Off With Its Head!

Nottingham's out, La Guire's 'fresh eye' is in at the Times

Times employees, who spoke on condition that they not be named, said Nottingham's removal was positive and had been rumored for months. Lennie La Guire, the 41-year-old deputy metropolitan editor and city editor for the Times in downtown LA, replaces Nottingham as head of the 170-person editorial staff based in Costa Mesa. La Guire has at least a wee bit of Orange County experience: she worked briefly for The Orange County Register in 1985. Although there was some internal frustration that the replacement wasn't someone with greater OC roots, Times editor Michael Parks said La Guire will "bring a fresh eye and journalistic courage" to the edition's losing circulation war with the Register.

Times officials expressed similar optimism in mid-1996, when Nottingham replaced Marty Baron, who had eagerly jumped to The New York Times. The bland, uninspiring Nottingham wasn't anyone's first choice. He was reportedly the 13th person offered the top OC spot, and some reporters promptly speculated he would be in over his head. Back then, however, LA Times management put on a happy face, promising that Nottingham's leadership would "lead the way to new levels of journalistic excellence."

New lows would be more like it. The Times' reputation as the daily paper locals could rely on for hard-hitting independent journalism suffered devastating--perhaps long-term--damage under Nottingham. The edition's excellent local reporting was routinely overshadowed by high-profile cases of incompetence, ass-kissing and outright journalistic fraud. It was Nottingham who caved in to Orange County Republican Party demands to publish what turned out to be a nauseatingly rah-rah series (plus a glowing editorial) on the goons who run the county's corrupt political machine.

But Nottingham's worst, most unforgivable sin was in eagerly handing the Times' credibility to bitter ex-Congressman Robert K. Dornan and his bogus claims that a "massive criminal conspiracy" by Latinos stole the November 1996 election. Voter records conclusively demonstrated from the outset that Dornan was lying, but Nottingham ignored the facts, perhaps gambling that local Latino leaders would be indicted (if not convicted) by a nearly all-conservative grand jury of whites, a Republican district attorney, a Republican secretary of state, and a Republican-controlled Congress. In a radio interview at the same time, Nottingham dropped any pretense of neutrality by insisting there was a "fraud" and that he believed Dornan's conspiracy theory. Outraged Latinos canceled their subscriptions and repeatedly picketed the paper's headquarters. As a result, the hottest bumper sticker around OC in 1997 was not Carl Karcher's "eat me," but "Boycott LA Times."

Adding to its blunders, Nottingham's public-relations crew tried to argue that accusing Latinos of election fraud was an act of political courage in conservative, white Orange County. It was all absurd, including Dornan's claims--which his reluctant fellow Republicans eventually unmasked as a ruse.

(Disclosure: when I criticized the Times' coverage, Nottingham demanded that my boss yank me off the story.)

In the end, Nottingham's fate was probably sealed last December, when Michael J. Schroeder--Dornan's lawyer and also chairman of the California Republican Party--told a group of northern California Republican activists that a Times OC political reporter and Dornan had had a secret three-month arrangement to promote the voter-fraud allegations.

"I knew he was history at that point," said one prominent Latino community leader who lobbied for Nottingham's dismissal and predicted the departure in December. "Bill Nottingham is an arrogant, incredibly petty man who had no business running a major newspaper. Because of him, our trust in the Los Angeles Times is gone. We'll see if the new editor will change that."

 
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