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L.A. Times media critic Tim Rutten on the sale and problems with his newspaper.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007
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HH: Joined this first half hour of this hour by Tim Rutten, media critic for the Los Angeles Times. Tim, welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt show.

TR: Glad to be here.

HH: Tim, before we get to the sale of the Tribune Company to Sam Zell, since you’re a media critic, I thought I would play for you the most important media story of the last week and get your comments on it. This is Rosie O’Donnell on The View last week, cut number three:

RO’D: I do believe that it is the first time in history that fire has ever melted steel. I do believe that it defies physics for the World Trade Center Tower 7, building 7, which collapsed in on itself, it is impossible for a building to fall the way it fell without explosives being involved, World Trade Center 7. World Trader 1 and 2 got hit by planes, 7 miraculously, the first time in history, steel was melted by fire. It is a physically impossible.

Co-host: And who do you think is responsible for that?

RO’D: I have no idea. But to say that we don’t know, that it imploded, that it wasn’t an implosion, a demolition, is beyond ignorant. Look at the films, get a physics expert here from Yale, from Harvard, pick the school, it defies reason.

HH: Okay, Tim Rutten, what do you make of that?

TR: It’s appalling (laughing).

HH: Had you heard of it before?

TR: What an idiot.

HH: Rosie O’Donnell’s an idiot? Had you heard of this before, though?

TR: Have I heard of it before?

HH: Yeah.

TR: You know, it’s not a show I watch. I did see something about it, and I think maybe we had a short item about it or something. I had not heard the clip before, but that’s…did the other guests on there call her on that?

HH: I don’t know. I’ve just seen that clip. Do you think she should be fired?

TR: Do I think she should be fired? I’m not in the business of telling people to fire other people. I wouldn’t want to do, I wouldn’t want to appear with somebody who held those views myself.

HH: Does it reflect on, is it CBS runs The View? Or is it ABC? ABC.

TR: ABC…it’s the Barbara Walters show?

HH: Yes, it is.

TR: Yeah.

HH: Does it reflect on ABC?

TR: Yeah, I think it reflects on their standards. It sure does.

HH: And so when they have somewhere on there talking about that, does it discredit them?

TR: I don’t think it discredits them. I think it raises certain questions about their judgment. I mean, what do you call people when you ask people onto a show like that, is that casting? Or is that…

HH: No, she’s a co-host.

TR: …a news assignment?

HH: She’s like a columnist in a newspaper. She’s a co-host of the show.

TR: Well then, that’s appalling.

HH: And it does diminish the value of the brand, doesn’t it?

TR: Well, it certainly, it would certainly make me less…I was about to say it would make me less likely to watch it, but I never have, so I guess that’s a ridiculous thing to say. No, I think that’s, that’s an appalling thing to say. I mean, it’s so…the worst thing about something like that is that it’s faux rational, and then there’s…it’s followed by that ‘well, I don’t know who did it.’ Most people who have promoted that really sort of obscene conspiracy theory go on to argue, very sinisterly, and even more obscenely that somebody in the American government had something to do with that tragedy, and that’s appalling. We all know who did it. They took credit for it.

HH: But what’s the responsibility of the parent company that’s putting out the product when they have crazy stuff, and irresponsible stuff being said on their television shows?

TR: Well, that’s an interesting question. I mean, is that show done by the news division or the entertainment division of ABC, do we know?

HH: I don’t know.

TR: If it’s done by the news division, I’d be very, very surprised. And if it’s done by the news division, then they really have a serious obligation to examine why they’re presenting somebody who behaves in that way, and clearly has diminished powers of reasoning.

HH: And do what about it, though?

TR: Well, I don’t know. That’s up to them. I mean, I don’t tell people to throw other people out of work.

HH: Just an opinion. They’re not going to listen to you anyway, Tim.

TR: Would I work with her? No.

HH: Well, that’s not the question.

TR: If I were her editor?

HH: No…

TR: If I were her editor, she’d be out of a job.

HH: It’s a publicly traded company with shareholders, and she’s hurting the company, isn’t she?

TR: I don’t know. We’re talking about it. That’ll probably just bring more viewers, unfortunately. That’s the way these kinds of things…

HH: Well then, why not put on, like, Aryan nation, and Islamist jihadist propaganda, or the snuff film…

TR: You know what? I fully expect that to happen someday.

HH: But would you, would that, would shareholders be right to object to that?

TR: Sure.

HH: Would they have…

TR: Of course. I mean, shareholders have a right to object to anything they want.

HH: But would it have merit?

TR: What I don’t do myself is try to stir people up into campaigns?

HH: I’m not asking that.

TR: Okay.

HH: I’m saying if you’re the corporate suits at ABC, and they just ask your opinion off the record, should we tolerate nuttery? And should we tolerate irresponsible commentary, what’s your advice to them?

TR: I would say no.

HH: Okay, now that brings me to your column today.

TR: I thought that’s where we were going. Go ahead.

HH: That’s where we’re going.

TR: (laughing)

HH: I want to read from your column today.

TR: Sure.

HH: “If and when Zell’s purchase of Tribune is consummated it will accomplish one thing for certain: After more than 120 years, the Chandler family will be out of the newspaper business. Good riddance. Southern California and this newspaper’s role in its development made the Chandlers rich beyond any normal human being’s wildest dreams. All the heavy lifting, of course, was done by their rapacious forbearers and, later, by Otis Chandler, who broke with the rest of his venal clan to make The Times a great newspaper. The current beneficiaries of all that brutal avarice and ingenuity are wealthy through no effort of their own. They’re like a bunch of Saudi princelings, whose grandfather’s wretched tent just happened to be pitched atop an oil field. Their blood is a kind of genetic lottery ticket. You’d think that sort of great fortune would have engendered some sense of gratitude – perhaps even a vague stirring of unfamiliar emotions, like … say … responsibility toward the city and region upon which their family has fattened for so long. Some of that sense of grateful obligation might even have included a small inclination to make sure that The Times continues to make itself of service to this community. The truth of the matter is, however, that – except for Otis – the Chandlers never have conceived of this newspaper as anything much more than agent or – in recent years – adjunct of their own financial interests…The people who run Tribune have learned that to their sorrow.” What exactly, Tim Rutten, did the Chandlers do to destroy the paper’s circulation over the last three years, or its share price at the Tribune Company?

TR: What did they do to destroy its share price? Well…

HH: Or its circulation. You blame them.

TR: Blame them for the circulation?

HH: You blame them for the hurt to this paper.

TR: Right.

HH: How did they do it?

TR: Oh, well, you know, the sale, the initial sale to Tribune, without selling the paper out of local hands, you know, turned out to be a very bad deal for both Tribune and for the L.A. Times.

HH: But the Chandlers…are you saying that they were obliged to hang onto the paper?

TR: No, I’m saying that they were, that they had some obligation to make sure that it continued to be run in a way that took cognizance of the realities of Southern California, in a way that was more constructive than Tribune turned out to be in those early years, capable of.

HH: Well, what is…

TR: Tribune has learned a lot about running the L.A. Times. Unfortunately, we’ve had in seven years of sad experience.

HH: What has happened to drive the circulation into the ground?

TR: Oh, lots of things. And you know that. Some of it you’ve written about very, very forcefully. Some of it has to do with the slowness of big journalistic institutions, but particularly of the Tribune Company to grasp how important the shift to online news was going to be, and how that the future, the future for newspapers is going to be some sort of hybrid of online and print.

HH: Do you have any responsibility, Tim Rutten, for the poor performance of the newspaper over the last seven years?

TR: Do I personally have any?

HH: Yeah.

TR: No, I think I’ve done about as well as I could.

HH: Do any of your colleagues in the newsroom have any responsibility?

TR: Sure. Some of them do.

HH: Which ones?

TR: Oh, I don’t…I’m not going to go there, you know that.

HH: Well, you just blasted Rosie O’Donnell…

TR: That’s not what I do.

HH: …for not naming names after saying there was a conspiracy theory.

TR: Sorry?

HH: You just blasted Rosie O’Donnell for not naming names after asserting that someone brought down the building.

TR: Right.

HH: You’re saying that some people in the newsroom hurt the paper, but you’re not going to name names. What’s the difference?

TR: What’s the difference? Those people in the newsroom, whatever they did or did not do, my judgment about that would be entirely subjective. They’re individuals who haven’t advanced any preposterous idea of this sort. You can’t hold the views that Rosie O’Donnell expressed on that show and be either a rational person or a person of good will. That’s the difference.

HH: After the Mohammed…Sheikh Khalid Mohammed confession, you wrote on March 17th, “As you might expect, this confession set the pundit pack braying in full force. We’ve now had 72 hours of faux Churchillian…” By the way, you love the word faux, don’t you?

TR: There’s a lot of it going around.

HH: Well, I mean, but you use it a lot.

TR: Yeah, well, a lot of what I see is false.

HH: Does faux mean false?

TR: Uh-huh.

HH: So who are the false Churchillian fulminators?

TR: Again, what is the point of this?

HH: Well, again, you made an accusation in your column which has no names attached to it. Why don’t you source those sorts of accusations?

TR: Why don’t I source them?

HH: Yeah.

TR: do you not see sort of evocations of Churchill all over the place?

HH: I do, but I don’t think they’re faux Churchillian, and I don’t know specifically what you’re referring to, so we can’t check the original reference. My guess, you often do this, Tim, I read your column most every Saturday that I’m in town, and you never name names. Why is that?

TR: Oh, how nice. I liked your book, by the way.

HH: Excuse me?

TR: I liked your book, by the way.

HH: Well, thank you.

TR: Yeah.

HH: Thank you, you can write about that, if you’d like. I’ll see you at the L.A. Times Festival of Books, and we’ll plug it together. But why not name names?

TR: Because it doesn’t serve any purpose.

HH: Other than allowing people to check the accuracy of your description.

TR: Listen, you know, the people are free to disagree with what I write.

HH: Not disagree, but prove…

TR: It’s a column. It’s not a news story.

HH: But what if you’re Rosie O’Donnell? That’s not a news story. What if you’re just making this up, Tim?

– – – –

HH: It’s Hugh Hewitt with Tim Rutten, media critic at the Los Angeles Times, the troubled and flailing about Los Angeles Times. Tim Rutten, have you been reading Mickey Kaus’ commentary on you and the paper?

TR: No, I can’t say that I have.

HH: Do you ever read Mickey?

TR: Oh, once in a while, yeah.

HH: Okay, he suggests that you are one of the disgruntled newsroom staffers who objected to the section that Brian Grazer was going to edit, guest edit for Current. Are you?

TR: No.

HH: You never objected to anyone?

TR: I was asked about it the day before the decision was made to kill it, but that was the only time…you’d be surprised, Hugh, there are a whole range of things around the L.A. Times I’m not consulted about.

HH: Who asked you about it?

TR: Jim O’Shea, the editor.

HH: And what did you tell him?

TR: I told him I thought it should be killed.

HH: Why?

TR: Because I thought first of all, that the idea itself was a bad idea, that we ought not to turn the Current section as it’s called now, I guess it’s going to be, go, revert to its old name Opinion shortly, that it was a bad idea to turn a part of the paper that way over to somebody other than an L.A. Times editor. And…so I thought the concept was a bad one. I thought that a Hollywood producer who is not only somebody who we cover, but somebody with whom we do business as an advertiser, or was a particularly problematic choice. And then when I was told about the relationship between one of Grazer’s publicists and the editor of the editorial pages, I thought is just raised too many questions.

HH: What was that relationship?

TR: They apparently date.

HH: Date?

TR: Date. So I’m told.

HH: Okay, and are you glad that Andres Martinez left?

TR: No, not at all.

HH: Do you think it was appropriate for him to leave?

TR: I think only he could answer that question. He was not asked to leave. My understanding is that he was, based on what David Hiller, the publisher told us, that he resigned because he felt his judgment had been questioned.

HH: Now he made an accusation that Times newsroom staffers had been influencing the editorial page, one of those verboten things at the L.A. Times for some time. Do you believe him?

TR: Yeah, well, I read what he said, but none of those things seemed inappropriate to me. I mean, it’s nothing, there’s nothing inappropriate about a reporter, an editor, raising, saying to the editorial page you know, this is something that you might be interested in. And in one of the cases that he cited, in fact, the editor involved had made that, made that suggestion to David Hiller, who after all, supervises the editorial pages. I don’t see anything inappropriate about that.

HH: All right, I want to zoom back to March…

TR: It would be inappropriate, by the way, if you had a reporter involved with the language of an editorial, or somehow in trying to influence the content of it. That would clearly be inappropriate.

HH: Why?

TR: But simply drawing attention to a topic is not necessarily wrong.

HH: But why would it be improper to have an editorial writer talking and being lobbied by a newspaper reporter on the right conclusion?

TR: Why would it? Because they’re…reporters are supposed to stay away from that stuff. Now quite often, when I was an editorial writer for a good period of time, and quite often, I would go to reporters when I was working on an editorial to make sure I understood the facts and so forth, but it was a one way sort of inquiry.

HH: Tim Rutten, do you have any idea of how damned dull your newspaper has become?

TR: Do I have any idea of how damned dull? God, I hope you don’t include me in that, Hugh. Parts of it are dull, yeah. Parts of it are dull. It’s a problem, it’s a problem for newspapers generally.

HH: No, it’s not. I mean, I read the Washington Post everyday, I read the Wall Street Journal everyday, I even force myself to read the New York Times, I read the Boston Globe. I can’t read your newspaper. It’s dreadful, Tim. You guys have killed a great…it’s not the Chandlers. It’s you people.

TR: Well, you know, Hugh, you and I just disagree about that.

HH: Well, the numbers don’t lie. You guys…you can’t shed readers faster than you’ve been doing. You couldn’t throw them overboard faster than they’re leaving the ship.

TR: Well, there are a lot of reasons, there are a lot of reasons for the decline of the circulation. Some of it has been, is due to demographic changes. Some of it’s due to the same, you know, every paper has this problem to a certain degree. The Los Angeles Times has it more acutely for a couple of reasons. One of it has to do with the convulsions that occurred after the sale, where the personnel and system cuts fell with particular harshness on the circulation department. And this is a very complicated market in which to sell newspapers. It always has been.

HH: Now let me ask you something. This is not…

TR: And we’ve also been hurt very badly by the do not call registry.

HH: This is not a trick question. I’m not attributing your complete sales collapse to this.

TR: Okay.

HH: But can you name for me the conservative columnist who is full-time at the Los Angeles Times?

TR: Who is full-time?

HH: Yeah.

TR: We don’t have a full-time political columnist at the newspaper.

HH: No, are any full-time columnists at the Los Angeles Times conservative?

TR: Not that I would characterize…I think not that you would recognize as conservative, no.

HH: Or that you would. I mean, they’re just not there.

TR: That I would? No.

HH: Okay, are there liberal columnists at the Los Angeles Times?

TR: Sure.

HH: How many of them?

TR: I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t think about my colleagues that pay.

HH: Oh, Patt Morrison was my colleague for ten years. She’s to the left of the leftiest person I’ve ever worked with.

TR: (laughing)

HH: Is Patt Morrison a liberal?

TR: Patt is certainly a liberal, yes.

HH: Is Ron Brownstein, who co-authored a book with Ralph Nader, a liberal?

TR: Well, you know, listen, I co-authored a book with Johnnie Cochran. It doesn’t make me a criminal defense lawyer.

HH: Okay, it doesn’t make you a defense attorney, I know, but what about Ronald Brownstein? He’s a liberal?

TR: Is Ron a liberal? No, I don’t think so.

HH: Oh, my gosh, you people are in such denial. It’s like alcoholics. We’ll never be able to work with you until you figure this out. Let me go back to your column on the 10th. Here is from March 10th, you’re writing about the Libby trial. “Now, truth to tell, most of the reporters who trooped into the Libby trial’s witness box were part of a fairly unlovely parade. Most, though not all, had made themselves willing tools of an administration bent on discrediting a guy whose offense was to inform people about how the White House had misled the country about its reasons for invading Iraq.” All right, who are you talking about, Tim?

TR: Who was I talking about? Well, you know, I’ve sort of named those people before. I was talking about Judy Miller…

HH: Yeah, I know, who else?

TR: I was talking about Judy Miller, I was talking about Matt Cooper, I was talking about…

HH: Tim Russert?

TR: …Tim Russert.

HH: All right, just wanted to know, because they’re not in the column, and I just…

TR: No, but I wrote many columns about that trial, and their names did appear in those columns. By the way, let me say something about Matt Cooper. One of those columns, I don’t remember whether it was that one or the last one, incorrectly characterized a story that he did. Matt Cooper did, at the end of that story sequence, do something that was very important, and that is that he and his colleagues there at Time drew, connected the dots.

HH: Yeah, yeah, but Tim, one more question before we run out of time. I want to get you back.

TR: I felt badly about that.

HH: Did your colleague, Michael Hiltzik, break ethical rules when he used sock puppetry on his blog?

TR: Sure.

HH: Should he still be at the paper?

TR: Yes.

HH: He’s writing newspaper stories. How can we trust him?

TR: Well, how can you trust him? Well, you know, news stories are verifiable, you know. If his stories were routinely false, there’d be plenty of people to point out that they were false.

HH: So the paper…the readers just have to accept its parole, huh? That’s…I’ll tell you, Tim, I hope you’ll come back, because I think you guys are going right to the bottom of the journalism ocean, and it’s because you don’t have a clue about what people think about your product. I’m coming right back. Thank you, Tim Rutten, of the Los Angeles Times.

End of interview.

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