David Abel, public policy consultant and publisher of The Planning Report, argues in this week's Outside the Tent that dumbed-down media are largely to blame for the city's pathetic voter turnout and moribund civic life. He says that a lively newspaper engages and informs about local issues, but complains that the Times owes Los Angeles an apology (and he thinks space-sucking cartoons in Sunday Opinion are part of the problem, not the solution):
Today, one finds too little in newspapers about civic life and representative government. What one does find is typically truncated or homogenized for consumption by the lowest common public denominator. The result: At election time, our local political leaders and would-be leaders address a shrinking, ill-informed general audience, increasingly dominated by a small but potent constituency dependent on public employment.
I think I know the reason for this poor performance, and Los Angeles deserves an apology from The Times — regarded nationally as the principal voice of Los Angeles. Absentee owners, recently arrived managers and trimmed-down staff have given disproportionately less attention to the sections — local news and the editorial, Op-Ed and Sunday Opinion pages — most likely to be read and referenced by the opinion leaders who drive local politics and the electronic media, all of which depend on The Times for sourcing and reporting.
For example, as we approached the March election, where in the L.A. Times were the insights about the identity and interests of the all-important governing coalitions that form around candidates for office and compete fiercely to run City Hall and spend taxpayer dollars.
Where, to be specific, was the reporting on Bill Wardlaw, Mayor James Hahn's unpaid campaign manager and the man who oversees what is arguably the principal political coalition in this city, the one responsible for the fact that Hahn sits today in the mayor's office?
Wardlaw's behind-the-scenes role as a political kingmaker is legendary in the city among a certain small political elite. But while The Times gave him passing mention in perhaps a dozen pieces, the newspaper never fleshed him out in a profile or substantive analysis. The omission — just one of many — speaks unflattering volumes about The Times' knowledge of and reporting on Los Angeles politics and spoils system.
Things are even worse in Sunday Opinion, where cartoons about the mayor's race consumed two full pages that could have been devoted to considered opinion in the lead-up to the primary. These amused, but where was any shade of insight about the complex political culture of this city?
The Times website collects the past four Outside the Tent entries and makes them freely available, if you happen to be on the opening Opinion page. It would be more in keeping with the feature's intent if the website offered permanent free links to all Tent contributions (Kaus, Hewitt and Cooper are already gone) and put the OtT archive link in a useful place alongside the latest piece.
Speaking of Wardlaw, when I was researching him last year for a short piece in Los Angeles magazine, the buzz was that LAT investigative reporter Ted Rohrlich—who profiled Wardlaw and his wife, federal judge Kim Wardlaw, in 1995—was busy on a new story. It hasn't yet appeared, so might still be in the works. And in the spirit of Outside the Tent's recurring theme that gossip makes for an engaged and vibrant local political culture, someone who circulates at City Hall just emailed to suggest that Abel had hoped to fill a Wardlaw-like role himself in a Hertzberg administration.