside. The seven felt strongly that it should be done by someone inside. Parks later said he had already made up his mind who would do it but hadn't yet discussed it with the parties involved. He had, however, informed Downing and Willes. "It was an editor's decision," he says. "I told [Downing] I'd re-thought it and we have to do it. She said, essentially, 'You do what you need to do, and you have my support.' "

Later that afternoon, Parks called George Cotliar, former longtime managing editor of The Times, and asked him to be the editor on the story. Cotliar agreed. That evening, Parks called reporter David Shaw and asked him to write it. Shaw, whose previous requests to write the story had been rejected by Parks, also agreed.

Between those two phone calls, the most dramatic recent moment in the 118-year history of The Times would play itself out in the newsroom. But it had been 24 days since the Staples Center issue of the magazine was published; had Downing and Parks taken so long to agree to an investigation for the reasons they stated--because they thought they knew everything and wanted to move on . . . or because they had hoped the problem would go away? It's impossible to answer that question with any certainty. There's one other question, though, that can be answered, and those answers go a long way toward explaining how and why the Staples debacle happened.

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.

The question:

Why had it taken so long for reporters and editors at The Times to mount their challenge to Parks and Downing, or even to complain loudly to one another, about the profit-sharing deal?

Wolinsky, for example, had first heard about the profit-sharing arrangement from another editor five days after the magazine was published, and he had done nothing about it. He was upset by the deal, but he didn't talk to Parks about it right away, and he didn't get really mad about it until he saw the Wall Street Journal story.

Roxane Arnold, the paper's metropolitan editor, had a similar reaction. She too heard about the profit-sharing before the national press covered it, and she didn't go to Parks either. She says she can't even remember just when or how she learned about it, and that alone "really dismays me. . . . It should have been such a stunning revelation. . . . It seemed terrible but not terrible enough to raise a fuss" until she read about it in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. That "made it real," she says. "It was embarrassing. . . . It's a public humiliation."

Why did it take the Journal and the New York Times to make so many Times reporters and editors realize how badly their paper had erred and to prompt their demands for an explanation and a promise that it wouldn't happen again?

Unimaginable Breach

Even now, that is not an easy question to answer. Or, rather, it's a question with many answers.

Some people who heard early reports of the profit-sharing arrangement simply didn't believe it. They just couldn't imagine that such a blatant breach of one of the basic tenets of journalism could possibly have occurred at The Times. Others, like Scott Kraft, the paper's national editor, dismissed it as one of many rumors he had heard that "wasn't in my area" and so wasn't worth checking out.

Moreover, Weinstein says, The Times, like many workplaces, is "not terribly conducive to people raising troubling questions to their bosses, especially not about an endeavor of this magnitude."

At some newspapers, challenge and confrontation between reporters and editors are routine. After all, reporters challenge authority figures for a living. But what made the angry cafeteria meeting with Downing so extraordinary was that at The Times, civility has generally been far more common than confrontation, and not just in the newsroom.

"This is not a confrontational culture," says Ray McCutcheon, the paper's vice president for display advertising, who previously worked at Newsday. "I'm a direct person. It comes from living in New York all those years. . . . Here people tend not to want to confront issues head-on until forced to do so or they avoid issues by compromise more than decision. In New York, we could have a knock-down, drag-out [argument] and be fine the next day. Here, if I raise my voice, people take it personally. Feelings get hurt easily here."

The Wall vs. a Line

No one seems quite sure why this is so. Perhaps it has something to do with the slower pace and more laid-back lifestyle of Southern California. Whatever the cause, the result in this case was clear: A surprising lack of confrontation until other newspapers reported the deal and publicly embarrassed The Times.

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