May 16, 2002
Breaking the Media Monopoly
Jews aren't the only Angelenos dissatisfied with the Los Angeles Times. Indeed, for the first time in a generation, that dissatisfaction may actually produce something akin to competition for the most dominant newspaper west of Chicago.
Today speculation centers on the efforts of former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan to start a new weekly or daily newspaper to compete with the gray lady of Spring Street. Like other Angelenos, the Jewish community should look forward to such efforts, if nothing else to provide an alternative to the conventional, liberal-media spin that dominates not only the Times, but virtually all the major national newspapers.
It may seem odd that Jews, supposed masters of the liberal media, might want to break with institutions where, in many cases, they have played prominent roles for generations. Although never under Jewish ownership, the Times' has long had many prominent Jewish editors and writers.
Yet as historian Fred Siegel has pointed out, recent trends in large-scale newspapers, including The New York Times, have propelled a major rift between these institutions and Jews -- particularly on issues involving Israel. Several factors are critical to this process, notably the growth of "Third Worldist" ideology among reporters, detachment of editors and writers from the concerns of their core middle-class readers and the sheer complexity of news itself.
In the post-Sept. 11 reality, particularly since the recent events in Israel, these factors have come to create -- for the first time -- a well-founded impression that much, if not most, of the news media is actually hostile to both the Jewish state and our community's interests. As adept consumers of information, Siegel asserts, Jews have been perhaps among the most likely to start seeking out new media sources that they feel more accurately reflects reality.
"Jews are adept at going on the Net or to cable to find things they feel more comfortable with," Siegel suggests. "They are not likely to stand pat with something they feel is hostile to them."
In New York, this dissatisfaction, particularly among moderate and conservative readers, has led to a plethora of new alternative publications, including the Manhattan Institute's City Journal, the New York Observer and, most recently, the daily Sun. Many of those involved with these publications, including Sun Editor Seth Lipsky, formerly of the Jewish Forward, are prominent, self-identified Jews.
Can a Sun-like publication rise in Los Angeles? To some extent, conditions for such a venture are promising. Over the past few decades, the Times, once a supreme booster of Los Angeles' growth, has become widely perceived as a negative force, particularly in business circles. Under the guidance of Southern liberal Editor Shelby Coffey, the paper became nationally renown as one of the more politically correct publications in the nation.
In the dark days of the early 1990s the Times' increasingly reflexive pro-Third World, racially obsessed and often almost hysterically pro-labor politics colored its coverage of local events. A generally "progressive" tilt became so entrenched as to not even be noticeable to editors and reporters themselves. The paper's perceived tilt against Israel may have its roots in these attitudes, as leftist opinion has turned against the Jewish state.
Since the recent takeover of the Times by the Chicago-based Tribune Co., the political bias seems to have somewhat eased, and at least a patina of professionalism has made something of a welcome comeback. Yet, the paper all too often seems still inhabited by the spirit of Coffeyism -- pandering to various constituencies made up of presumed "victims" of color, while often seemingly contemptuous of the values of middle-class suburbanites, who make up the bulk of the readers.
Added to this problem are those brought on by having a great newspaper now owned by out-of-state interests and run by editors with often little firsthand knowledge of the admittedly complex, often difficult to fathom, megalopolis of Los Angeles. This inexperience, a lack of sechel, if you will, not any deep-seated anti-Semitism, is what likely accounted for such mistakes as not covering the massive Woodley Park pro-Israel rally last month.
Riordan and his supporters hope these factors -- a perception of insensitivity to local interests, excessive negativity and alienation of middle-class, middle-age readers -- can create the basis for a new newspaper. Yet sources close to Riordan suggest that the former mayor is far from sure what tack he wants to take. Some worry openly that the amateurishness that characterized the mayor's recent disastrous gubernatorial run will now spill into this venture.
Top Riordan advisers on the project, who include several close personal associates, feel that a sophisticated weekly, a la The New York Observer, would make the most sense. This publication would appeal to many of those who are prime targets of advertisers -- notably affluent Westsiders and Valley residents. These are readers who can get their national news from the Internet, The New York Times or the Wall Street Journal but are looking for incisive local coverage of politics, culture and business. Jews would constitute a large, perhaps even a majority, of the audience for such an effort.
The case for weeklies rests on the success of several such publications in Los Angeles already. Although not known as a great print-media mecca, several weeklies -- from the leftist LA Weekly and its rival New Times, to the snappy Downtown News and the nuts-and-bolts oriented L.A. Business Journal -- all thrive in this market. Much of the best reporting about Los Angeles politics, where the Times reporting is often weak and unfocused, comes from writers like Marc Haefele of the Weekly and the acerbic Jill Stewart at New Times.
Economics suggest that a weekly, at very least, loses less money than a daily. A general-interest weekly that serves the more affluent and older reader -- the LA Weekly and New Times are clearly for the under-35 crowd -- conceivably could find a profitable market niche, Riordan's more business-oriented advisers contend.
But another, perhaps more exciting and risky alternative lies with following something closer to the Sun model. Matt Welch, the 30-something publisher of the lively LA Examiner Web site, (www.laexaminer.com), has been urging Riordan in this direction. He sees a daily tabloid that covers Los Angeles with passion and interest -- in contrast to the perceived indifference of the Times -- as having far more relevance than a weekly publication that, in his words, "appeals to 25,000 rich people on the Westside."
Welch may well be right, and his zeal for a Los Angeles publication that appeals to local pride and interests reflects an increasingly strong local identity among a new generation of post-riot writers and journalists. But it still may boil down to a matter of dollars and cents. And since it's largely Riordan's pocket change that is at issue, what happens next is largely up to him.
As a community that loves Los Angeles, and intends to stay, we can only wish Riordan, Welch and their compatriots well as they look to create an alternative that all Angelenos deserve. So, too, should my sometimes-journalistic colleagues at the Times, for whom a strong, intelligent competitor would provide the most salutatory of medicines.