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OUTSIDE THE TENT

The Times' awkward family squabble

October 15, 2006|Alicia C. Shepard | ALICIA C. SHEPARD is a media critic who teaches journalism at American University. Her book "Woodward and Bernstein: Life in the Shadow of Watergate" comes out in November.

TIMES MEDIA writer Jim Rainey has one of the hardest jobs in journalism today. He and a few others report on this paper's news-making spats with parent Tribune Co. It's almost the equivalent of covering your parents' marital woes for public consumption. Sometimes it seems like Dad is a jerk and making a big mistake. Other times, it looks like Mom is really cool for standing up to Dad's demands.

It all makes for some awkward journalistic moments.

Times reporters are really covering two stories. One is a business story about the fate of a Fortune 500 company that, in addition to The Times, owns the Chicago Tribune, KTLA-TV Channel 5, the Chicago Cubs and other newspapers and TV stations across the country. Tribune's largest shareholder group is the Chandler family, which sold Times Mirror Co. and other properties to Tribune in 2000. The family wants Tribune to make changes to increase shareholder (i.e. their) value. That's awkward.

As a reporter, I can imagine the internal struggles that Times journalists experience when writing stories about the future of their employer. Ditto: editors. I'm confident they strive to be fair and accurate and omit personal biases.

It makes a reader wonder, though, what they leave out of their stories. Is there information they don't include, but know, because it might steam Tribune management in Chicago or reflect badly on the paper's editor or their bosses? It's really a no-win situation.

A newspaper needs to be accountable and transparent, but even more so when it is the story. To help ensure that readers trust its coverage of itself, The Times should be frank and admit that the situation is indeed awkward, invite reader comments, answer them and then either print the exchanges or put them online. The Times has a readers' representative, but that's a reactive job, not a proactive one.

Wouldn't it have been worthwhile, for example, if Editor Dean Baquet had written a column on the awkwardness of reporting on his paper's disputes with Tribune? He might have explained why reporters sometimes cited anonymous sources in stories about Tribune, even though Tribune owns the paper. It's not unreasonable for readers to assume that because Tribune owns The Times, its reporters would have the inside scoop on what's going on. Or Baquet could have explained why Times reporters, in a Sept. 23 article, used a quote that Tribune Chief Executive Dennis J. FitzSimons gave to the Wall Street Journal -- "The L.A. Times is part of Tribune and not for sale" -- rather than get one directly from FitzSimons?

But the awkwardness doesn't stop there. Besides being a business story, The Times-Tribune quarrel is also a juicy human interest story, a David-versus-Goliath tale. In late August, a Tribune executive flew to L.A. to demand that Baquet and former Publisher Jeffrey M. Johnson make newsroom cuts beyond last year's to boost profits. On Aug. 25, Baquet and Johnson refused, in essence telling the Chicago visitor that enough is enough. Johnson's words -- "Newspapers can't cut their way into the future" -- were approvingly echoed throughout the newspaper world.

The story of Baquet and Johnson standing up to parent Tribune first appeared deep in a Times article about a letter from 20 L.A. civic leaders protesting that more staff cuts at the paper "threatened to seriously erode the quality of journalism at The Times." That this personal confrontation, which became the story in other publications, was buried in The Times underscores the awkwardness of a newspaper reporting on itself. It got a lot easier when Johnson was fired for his refusal to follow Chicago's orders.

Admittedly, it would have been tough for Baquet to explain his paper's coverage of these and other events. So, find a credible outsider -- a "journalistic rabbi" -- with whom editors could consult on how best to handle things when your paper is the story.

I am certain the editorial staff is uncomfortable with the Times-versus-Tribune story, and I'm certain editors and reporters are striving to figure out the best way to handle it. Tell us about it. Let's not pretend that "Mom and Dad's marriage" isn't experiencing a rough period when everyone knows it is.

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