With rare exceptions, the Orange County edition of the Los Angeles Times, once eager to expose corruption at the highest levels of the local establishment, exists no more. Far from its dedication to stories such as its bombshell 1995 series on financial shenanigans at the toll-road agency, the Times OC nowadays arranges compromising business partnerships with that same toll-road agency and—even more questionable—with the establishment's nefarious lobbying arm: the Orange County Business Council. Some thought the paper had hit rock bottom in 1997 when it did something not even the blatantly pro-Republican Orange County Register would do: align itself with Bob Dornan in his voter-fraud fiasco.
New evidence suggests the paper has yet to come out of its tailspin. On Aug. 26, Times OC employees—a talented but beleaguered crew that has suffered under the direction of feckless management —received what was apparently intended to be an uplifting employee bulletin.
"We thought you would love to see the attached story of one reader's view of some of the wonderful things that are happening at the Orange County edition of the Los Angeles Times in general. The reader, Hugh Hewitt, is a columnist for an Orange County magazine, so he has a platform from which to share his view," wrote Times publisher Kathryn M. Downing and senior vice president Bob Magnuson.
"As Hewitt notes, he has not been shy about 'bashing the Los Angeles Times' in past columns. So when he writes that 'the Business section has no rival in the country' and 'the local content and color edge presently enjoyed by the Times presents a huge challenge to the Register's leadership,' it suggests that people are really beginning to notice the positive changes. Enjoy!"
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Downing and Magnuson didn't bother to thoroughly describe Hewitt, who is, of course, more than just an OC Metro guest columnist. He's one of the county's most vociferous Republican Party mouthpieces, a former Richard Nixon aide, a high-priced corporate attorney for powerful Newport Beach real-estate developers—and the man who has for years berated the Times for not abandoning journalistic neutrality to promote ultraconservative politicians and their causes. In one fact-skewed column two years ago, Hewitt warned the Times OC that it would lose credibility and circulation if it did not produce news coverage to please conservatives, particularly religious conservatives. Shortly thereafter the paper boosted its coverage of religious fundamentalists and added former Nixon speechwriter and current Republican campaign operative Ken Khachigian as a regular columnist. (Hewitt—who couldn't be reached for comment—didn't exactly get all he wanted; in the past, he pushed for the Times to hire right-wing reactionary editorial writer Harold Johnson from the Register.)
"Orange County publisher Lennie La Guire and OC publisher Roger Oglesby have got the train headed in the right direction," Hewitt wrote in the July 29 column Times management so admired, "News Flash: The Times Orange County has (gasp!) improved." It probably helped that after Hewitt began his public criticism several years ago, the Times OC published a nauseatingly sweet series of articles and rah-rah editorial on the local Republican Party machine and covered for Dornan's not-so-subtle attacks on Latinos during the bitter, defeated ex-congressman's imaginary voter-fraud conspiracy.
But the Reg rival has yet to transform itself entirely to Hewitt's liking. "The statewide political coverage is still a ghastly mlange of hand-wringing liberalism and Democrat boosterism that is a positive obstacle to Republican subscribers," Hewitt wrote in the same column.
That Hewitt appears to have the rapt attention of Timesmanagement understandably frightens reporters. "It seems the new goal of the Times is not to practice good journalism but to appease archconservatives, and this memo seems to be proof of our 'new mission,'" one self-described "stunned" Times employee told the Weekly. "The day that those in power at the Times deemed Hugh Hewitt's opinion of the Orange County edition as a level of high achievement is the day we crossed over to the dark side."