One colleague's view of Eric Malnic, L.A. and the Times

Peter Hong worked with and admired Eric Malnic, the reporter and editor who worked at the Los Angeles Times for 47 years, bridging the Otis Chander and Sam Zell eras. After Malnic died this week, Hong sent around (and posted on Facebook) some thoughts on sharing the night shift with him, on race and the Times newsroom, and on life in Los Angeles and more particularly the San Gabriel Valley. Posted with permission, after the jump. Hong is currently a deputy to Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.

Eric Malnic was crossing Second Street at Times Mirror Square the first time I saw him. It was early 1995. He wore a blue blazer and held a thick briefcase with one meaty hand while the other poked the button to activate the crossing signal. He looked kind of like one of the rugged guys who worked at L.L. Bean and appeared in the catalog. We passed in the crosswalk and he simultaneously smiled and grunted at me. I still don’t know how he did it, but if you ever heard Eric sneeze you know his sounds and signals defied nature.

Eric was already kind of old; I wasn’t yet. The hair he had left was snow white. Approaching the middle of the road, his posture was straight as a soldier’s, his stride crisp and his path straightforward. There was absolute self-assuredness in that walk, so much that my first thought about this fellow I did not know was, “Man, that old guy could still really kick somebody’s ass if he wanted to.”

I got to know Eric soon enough. Even before anyone introduced us, he kindly sent me a note praising a story I’d written in my first few months at the Times. I started working as a reporter about 30 years after he did, and I appreciated the encouragement from a guy who had long ago arrived at the place for which I was aiming. Soon enough, we worked often together, as I did many rotations on the night desk that was his franchise.

Night shifts at the paper were a mixture of long down periods rapidly shattered by some spectacular event – a massive shooting, a big fire, someone special dying, or someone dying in a special way. One night, after 11, Niesen Himmel (a long story himself) heard a police radio call about a shooting at Florence and Normandie. It was very, very close to the paper’s final deadline and Eric had to make a quick decision. “Peter, just get there as fast as you can, don’t worry about tickets,” he said calmly.

I floored gas pedal of the Times car as soon as it was pointed toward the exit jumping the curb on the way out of the garage. The front license plate and a hubcap fell off the car onto Spring Street and I made a mental note to make sure to retrieve them later.

When I arrived at the crime scene, there were only a couple of patrol cops there, waiting for backup to fully secure the scene. The first officer who saw me, a youngster not long out of the academy, thought I might be a detective, but when I told him I was a Times reporter he seemed a lot more frightened by my arrival than by the homicide. I told him to relax and that I would stay out of their way. I walked across the street and got into the middle of a crowd of teenaged onlookers.

A detective was interviewing a distraught teenage girl, perhaps a witness. The crowd shouted at her: “keep quiet! Don’t say nothing !” I dictated the scene to Miles Corwin, who rewrote my account into a comprehensible story. What got into the paper wasn’t much, as we literally hit the last seconds of the re-plate deadline and there really wasn’t much information to be had so soon after the shots were fired.

But we got something in the paper. Someone was slain in our community. That wasn’t normal; it needed to be noted, and something had to be done about it – Eric didn’t say it in those words, but he showed that commitment through his actions. He was thrilled. After he thanked me for getting out to the scene, I told Eric that I actually got one of those Time Ford Countours airborne, and that I’d put the license plate and hubcap in the trunk on when I returned the keys. He beamed.

That’s when I learned Eric was a hot-rodder. Later, he took me for a spin in his supercharged, mid-engined Toyota sports car. A couple of six-footers, we looked like clowns getting in and out of that tiny two-seater, but we felt like Otis Chandler himself tearing up the deserted Arroyo Parkway near midnight.

Eric liked to talk about Otis, and I was eager to hear about him. This was during those many hours of waiting during the night shifts, the time that Eric used to school me in the heritage of the great newspaper he helped make, under the presumption, I supposed, that I would be around for some time after he was gone. Or maybe he just liked to talk.

Otis reversed the course of the Los Angeles Times by removing fervent bias from its political coverage. Eric told me as a young reporter, he was once summoned by Mayor Sam Yorty, who was confused by what he saw as the paper’s unrelenting critical coverage of his administration. “Ask Otis what he wants me to do,” Yorty pleaded with Eric. Eric said he returned to the Square and relayed the message to the publisher, “the Mayor wants to know what you want him to do,” Eric recalled saying. Otis, Eric said, laughed and said to tell the Mayor to keep doing whatever he wanted to do, it was no longer the Times’ business to direct officials. The Mayor wasn’t happy to hear that answer, Eric said.

On another occasion, a forest ranger called the Times and said a large animal was found dead (I can’t remember if it was a bear or a sheep or whether it was hit by a car or died some other way). Would Otis like it for his trophy collection ? Otis did want it – and Eric was sent to retrieve it; he drove the smelly carcass back from the Angeles National Forest to the Times for Otis to take a look, then to a taxidermist.

The most meaningful Otis story, though, was the one Eric often repeated about a low moment in his life. An alcoholic, Eric went into rehab for several weeks. Otis visited him in his rehab facility, Eric said, and assured him his job would be there for him when he got back, so he should take his time and make sure his recovery period was maximized. It was the second time the Times stood up for him, he said. The first was when he left for the Army, and was also promised he’d have a job when he returned. He never said so directly, but Eric repeated these stories to me, I believe, to emphasize that loyalty goes two ways -- loyal employees are produced by dedicated employers.

Joining the Times was for me a return to Los Angeles after several years in the East. I think this was another reason I bonded with Eric, who had gone to Williams College and served in the Army in Manhattan. We liked the East well enough, but we also resented the way some in the Eastern elite viewed Los Angeles; and found pitiful the insecurity lingering in some of our fellow Angelenos.

Eric grew up in Azusa long before it was suburbanized. He told me as a boy he and his friends could leave their .22 rifles in a classroom closet so they could hunt rabbits as soon as school let out. When he went to Williams, the College President met him at the end of his cross-country train trip. Other students who’d never left New England asked if his family was harassed by hostile Indians.

By Eric’s account, his Army experience also had a tinge of Eastern oddity. His special counter-intelligence unit was composed of recent college graduates. In the curious social scientific experimentation of the time, the Army required that each man be from a different college, so there were maybe 50 men from 50 different schools. They each were sent to Brooks Brothers where they were issued two suits and a pair of Cordovans, Eric said. He liked the swell duds, but when his time was up, Eric was ready to get back to Los Angeles.

From our conversations, we learned we shared an enthusiasm for the richness of our home region, and a feeling of pity for those who just didn’t get it. The mid-1990’s was a time of some cultural anxiety, at least among the punditry. There was a lot of media hand-wringing over whether the nation would be racially Balkanized, with Los Angeles leading the way. We both thought this was just plain silly.

Eric had been around long enough –and more important, had paid enough attention—to know that this kind of hysteria is cyclical, arriving with economic downturns. Eric had not only read the clear-eyed observations of Carey McWilliams written in the 1940’s, when the same racial tensions flared for a previous generation, he had known first-hand the historic nuances of Southern California’s civilization, experiences embedded in the subconscious of natives but absent from the expositions of Joan Didion.

Being from a San Gabriel Valley farm, Eric knew Japanese Americans who were rounded up and held captive at the Santa Anita race track, then sent to internment camps. His uncle commanded a Japanese American Army unit in Europe.

By Eric’s account, his parents had a bit of a bohemian streak. His mother was a Wellesley alumna, and his parents were curious about the different people around them. In the 1940’s, Eric said, there was a makeshift Chinese restaurant near his home, possibly run out of someone’s house. It served mainly the local Asian community, but Eric’s parents also liked to go there. They had to go alone, he said, because other white couples refused to join them. Much later, his mom and dad liked to drive to the Music Center in their dusty Land Rover.

Talking about race often makes people uncomfortable, but Eric didn’t shy from the topic, just as he spoke openly about his own addiction. In each case, he did so when he felt there was a point to make. On both subjects, his experiences left him optimistic.

“Haven’t you been on a jury ?” he asked once. “You have all these different people, with nothing in common. But eventually, everybody gets together and works things out.”
He said the paper’s minority recruiting efforts were important, but a bit contrived, kind of like the college quotas and Brooks Brothers dress code of his Army cadre. Why couldn’t people just use good judgment and focus on substance over form ?

It mildly frustrated him when colleagues viewed matters too simplistically, while showing cosmopolitan pretenses. “They don’t get you,” he once told me, referring to newsroom managers. “They expect minorities to be passive, they can help. They don’t know what to do when you hold your head up and tell them they’re full of it. There was another guy like you here a while ago and he had to get out. Tall Chinese guy, can’t remember his name.”

They often didn’t get Eric, either. Plain truth is nominally the raw material of newspapers, but it doesn’t always guide human relations in corporate newsrooms. When he manned the night desk, and a manager’s wife telephoned, Eric told her he was at the Redwood bar. Eric didn’t say he was there courting another woman, but the wife knew her husband well enough to figure it out. There were consequences at home, and the man was furious at Eric for not covering for him, as had been the custom for some.

“I don’t countenance adultery,” he told me. Being openly judgmental was no vice to Eric, but that too, was seen by many as a breach of newsroom decorum.

Eric was not bitter, though. Once, a notorious anti-immigrant activist sent me a letter (in the days before e-mail was ubiquitous) that concluded with the line, “Go Home, Chink.” I didn’t think it was worthwhile to write her back, but Eric, perhaps in one of those slow periods on the night shift, responded mischievously. He sent back a handwritten note sarcastically telling Barbara Coe her family and friends must all be proud of her for the way she conducts herself. That was pretty much all he wrote, but he added, “P.S. I’m Slovenian.”

In his last year at the Times, Eric told me he was reading his father’s diaries. His immigrant father wrote of looking down at the vast expanse of the San Gabriel Valley, and feeling there was no limit to what could be achieved here, in Southern California, no need to look back at what he’d left behind in Europe. Hackneyed as it may sound today, that 20th Century exuberance still moved Eric.

When I last saw Eric, complications from surgery had kept him in his hospital for months. He said he’d been through an ordeal, hadn’t always handled it the best way (he’d lashed out at the hospital staff, he said), but was feeling better. We talked about cars. He’d blown the engine on his last sports car, a high-revving Honda S2000 he’d adored. He wasn’t sure he’d get another sports car after that. But he had an Accord hybrid that could really move, he said. Sometimes, you lose something cherished, but the replacement turns out to be better than you expected.

He wasn’t sure about the paper either. I told him that given its financial condition, I didn’t know if I’d be able to spend the rest of my career there. We didn’t say much about the state of the Times; it had been his career to the end and I always expected it would be mine. Eric was not in denial about the paper’s troubles.

“It’s over,” he said of the paper we knew, but that didn’t mean something better wouldn’t emerge in the future. In the world Eric described to me on so many night shifts, it always did happen that way.

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