McDougal on Otis *

Dennis McDougal, author of Privileged Son: Otis Chandler and the Rise and Fall of the LA Times Dynasty, gave a lecture on his subject and former publisher at the Los Angeles Times to journalism students at the University of Memphis two weeks ago. McDougal, who now lives in Memphis, visited Chandler in Oxnard late last year and knew that his health was rapidly failing. His lecture reads as an admiring obituary on both Otis and, perhaps, the Times itself. (Also: Wall Street Journal editor David Crook, a former LAT writer, on Chandler. And Joe Scott blogs about the Times' coverage.)

Excerpts from McDougal (who is on Life and Times Wednesday):

When the singer Harry Belafonte lit out for Ethiopia in 1985 to see how best to spend the millions generated by the hit song “We Are the World,” my editor told me to tag along with them. When I got to London and found there were no direct flights to Addis Ababa, my editor told me to fly to Nairobi, put up at the $300-a-night Mt. Kenya Safari Club, and hire a bush pilot if I had to in order to catch up. When I finally did get to Ethiopia, Belafonte was getting on a plane to fly across the Sahara desert to meet with Sheiks in the center of the Sudan. My editor told me to rent a Cessna and follow them. By the time I got back from that trip, my expense account topped $15,000. Larry Armstrong, the photographer who went with me turned in a higher expense account. He claimed film was more expensive in Khartoum than it was at Walgreen’s.

The golden era of big city journalism can be ascribed to one man. His name was Otis Chandler, and for a quarter of a century, he ran the Los Angeles Times. When he retired as publisher in 1985, the same year I chased Harry Belafonte across the horn of Africa, the Times was at its zenith...

Last year shortly after Thanksgiving, I got a call. It was a mutual friend who said Otis was failing, and that I ought to go see him while I still could. Just before Christmas, I made the hour drive from Los Angeles to Oxnard.

I was shocked. Otis had gained nearly 50 pounds. He moved with the quickness of a snail. His eyes wandered along with his thoughts. I hadn’t spent ten minutes with him before he grew tired, begged off further talk, and disappeared into his office where I learned later from his wife Bettina that he’d had a bed installed for his frequent naps. I was witnessing the beginning stages of Lewy Body Dementia. As with Alzheimer’s, its equally devastating cousin, there is no cure. First, the short term memory vanishes and slowly, over time, the lights fade in the rest of the brain.

What had befallen Otis seems both rude and sad. He was not just a newspaper publisher; he was a vital and vigorous man who wanted to take in all of life from its smallest intimacies to its biggest adventures. He was once an Olympic shot put contender, a world class surfer, and a big game hunter who stalked Kodiak in the Arctic and big horn sheep in the most remote outposts of the Sahara. At an age when most men count getting out on the golf course a few times a year as strenuous exercise, Otis still pumped iron and rode his bicycle a minimum of five miles a day.

Otis instructed his editors to print it first, print it right and leave the cost to him. He wanted the best journalists in the nation working for the Times and was willing to pay any price to pursue a scoop. Times expense accounts became the stuff of legend. Foreign correspondents lived like sultans. Photographers and staff writers regularly flew the Concorde to and from Europe.

And who could really argue with the results? During the turbulent decades of the 1960s and 70s, the Los Angeles Times weighed in as not only the wealthiest and biggest newspaper in the nation, but also as one of the best – certainly in the same league as the Washington Post and the New York Times and frequently better than either of those two rivals. In the heady days of Watergate, when America’s big city journalism was arguably at its zenith, Otis Chandler’s newspaper broke nearly as many revealing scoops about the Chandler family’s creation Richard Nixon, as either the Post or the New York Times. Don’t misunderstand: the Times still had its sacred cows and shibboleths, as any newspaper does. But the standard now was excellence, and even the Chandlers themselves were fair game. One of Otis’s first efforts as publisher was a ravaging series of articles debunking the far right John Birch Society, of which his own aunt and uncle were leading lights. Otis himself wrote a front page editorial condemning the archly conservative organization and the Birchers never recovered.

But times change, and after two golden decades under Otis, so did his Times.

[skip]

The Los Angeles Times became a Tribune Company cash cow. Today it is at a crucial – and, perhaps, dire – crossroads in its long and colorful history. And, again, the culprit is greed. Only this time, the greed is bloodless and corporate. We’ll never know whether Harry Chandler might have been able to save the family store. Now there is no chance of that ever happening. Times Mirror is no more. The Tribune Company is headquartered 2,000 miles from Los Angeles on the shores of Lake Michigan. All its management cares about is quarterly profit margins – the larger the better, but nothing less than 20 percent. Lean economic times or unforeseen catastrophe is no excuse. Red ink equals the guillotine.

[skip]

I didn’t come here to elevate the good old days, but to tell you that I envy you. If I were starting out today, I’d be pouring my energy into building my own website or joining one already in progress and asking myself the hard questions of what it is I care about, what it is I want to report on, what it is as an individual I have to say. I can’t help but believe that Otis would agree.


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