As a top reporter, editor and columnist during the L.A. Times' heyday, LA Observed columnist Bill Boyarsky knew political cartoonist Paul Conrad pretty well. He also looked into Conrad's story for his recent book, Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times. So he was struck by what the Times' obituary on Conrad left out, considering that the paper and one of its most recognized names ever split on bad terms. Bill's column goes into what Conrad meant to to the newsroom staff, how he ticked off powerful people and was eventually replaced by conservative Michael Ramirez, and how Conrad — who died over the weekend — felt about the Times toward the end. Sample:
In the Los Angeles Times obituary on Paul Conrad, editor Russ Stanton said, “we have missed him since the day he retired.” But it wasn’t quite like that. Conrad had been angry at the paper since his 1993 retirement—at the unforgivable way he had been treated and, most important, at the direction the paper had taken....
The workers on the newsroom floor admired his fierce independence, courage and idealism. We liked the way that our publishers, first Otis Chandler and then Tom Johnson, and editor Bill Thomas stood up against those who complained about Conrad’s savage satirizing of the big shots’ failings. We felt that if they stood behind Conrad and his excellent work, they would stand behind us and our journalism. And they did.
I lived through that era and the downhill slide that followed it.
After Otis Chandler retired as publisher in 1980 and moved into the leadership of Times Mirror, Conrad’s troubles began. In 1986, the conservative Chandler family members forced Otis out as editor-in-chief and chairman of Times Mirror. Three years later, Johnson, who had succeeded him as publisher, was ordered to fire the editor of the editorial pages, Tony Day, a moderate who was liberal on social issues and a steadfast Conrad supporter. Johnson refused and was fired. That year, Bill Thomas, who stood up for Conrad, retired as editor. The editorial page became bland and more conservative. Conrad, the opposite of bland and conservative, was out of place and out of highly placed friends and supporters....
The impact of his daily cartoons was gone. He was just another of the syndicated cartoonists the paper occasionally used. Readers didn’t know when he would appear, or where on the pages his cartoons would run. Angry, he often called the editors, demanding to know why his cartoons weren’t being run. He couldn’t get straight answers. America’s greatest political cartoonist was being treated as if he were a rookie freelancer.