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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

The statement was quintessential Otis. He would be the first to admit that he's neither an intellectual nor a sparkling prose stylist nor a spellbinding orator, and his statement--repetitive, rambling, at times willfully blind to the paper's ethical shortcoming under his predecessors--was far from being a model of classic rhetoric. But it was honest, blunt, plain-spoken and filled with passion and conviction, and after several years of listening to the bromides of corporate-speak, the newsroom embraced the style as well as the substance of Chandler's remarks.

Parks says he told Downing there would be a story on Chandler's statement in the next day's paper. Because Parks had been a principal in the Staples Center controversy, Arnold edited the story. Leo Wolinsky asked Tim Rutten, the paper's City/County bureau chief, to write it.

About the time Rutten was writing, Managing Editor John Lindsay was in Parks' office, trying to resign. He was still angry that his advice on the Staples issue had been ignored, and he felt there had been a "lack of leadership" since the crisis arose. As he said in a follow-up letter to Parks the next day, "I did tell you last night I could not work for you and the current administration anymore."

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.

But after receiving assurances that steps were being taken to prevent any similar problems, Lindsay reconsidered.

Downing's Response

Willes, meanwhile, had declined to comment for Rutten's story. But Parks had spoken with Downing near their sixth-floor offices and had taken notes on her brief response to Chandler's statement. He typed them up and they were passed on to Rutten. "Otis Chandler is angry and bitter," Downing had said, "and he is doing a great disservice to this paper. And that's too bad because when he was publisher, he did wonderful things. It's too bad when some people get old, they get bitter."

Rutten thought the last sentence "seemed to be open to interpretation as disparaging someone because of his age," which is contrary to Times policy. He alerted his editors to this concern, and it was taken to Parks, who read it, thought the concern a valid one and also felt the sentence was "redundant to the first sentence."

"I took my copy pencil and excised it," he says.

But the portions of Downing's statement that did appear in the next morning's paper infuriated the staff anew. To them, it was just more evidence that Downing had no sense of Chandler's legacy or, by extension, of the traditions of journalism and of The Times in particular. Chandler had said, "Successfully running a newspaper is not like any other business," and in their eyes, she still didn't seem to understand that.

Almost immediately afterward, 8-by-10 photos of Chandler began showing up in the newsroom, posted on pillars and walls and desks and bulletin boards.

CHAPTER ELEVEN / The Aftermath

The day after Chandler's statement was read, four mid-level Times editors were having lunch in the Gallery, the company's executive dining room, when Mark Willes and Kathryn Downing walked in. The normal decibel level of midday conversation dropped noticeably as they made their way into the room and through the serve-yourself food line. It dropped further when they approached the table where the editors were sitting and asked to join them. No one objected.

Although Willes had been "unavailable for comment" the previous night, he now had plenty to say. He was clearly angry, say all four of the editors present that day, and what he seemed most angry about was not Chandler's statement but Bill Boyarsky's reading of the statement. Willes has since declined to discuss his comments or his feelings about these matters on the record, saying he believes it best to "praise in public and criticize in private." But his comments over lunch that day--made in what he says he regarded as a private conversation, but the journalists clearly did not--make his feelings quite clear.

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