The Los Angeles Times cranked to life its occasional Readers' Representative Journal blog on Monday to explain how the paper came to use the words "fuck" and "pussy" in reporting on Donald Trump's crude taped remarks with TV host Billy Bush in LA in 2005. It was the first time this year that the blog was used to address Times readers on an ethics or standards issue, the blog's stated reason for existing. It is otherwise used for posting editor memos on job moves, and once (this month) also mentioned a reporting award won by a Times investigation.
Times editors initially decided to not use Trump's explicit language, says the blog post by readers' representative Deirdre Edgar. The Times website on Friday and Saturday's print story on the controversy — which ran deep inside the paper, not on the front page — did not get explicit. Then there was a change of heart — I'm guessing after East Coast editors had made the call? — and LAT editors on Friday night added a transcript to the website and okayed graphic language be included in a Sunday print story. It was the first time since 1998 that the LA Times knowingly printed "fuck" in its pages, according to the blog entry.
We don’t lightly use obscenities in the paper or on our website,” Managing Editor Marc Duvoisin said. “Readers rely on us to make judgments about when it’s necessary to subject them to offensive language, and usually it isn’t. This is a case where it was necessary. That became clearer as the night wore on and the video grew into a crisis for Trump’s campaign and the Republican Party.”
In its article on the video, the Washington Post used dashes — f--- and p---- — in place of the actual words. The New York Times spelled them out fully. The Wall Street Journal used the word “pussy” in a quote but not the F-word.
In the transcript published in the Los Angeles Times, Trump says: “I’ll admit it. I did try and fuck her. She was married.” It was the first time The Times had published the F-word in print since 1998. That time, the expletive appeared in an excerpt from the Starr Report, an investigation of then-President Bill Clinton by independent counsel Kenneth Starr. The Times’ internal archive shows only three uses of the word in the print newspaper — including Sunday’s — since 1985.
The Los Angeles Times made a different decision after a 2010 open-microphone moment, when Vice President Joe Biden was heard using the F-word to tell President Obama what a big deal it was to sign the Affordable Care Act. In its print story, The Times quoted Biden as saying it was a “big … deal.”
The blog entry doesn't delve into a bigger question that I've seen Times readers, staffers and former staffers discussing on social media ever since the story broke. Why did the LA Times — alone among big papers, apparently — relegate the first day story to page 10, instead of putting it on the front page? It was arguably the biggest unplanned news break of the presidential campaign, which the paper has been covering intensely across the country. The major East Coast papers, with three hours less to work with on the deadline clock, all got strong stories onto their front pages. So did the Orange County Register, which of course works on Pacific time too.
The roots of the questionable news judgment appear to go back to the LAT's deal with the devil to voluntarily impose some of the earliest print edition deadlines around. The early deadlines were originally about allowing the Times to make some money by allowing the Wall Street Journal to print on LAT presses, with preferential timing. I don't know the status of that deal currently, but the deadlines have crept even earlier as the staff has been reduced both at the printing plant in downtown's industrial zone and in the corps of editors devoted to putting out the print edition. This is why you hear print subscribers complain, for years now, about missing sports scores and news they can readily find in competing local papers which somehow find a way to keep the deadlines more conventional.
It was embarrassing for the Times, and a slap to the paying customers who still hang on to the print edition even as the paper's management shifts resources away, to downplay the nation's biggest story in Saturday papers. Actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus called the paper out on Twitter (see the bottom of Monday's LA Observed Notes.) I've seen Times staffers on social media explain that the deadlines for the Saturday front page are set unusually early on Friday afternoons, and rationalize that the story was covered online so what's the problem. But the other papers that got the story on page one also swarmed the story online, and the big guys like the NYT and Washington Post have generally better, more news-reliable websites than the LAT, so it's not about that.
The deadlines issue used to be something the editors could blame on bean counters in Chicago, but now that Editor Davan Maharaj is also the publisher, he's the money. There's nobody above him. The Times, like all big papers, relaxes the deadlines on super big stories. I believe the LAT did so on the San Bernardino shootings, if I recall correctly. The Readers' Representative Journal doesn't explain how the decision was made on the Trump tapes or to give any variables or analysis. It simply says that the breaking story "tested...print production deadlines," as if they are immovable.
Another concerned expressed by readers about Saturday’s story on the Trump recording was its placement in the print edition — on Page A10, and not the front page. “THE ENTIRE WORLD BLEW UP OVER THIS STORY AND IT RUNS ON PAGE 10 OF THE LA TIMES,” one reader wrote in an all-caps email.
The recording was released Friday afternoon, a day when The Times has early news-section deadlines. Significant developments, including calls from GOP leaders for Trump to step down from the ticket and Trump’s own videotaped apology, occurred after the section went to press. The story and recording were prominently displayed on latimes.com Friday, and the story was updated through the night.
Because a lot of people are asking: Presidential polling watcher Nate Silver says the LA Times-USC Dornsife Poll that keeps showing Trump ahead of Clinton has value despite being an outlier with built-in problems. The trends detected in the poll are instructive, he wrote back in August. Just adjust the Trump numbers down by a consistent six points. Noted: That was all before Trump's recent collapse in the polls.