July 30, 2008
Troubling (L.A.) Times
Why do I feel like my already ailing IQ drops to below safe levels every time I pick up the Los Angeles Times lately?
The world is at war, the economy is sagging, Obama's in the Middle East and Europe, a Bosnian Serb leader wanted for war crimes has been arrested after 13 years on the lam, and what else of major import is going on in the world?
What is so crucial, so urgent, that it deserves front-page-of-the-L.A.-Times-on-a-Tuesday-morning exposure?
Oh, yes, Candy Spelling is buying an as-yet-unbuilt condo in Century City and a flight attendant who manages to keep her adult passengers quiet on what is probably an awful flight by giving them crayons so they can draw on their food (a.k.a. pretzel) trays.
Maybe all the layoffs and buyouts have cut just a little too deeply into the newsroom, or Mr. Zell is purposely dumbing down his newspaper in hopes of making it more profitable. Maybe there was no real news to cover anywhere in the world that day -- nothing noteworthy about politics, the arts or the state of humanity in general.
Or maybe I'm just dim and out of touch, can't recognize a real journalistic feat -- the new condo will have a massage room; the flight attendant would like to organize an art show for the crayon drawings -- to save my life. But I'm still bothered by the People magazine quality of reporting that the L.A. Times seems to increasingly favor.
It's not like I'm new to Los Angeles and don't understand the public's fascination with celebrity, or like I haven't seen enough luxury and waste and stupid ways to spend money to recognize a really stupid one -- like throwing down $47 million for a "killer 360-degree view" of downtown and the ocean. (Can I buy the gentleman who wrote this article a thesaurus for his birthday? Tell him that "killer view" is one of those clichés one must use only with tremendous irony?) Not like I've forgotten the breathless reporting by the media about the Spellings' Holmby Hills house -- there's a bowling alley, a gift-wrapping room and a roof that leaks with every rain.
I still don't see how a self-respecting major newspaper in a self-respecting major city can justify firing 150 editors and reporters, closing down its book review, announce it's going to cut thousands of pages worth of space over the next year and instead serve up news that there are too few $40 million houses for sale in Los Angeles. Candy's lucky she found one, even if it is just a condo.
If it's true that a newspaper's mission is partly to reflect the community it serves, then I suppose one could surmise from the front-page layout of the L.A. Times that we are a city that gives, or feels it should give, equal weight to news about the spending habits of the rich wives of rich dead men, as we do to, say, a possible worldwide economic meltdown.
And if it's true that a major newspaper finds its readership depending on the kind of news it covers and the way it covers that news, then one must assume that the L.A. Times is targeting two new major groups: adults who have to be placated like a bunch of 3-year-olds at Sizzler and very rich women who have done everything else there is to do in life and are now busy worrying about finding the next $40 million house.
Well, OK, I'll be the first to admit that there are way too many readers in Los Angeles who prefer the crayon news to the Bosnia news. That our priorities are often disastrously misplaced.
That too many of us mothers spend too many years planning a bar mitzvah that will outshine all our friends' at a cost and with special effects that rival the production budget of a major Hollywood film like, say, "The Dark Knight," that if we used the time and energy (not even the money, mind you, just the human element) we put into "volunteering" at our kids' schools and standing in line to buy an iPhone -- if we used even a fraction of that talent, brains and enthusiasm in the service of something truly significant, we would probably be happier people.
But I also know that there is much more to Los Angeles than its wealthy Westside widows and its skinny blond wanna-be widows. I know we're smarter, more literate, more cultured than what our media takes us for. I know we can tell the difference between real journalism (whose mission is to uncover and report the truth) and "Entertainment Tonight." I think we have a right to a press that will rise to our standards instead of dragging us down to the lowest common denominator.
Even in its current, semidecimated, under-siege-by-speculators state, the L.A. Times boasts a roster of writers and reporters (Patt Morrison, Tim Rutten, David Ulin) who are among the best in their profession anywhere. Like it or not, the newspaper represents this city and reflects its standards to much of the outside world.
If Mr. Zell and company are willing to risk losing the paper's most loyal core of readers, they deserve the consequences, whatever they may be. If we, who have stuck with the paper through years of downsizing and turmoil, who have looked the other way and whispered and lamented, sometimes even boycotted for a week or two before renewing our subscription, prayed in vain for a civic-minded white knight to buy the paper and save it -- if we accept the further diminishing of the L.A. Times without demanding more, demanding better, we, too, deserve those consequences.
Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is "Caspian Rain" (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in The Journal.