After stewing for a couple of weeks about the Los Angeles Magazine article that asked What's the matter with the Los Angeles Times? and mostly decided it's editor-publisher Davan Maharaj, the Times has responded. The rebuttal takes the form of a letter from co-managing editor Larry Ingrassia that was posted Dec. 23 in the comments to the story on the magazine web site. The story is in the January issue.
The magazine and contributing writer Ed Leibowitz examine the handling of an investigative series into Oxycontin by a Times reporting team and the newsroom reputation of Maharaj. The Los Angeles piece portrays Maharaj as an obstruction to the Oxycontin story (whose two original reporters and main editor have left the Times), insecure about being over his head as editor and publisher, and insulting toward colleagues, especially women. Leibowitz tried to interview Maharaj for the story but says he was rejected each time. Most of the sources for the story's main points are anonymous, but Leibowitz wrote that he spoke to more than 40 present or past Times staffers over eight months of reporting.
The response from Ingrassia goes after Leibowitz's journalism personally and the magazine's.
Los Angeles magazine’s article headlined “What’s the Matter with the L.A. Times?” calls for an accurate response. The Los Angeles Times remains the premier newsgathering organization in the West. In the last two years, The Times has won three Pulitzer Prizes and has secured the biggest audience in our history, with more than 50 million unique monthly visitors who read our journalism at latimes.com. Despite the well-documented changes in our industry, Times reporters and editors in California, the U.S. and abroad produce one of the best news reports in the world.
But that’s largely missing from the story LA magazine sought to tell. Instead, the writer, Ed Leibowitz, trundles out third- and fourth-hand rumors, supplied by sources hiding behind the cloak of anonymity.
It is an irony that a story purporting to be about the health of a journalism institution would flagrantly violate the core tenets of responsible journalism – attribution, verifiability and fairness.
Mr. Leibowitz’s piece contains numerous assertions masquerading as “facts”: about The Times’ editing of its acclaimed OxyContin series; about a supposed drop in the quality of Times journalism; and about its top editors, including editor-in-chief Davan Maharaj.
Especially misguided are Mr. Leibowitz’s summations about the OxyContin investigation, which was the focus of much of his story. His criticism of The Times as slow to publish might more fairly be welcomed as an insistence on accuracy at a time when major media outlets have been embarrassed by avoidable errors.
It is a cardinal principle of journalism that the subject of a critical article must be given a chance, before publication, to respond to negative comments and assertions, especially if those assertions rely on anonymous sources. Mr. Leibowitz refused, despite repeated requests, to provide such an opportunity to set the record straight on many of his negative assertions – and we have the emails to prove it.
This is indefensible. Even when a subject declines to be interviewed, a writer is obliged to give the subject an opportunity to know about and to answer critical allegations and conclusions. No responsible journalist would argue otherwise. Why did Mr. Leibowitz refuse to do that? Why did his editors allow it? Perhaps because his premise would fall apart if he had to include our vigorous rebuttal.
It is telling that The Times published a powerful, revelatory investigative series about OxyContin, its manufacturer and its role in the nation’s opioid epidemic without relying on a single anonymous source. Mr. Leibowitz used only anonymous sources to attack the integrity and achievements of fellow journalists.
He seeks to justify this tactic by saying that former Times staffers who left the paper with early retirement packages were gagged by non-disparagement clauses, which are standard features of corporate severance, including media organizations. Mr. Leibowitz did not tell his readers that The Times – before publication – informed him and his editors that it would waive non-disclosure clauses for any former staff member who wanted to comment for publication.
The real headline here is: “What’s the matter with LA magazine?”
Los Angeles Times
As far as I know, this is the only official response from the Times. Ingrassia and another co-managing editor, Marc Duvoisin, had earlier ranted on Twitter about the story. The magazine has not posted any response to the Times letter. When the story first went up on Dec. 7, editor-in-chief Mary Melton and the primary editor on the piece, Amy Wallace — both of them former LA Times staffers — wrote personal notes talking about how and why the topic was pursued. Leibowitz also included in the mainbar his own hopes that the Times thrive as an important civic institution. Here's my original post about all this.
A perhaps interesting sidenote: after the Los Angeles story ran, the Times published another installment in the Oxycontin series, bearing the co-bylines of Scott Glover and Lisa Girion, the two original reporters who have both moved on to other jobs. Glover is at CNN and Girion at Reuters. Neither bothered to tweet the Dec. 18 Times story with their bylines.
Also noted: Maybe it's just the magazine's regular web cycle, but the Times story has surprisingly little presence on the Los Angeles Magazine website for a story in the current print issue that was pushed out to media reporters when it first went up. It's not one of the 30+ stories featured on the home page or on the separate list of 10 best read. It's buried on the fourth page of the Culture Files section, below stories like "The Complicated Sadness of Getting a Gift You Secretly Hate" and "A Look Inside Tarzana’s Hypnosis Motivation Institute."