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TRIBUNE-TIMES MIRROR MERGER

News of L.A. Times Sale Stirs a City's Emotions

Media: The merger with Tribune Co. would mark the end of an era for the paper that helped build Los Angeles.

March 14, 2000|JIM NEWTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The impending end of Times Mirror Co. as a Los Angeles institution signals the passing of a consequential and controversial California epoch, and may mark the final major chapter in the abandonment of downtown Los Angeles by major corporations.

On Monday, the city's political and cultural leaders reacted with wariness and concern to news that Times Mirror Co., parent company of The Times, was being acquired by Chicago-based Tribune Co. Some worried about the impact on Los Angeles' cultural institutions, where Times Mirror has long been a leading contributor. Some wondered at the political implications of the nation's second-largest city suddenly being without any locally owned media institutions. Some fumed about what they saw as corporate greed trumping civic involvement.

And still others saw the sale as a historic passage, emblematic of a city that has long nurtured creativity but not stewardship and that now is shrugging off the last vestiges of the oligarchy that transformed Los Angeles from a scrappy frontier town into one of the world's most booming and diverse metropolises.

"This is the recolonization of Los Angeles and California," said Kevin Starr, a leading historian of the city and state. "The Times is one of the three, four or five elements that kept Los Angeles together, that gave it a sense of a center."

John Gregory Dunne, one of the city's most celebrated novelists and intellectuals, was more blunt: "I feel as if I was gut shot."

Although he now lives in New York, Dunne said he and his wife, the equally acclaimed novelist and essayist Joan Didion, still consider the Los Angeles Times their hometown paper. Dunne said he signs on to The Times' Web site every morning and has, for instance, saved every piece of the newspaper's ongoing police corruption coverage.

Didion was just as forceful, directing her anger at the Chandler family, which built the newspaper and engineered its sale.

"Some of the Chandlers built Los Angeles," she said. "The rest of them just sold it out. It was their birthright to trade, it's their mess of pottage they're left with, but they may be surprised how little the name Chandler will mean without the paper behind it."

Some Anger Aimed at Newspaper's CEO

Dunne was one of several people interviewed Monday who also expressed anger toward Times Mirror Chairman and CEO Mark Willes. Willes' attempts to transform The Times often ran afoul of journalistic traditionalists. But, paradoxically, the CEO only recently learned of the company's pending sale to Tribune--a deal negotiated directly between Chandler family representatives and the Chicago company.

"For the Chandler Trust to sell its birthright is like the Sulzbergers selling the New York Times to Rupert Murdoch," Dunne said.

The Times' history is inextricable from that of the city itself. Acting with stealth shortly after the turn of the century, the paper's owners were part of a large group of civic leaders who helped secure water from the Owens Valley. The newspaper, meanwhile, helped build public support for a bond issue to bring that water to Los Angeles. The maneuvering triggered a war with some residents of the Owens Valley and left resentments that linger even today.

And yet, as much as any single act, that move laid the foundation for the city's growth and security--and in the process made the Chandler family enormously rich.

Longtime Champions of Conservative Causes

The Chandlers and their paper for decades were staunch opponents of organized labor and determined advocates for conservative causes--interestingly, a world view shared by the Chicago Tribune's arch-conservative leader, Robert C. McCormick. But the Chandlers' views, solidified by the 1910 bombing of The Times' building by labor activists, dominated not just the newspaper but the city in which the paper grew and thrived.

"It's hard to imagine any place in the country where one family and its newspaper have been so directly responsible for the making of a great place," said Donald Waldie, public information officer for the city of Lakewood and a distinguished historian of suburbia. "That's been true for good and for ill."

So dominant were The Times and its owners that they once towered over the government itself. Now-retired Police Chief Ed Davis recalled Monday how he used to lobby for more police and bigger LAPD budgets. First stop, he said, was at The Times. Once he'd talked the publisher into his proposal, Davis would then head across the street to meet with the mayor.

"I'd walk into the mayor's office, and your reporter would give me a wink," Davis said. "He'd say: 'We put the fix in for you.' I'd get what I came for."

As the paper's politics drifted leftward to the center under the leadership of Otis Chandler, Chief Davis waged his share of titanic battles with The Times. He once famously canceled his subscription and vowed not to read The Times until it started publishing a newspaper, and he was regularly pilloried by editorial cartoonist Paul Conrad.

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