Norma Desmond’s Ethics
Over at LA Observed you can read in detail about the latest meltdown inside the Los Angeles Times, this one having to do with the spiking of a story on the Armenian genocide. Because of the controversy, many memos have flown, and many stances taken, all of them wonderfully revealing of the incredible hubris inside that newsroom, a hubris that wholly unjustified by the sagging performance of a once-great newspaper slipping into irrelevance at a speed that boggles. Those of us who have spent the past half-decade building an audience rather than forfeiting it are a little more than amazed at the paper’s indifference to its audience and its slack-jawed response to the new media opportunities before it.
But, the paper’s elite tell us, at least they have their standards and ethics. Put aside the long line of Times’ scandals –whether the Staples Center special, Michael Hiltzik’s sock-puppetry, the leasing of the Sunday opinion section to the editor’s girlfriend’s boss or the latest, Armeniagate–the real laugher is the paper’s sense of importance, its preening about its role even as it became obvious to all that it was the Norma Desmond of Los Angeles media. Patterico is the real expert here, and even an hour spent rummaging through his archives will confirm the very harsh truth: The Times is an awful newspaper that doesn’t have a clue about how awful it is or how it happened.
Today’s front page has a story that illustrates why the paper is so lousy –a fine piece of agenda journalism that should be bookmarked and returned to again and again. I wouldn’t bother to call it to your attention except for its juxtaposition to the current newsroom meltdown.
Before I point you to the piece, though, be sure to read the reviews of One Party County: The Republican Plan For Dominance In The 21rst Century, by Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten, two reporters for the Los Angeles Times. The book is a polemic that argues, according to both its authors and its reviewers that “[w]ith the White House as a base of operations, Bush political advisor Karl Rove then set to work on ‘a breathtakingly ambitious plan to use the embryonic Bush presidency to build an enduring Republican majority.'” I had never heard of the book until Sunday morning when I participated in a panel at the Times’ Festival of Books with one of the co-authors, the affable Peter Wallsten. During our presentation, Wallsten vigorously argued his thesis to a sympathetic audience: Bush, Rove and their minions had thoroughly politicized the executive branch in a program to ruthlessly exploit every opportunity to make the GOP the permanent governing party. (“That explains why Gonzales only fired 8 of 90+ U.S. Attorneys,” I thought to myself as Peter argued his case, “and why the DOJ so ruthlessly prosecuted Sandy Berger to the full extent of the law and kept Clinton’s CIA director in place.” It is an absurd thesis especially compared with the Clinton years, but, hey, its his book and he can try to sell it.)
Before I point you to the piece, keep in mind that the current swirl of recriminations around Armeniagate has seen the paper’s top guy, Jim O’Shea announce that the controversy has its origins in the paper’s “policy [that] prohibits reporters from covering stories they have taken a position on or some action which could appear to compromise their objectivity.”
Before I point you to the piece, realize that Tom Hamburger has written a book with a thesis that asserts the Bush Administration has politicized the Executive Branch, and that Hamburger makes money from selling the book and thus the thesis.
Now, read the story by –who else– Tom Hamburger: “Bush appointee turns the spotlight inward.” It is a profile of the previously obscure Scott J. Bloch, the “lifelong Republican [who] runs an agency –the Office of Special Counsel– that is turning its investigative spotlight on the White House, in particular its political operation headed by Karl Rove.”
“His office is investigating whether Bush administration personnel violated civil statutes by inserting GOP electoral politics into Cabinet agency meetings, firing at least one U.S. attorney, and discussing some of the activities in private e-mails that are missing.”
So reporter Hamburger has co-authored a book asserting that the president and Karl Rove have politicized the executive branch beyond any precedent, and one of the co-authors is now “reporting” stories that pump up his book’s thesis, and which will propel book sales if the claims get traction. Very nice work, if you can get it. But what about that crucial Times’ policy behind the spiking of the Armenian genocide story about not reporting stories on issues on which you have taken a position?
The policy is of course a sham –how could it not be when Beltway big, the Times’ Ronald Brownstein co-authors books with Ralph Nader and while his family income includes the salary that his wife takes down as a staffer to John McCain? Mark Arax doesn’t have to dig very deep to find example after example of Times’ staffers with beliefs embedded in their reporters or interests that appear to reasonable readers to render them much less than objective. Arax should add “selective prosecution” to his list of grievances: Why does his story get killed and his reputation blackened while Hamburger gets to sell his book’s thesis, and thus his book, via a front page story?
My argument isn’t that Hamburger has violated any grand principle of the craft, but only that the paper’s pretensions are silly and transparently so, it’s claims to objectivity and the appearnce of objectivity ridiculous. They are a flock of agenda journalists, claiming that none of them have any mission other than the objective presentation of the news. What a joke. Just like the paper itself.