Bill Boyarsky
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March 22, 2007

Investigate the tainted Times

To keep faith with its readers, the Los Angeles Times needs to put all its resources into an investigation of what’s been going on in the Current section and the editorial pages, now tainted by the conduct of editor Andres Martinez.

A beefed up team of top reporters should join media reporter Jim Rainey in examining past Current sections and editorials to see whether they have been influenced by publicist Allen Mayer and his associate, Kelly Mullens, who has been dating Martinez.

Mayer was the go between who steered producer Brian Grazer into a guest editorship of Current. Mayer actually worked with the Times publicity department in announcing the weird arrangement and his and Mullens’ names were listed as contacts on the press release.

How deep and how wide was the corruption? Did Martinez share the contents of editorials or article with either Mayer or Mullins before publication? Did Mayer or Mullens suggest editorials or Current articles?

The staff findings should be published in the paper, prominently displayed.

In addition, the paper’s media columnist, Tim Rutten, should comment on the mess caused by Martinez. The story cries out for comment but not from anyone supervised by Martinez.

The staff members working on this should be permitted to operate free from interference from editors who have any involvement in this. Only independent journalism has a chance of saving the Times reputation in a scandal that is the Times’ worst ethical failure since the Staples affair of 1999.

Such reporting helped the Times get through Staples, which involved the arena management selling advertising for an edition of the Times magazine devoted to the opening of the facility. The paper’s respected media writer, the late David Shaw, did a thorough investigation of what happened, which was published in the Times after it was edited by the retired managing editor, George Cotliar. Only Shaw, Cotliar an executive news editor, a copy chief and a copy editor read the story. The latter three editors were selected by Cotliar and Shaw.

And most important, as an editor’s note said at the time, “None of the principals in the story—not even the editor of the paper, the publisher or the CEO of the paper’s parent company—read it or had any say in the content, scope and presentation.”

At the height of the Staples scandal, the former publisher, the late Otis Chandler, phoned me — I was the city editor — and asked me to read a message to the staff. It was a scathing criticism of the then owners, Times Mirror. The present management should heed Chandler’s words:,

“If a newspaper, even a great newspaper like the Los Angeles Times, loses credibility with its community, with its readers, with its advertisers, with its shareholders, that is probably the most serious circumstance that I can possibly think of. Respect and credibility of a newspaper is irreplaceable. Sometimes it can never be restored no matter what steps might be taken in terms of apology by the publisher, apology by the head of Times Mirror or whatever post event strategies might be developed in the hopes of putting the pieces back together.

“When I think back through the history…of this great newspaper…I realize how fragile and irreplaceable a public trust a newspaper is. This public trust and faith in a newspaper by its employees, its readers, the community, is dearer to me than life itself.”

March 20, 2007

Our foul airport

When my flight was cancelled recently, I was immersed in the foul Los Angeles International Airport for four hours, sitting in the cramped terminal seats, eating tasteless tamales, struggling to buy papers in the small, crowded shop. Finally, I flew to the clean, bright and welcoming Southwest terminal at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.

What a contrast. As I walked into the Phoenix airport, I was shocked by the open spaces, the cleanliness and the variety of eating places and shops. It looks like an upscale, well-tended mall. The restrooms don’t have the LAX stink. The eating places are clean and inviting, offering Chinese, Italian and Mexican food, burgers, bagels and more. The two shops selling books, magazines and papers are large. The customers are not scrunched as they are in Los Angeles. And the help is polite. When my friends and I walked into the sports bar, we were not ignored, LAX style. The waitress actually found us a table.

If I were still a real reporter, I would get to the bottom of this. I would call whoever is now the boss at LAX and demand answers. I would pore through records until I uncovered the story behind the awarding of contracts to such incompetents. I would call the airport commissioners, all of them appointed by the mayor, and demand answers. I’d write a long story, giving space to the commissioners’ mealy-mouthed replies.

I don’t have to do that any more. I am now a blogger. I can write what I see. I don’t have to deal with some editor worrying about being fair.

Our airport is a disgrace. The concessionaires should be dumped. The airport commissioners should go to Phoenix and find out how to do it right. I hope their flight is cancelled, like mine was, and they have to wait for four hours in the Southwest terminal so they can share their customers’ misery.

March 7, 2007

Carol Tharp takes on the wild west

Carol Baker Tharp is smart and well qualified but even her skills will be tested as she tries to bring order to Los Angeles’ neighborhood councils, the Wild West of city government.

I talked to Tharp Tuesday just after the City Council approved her appointment by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa as general manager of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, which oversees the councils.

The councils were created more than a decade ago when the city was torn by the Valley secession movement. But city hall refused to give up power to the neighborhoods. Indeed, the councils simply advise the mayor and council members, who usually pay no attention.

Without power, considered pests by city hall, the neighborhood councils have taken to fevered but fruitless arguments over procedure. Some of them are famous for the viciousness of their battles over what constitutes a quorum. If you like a really mean debate over the adoption of the minutes, go to a neighborhood council meeting.

Tharp was deputy director of USC’s Civil Engagement Initiative, which issued a report on the neighborhood councils and criticized the stupid in- fighting. The SC scholars also noted that the most people active on the councils are older, white homeowners, a group not reflective of the city’s population.

Tharp has been involved in neighborhood councils since they sprung up in the mid ‘70s as a way to spread the power in city governments. She was in charge of community relations for the city manager of Eugene, Ore., one of the first cities to create neighborhood councils. She took charge of most of the new councils.

But that was a long time ago, and Los Angeles is no Eugene, a small university town where the population is almost 90% white and 37% of the people have a bachelor’s or graduate degree and almost 35% of the rest have attended college. Eugene has a long tradition of civic activism.

“Los Angeles has a real tough job,” she said. “It’s a bigger challenge here than in other places.”

Her first task will be to pacify the neighborhood councils, bringing civility to a system where each council generally makes its own rules. “My inclination is to allow as much autonomy as possible,” Tharp said. But she said that there should be citywide standards for council elections and by laws. “I tend to be someone who understands the need for rules,” she said. “This is public money. (The councils receive small amounts of money from city hall for local projects). The neighborhood councils are part of city government.”

Tharp will have to broaden the neighborhood membership in a city where about 40% of the people have lived here for less than five years and where only a third of the residents are homeowners, who have more of a stake in the neighborhood than renters.

Most of all, she’ll have to figure out a way to give the councils more of a say in neighborhood development and traffic projects, now totally run from city hall. Don’t expect city hall to give up any of that power easily

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