We can all breathe a sigh of relief: the Los Angeles Times has reassured readers that it will avoid all future associations "that might compromise our integrity or damage our credibility."
The Times took a step toward fulfilling that promise on Jan. 7, when it promoted Ardith Hilliard to a newly created assistant to the editor position. In that job, Hilliard will oversee "guidelines governing cooperation between the editorial and business sides of the paper."
Translation: the Times has an ethics czar, someone to make sure the paper doesn't find itself where it did in October, when it was revealed the paper had entered a secret profit-sharing deal with the downtown LA Staples Center, the subject of its massive 164-page Oct. 10, 1999, Times Sunday magazine.
In a Dec. 19 front-page letter to readers, Timesofficials acknowledged that the paper had discovered similar problems. "We have found a handful of situations that are not consistent with journalistic independence, and we are correcting them," publisher Kathryn M. Downing and editor Michael Parks wrote. "We pledge to seek and report the truth with honesty, accuracy, fairness and courage. . . . We will show no favoritism."
In fact, Downing and Parks' promise of truth, accuracy and courage was broken as soon as they made it. Noticeably, they didn't bother to identify the "handful" of other tainted news stories or who had benefited from these "situations"—a political candidate? A corporation? A major advertiser? They also didn't explain what had been done to correct the public record on that "handful" of ethical lapses.
Despite these glaring omissions, Times news executives—the same crew ultimately responsible for allowing the paper's Orange County edition to recklessly side with Bob Dornan in the now-disproved 1996 Mexican-voter-fraud conspiracy—posed as pious. They promised to be "vigilant among ourselves and open with our readers" because "editorial integrity" is the paper's "most precious asset." Conflicts of interest, "real or perceived," will be avoided, they claimed.
As an indication of how committed they are to avoiding conflicts, the executives might have asked an outside reporter to investigate the Staples mess. Instead, they looked around their Spring Street headquarters and settled on a veteran employee: media reporter David Shaw.
To his credit, Shaw won a Pulitzer Prize for his criticism of the Times' (and other media) coverage in the 1980s of the infamous McMartin Preschool sexual-molestation story.
In the Staples Affair, however, Shaw has bombed. His account was long on self-serving rhetoric (he called his story an "independent, six-week investigation"), long on details (how long was the "stunned silence" between two Times editors?), and just plain long (a biblical 30,806 words).
While voluminous, the Shaw "investigation" was far from thorough; at times, it was downright sympathetic to his employers. He generously called Downing (his boss) "obviously intelligent" and apparently put up no substantial fuss when Times management refused to release the "precise" details of the deal with the Staples Center. Though Shaw quoted an editor as saying, "I've seen a lot of things I would classify as incursions over the line," he spared the paper embarrassment by failing to identify a single example.
Oddly, Shaw saved his greatest wrath for the local alternative newspapers that broke the scandal. In several prominent spots in his story, the Times reporter seemed determined to prove that articles in the Los Angeles Business Journal (Oct. 11, 1999) and New Times (Oct. 21, 1999) had no effect on forcing the Times' mea culpa. Of the Business Journal, Shaw haughtily wrote, "few Times reporters or editors read [it], and those who do don't pay any attention to it." (The Business Journal's editor later pointed out that Times reporters and editors hold 57 subscriptions to his paper.) Though the New Times account was the most detailed early version, Shaw adolescently dismissed it as "snide" and "gossipy" and—without citing a single error the paper has made—labeled it "often mistaken and malicious."
Only pettiness can explain why Shaw felt compelled to convince readers that no one at the Times (particularly Times reporters) knew of the scandal until The New York Times published its account on Oct. 26, 1999—more than two weeks after the LA Business Journal's article. The New York paper returned the compliment by describing Shaw's account as "unsparing" and pretending the ethical mess was history.
Twenty-four hours after the Times had committed itself to "truth with honesty, accuracy, fairness and courage," Shaw made it clear that the Times had already fallen back into its familiar habit of a contempt so great that it could not concede it had been scooped by the New Times—on its own turf.
Nor does the Times' new commitment to editorial integrity extend to Orange County, where the paper continues to maintain several associations that are apparent conflicts of interest. For example:
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•Times executives have long been members of the Orange County Business Council, an exclusive corporate lobbying organization that attempts to influence key local public-policy debates regularly covered by Times reporters.
•For decades, the paper has favorably covered proposed massive development of the historic Dana Point Headlands, a property owned until last year by the Chandler family—owners, in turn, of the Times.
•The paper also has a financial stake in the success of the Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA), quasi-public groups that manage the county's toll roads. Based on an advertising partnership with the agency, the Times hopes to increase its second-place circulation in OC. TCA toll-booth employees have handed out free copies of the Times. The agency's Web site contains an advertisement for the paper: "LA Times Offers Free Tolls." According to the ad, the Times will pay up to $75 in tolls when a commuter agrees to subscribe to the paper for 12 months. "The more news you pay for," boasts the ad, "the more tolls you get!"
Is there evidence that the close association with the TCA has skewed the paper's coverage of the toll roads? The Times repeatedly sided with its pals on the OC Business Council to endorse building the controversial roads. To its credit, the paper has since published a few tough toll-road exposs; to its everlasting discredit, it has also produced numerous articles that could have come straight out of the TCA's slick PR office—like the one blaming frequent San Joaquin Hills toll-road accidents on drivers; the Timesmight have probed the possibility that TCA's penny-pinching construction shortcuts made bad-weather driving more hazardous. But then again, perhaps the Times' cozy tie to the TCA is just one of those "handful" of unethical "situations" Shaw wouldn't reveal.