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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

At shortly after 2 o'clock, sitting in the office he maintains in his wild animal and vintage car and motorcycle museum in Oxnard, Chandler had called Boyarsky, a 29-year Times veteran who had been a political reporter when Chandler was the publisher. "I want you to pass on verbally this message to the staff," he told Boyarsky. He dictated a long, discursive statement, and Boyarsky took it down, had it retyped and faxed it back to Chandler. Then he told his immediate supervisor, Metropolitan Editor Roxane Arnold, about Chandler's desire to have the statement read aloud.

"I told Bill it's not something I would do," Arnold says. After a week of unrest, she thought the newsroom was beginning to calm down, and she was sure that reading Chandler's statement would roil the waters anew.

Boyarsky told her that he couldn't refuse Chandler's request. "I said he was a great man who made this paper what it was. We wouldn't be working here if it weren't for him. He was one of the most distinguished figures in American journalism." Indeed, that very week, Editor & Publisher magazine had named Chandler one of the 25 most influential newspaper people of the 20th century.

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.

Arnold asked to look at Chandler's statement, then told Boyarsky he'd be "doing Otis a big favor if he edited it . . . edit it and post it."

Chandler was editing the statement himself at that time, and when he called Boyarsky back, they discussed it at some length. The statement was faxed back and forth twice more, and there were also two more phone conversations, during which Boyarsky says he suggested eliminating one or two things and "improving a couple of transitions." When Chandler was satisfied with the final copy, he again asked Boyarsky to read it to the staff and post it on the newsroom bulletin board. Meanwhile, Managing Editor Leo Wolinsky and, subsequently, Editor Michael Parks had joined Arnold in asking Boyarsky not to read the statement. Parks says he was concerned that it might disrupt production of the paper, and he also thought it inappropriate for the city editor to read a statement "denouncing the publisher of the paper and the chairman / chief executive of Times Mirror." But, like Arnold and Wolinsky, Parks didn't order Boyarsky not to read the statement; all three just asked--and he refused.

"I couldn't have lived with myself if I didn't read it," Boyarsky says. "I would have regretted it to my dying day."

About 5:45 p.m., an "ALL" message flashed across every Times newsroom computer screen from Boyarsky:

"At 6:10, I will read a statement from Otis Chandler at the city desk."

A few minutes later, reporters and editors began gathering near the desk.

'Devastating Period'

Arnold was still opposed to Boyarsky reading the statement but she had told him that he had to do what he felt was right--"act according to his own conscience"--and now that he was going to do it, she says, "I just didn't want him to feel like he was alone, way out there on a hook somewhere." She asked him to delay a few minutes so she could sit beside him when he read it.

Boyarsky was enormously appreciative. "When Roxane sat down, it was a gesture of emotional support and real friendship," he says.

At 6:15, Boyarsky brought work to a dead halt by reading Chandler's five-page statement amid stunned silence, two bursts of applause and a loud buzz of approval and gratitude from a newsroom staff thoroughly dispirited by recent events.

The statement was a stinging and unprecedented rebuke to Mark Willes and Kathryn Downing.

"One cannot successfully run a great newspaper like the Los Angeles Times with executives in the top two positions, both of whom have no newspaper experience at any level," Chandler said. He accused Willes and Downing of misusing and abusing the newsroom staff, of "unbelievably stupid and unprofessional handling of the Staples special section," and of perpetrating a "scandal" and a "fiasco" that posed "the most serious single threat to the future survival and growth of this great newspaper during my more than 50 years of being associated with The Times." This was, he said, "probably the single most devastating period in the history of this great newspaper.

"If a newspaper, even a great newspaper like the Los Angeles Times, loses credibility with its community, with its readers, with its advertisers, with its shareholders, that is probably the most serious circumstance that I can possibly envision," Chandler said. "Respect and credibility for a newspaper is irreplaceable."

Honest and Blunt

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