Tim Rutten and I settled into our booth at Langers and ordered. He chose the number 19—pastrami, cole slaw, Swiss cheese and Russian-style dressing, Being a traditionalist, I picked a simple pastrami sandwich. We both called for Heinekens, the first of our usual two.
The conversation turned immediately to his firing—or layoff as it’s called—from the Los Angeles Times after four decades. It was stupid, wrong and unfair, another sign of how the paper was destroying itself so fast that soon there would be little left. Rutten, of course, agreed.
I told him I wanted to write about his firing but hesitated because we had been great friends for a long time. If it was too complimentary, I said, everyone would think it was a puff piece. If you do write it, he said, just don’t insult me.
Saturday, I read Jim Rainey’s well-justified tribute to another victim of journalism’s greed, John Schwada, who was fired from Channel 11. I figured if Schwada gets a tribute, Rutten deserves one, too.
Rutten wrote an op ed column that appeared on Wednesdays and Saturdays and, until his bosses ended it, a weekly book review. He has served as editor of the Opinion section, editorial writer, deputy national editor, city county bureau chief and columnist,
Rutten’s columns were well informed and opinionated, just as a column should be. He was ahead of the pack on important issues. His columns on the Los Angeles Police Department and his moving interview with retiring Cardinal Roger Mahony were outstanding examples of his work. So were his columns on civil liberties.
I became friends with Rutten when I was a general assignment reporter assigned to cover the streets and schoolyards during a huge desegregation crisis in the late 1970s. He was the editor of the Opinion section. He came over to my desk in the news room, and we talked about how the desegregation story was another chapter in the long history of racism in Los Angeles. He had me write a piece for Sunday Opinon along those lines, which he played at the top of the front page.
I continued to write for Opinion after I became city county bureau chief, in charge of covering local government and politics. A new generation of bosses tried to stop me on the grounds that reporters shouldn’t express opinions. Rutten and I fought back. The battle grew intense. We had a showdown in one of the executive dining rooms, presided over by the editor, Bill Thomas. My editors presented their case against me. A high-ranked editor, Narda Zacchino, replied it was a freedom of speech issue. Bill, she said, had a right to express his opinions. Thomas listened, and then gave his permission for me to continue writing for Opinon.
Later on, I became a columnist. During the O.J. Simpson trial, my column was devoted to that epic event and Rutten joined the trial coverage, writing legal analyses as part of our team. His newsroom pod was next to mine.
Rutten then became city county bureau chief. Coverage immediately improved as he assembled a team of good reporters and motivated them.
One day, I was unexpectedly appointed city editor. It was during a tumultuous period, and I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone until the move was announced the next day. “You have to tell Tim,” my wife Nancy said when I got home that night. I called. Tim’s wife Leslie Abramson anwered the phone. She put him on, and I said I was his new boss.
Boss-worker didn’t exactly describe our relationship. I’d tell him something. He’d sometimes disagree. We argued, a couple of times so loudly that heads turned in the newsroom. But in the end, he always did what I said. It could be exhausting. But I patterned my style after that of Joe Torre, the great manager of the Dodgers and Yankees baseball teams. Torre understood that managing involved assembling talented, occasionally difficult individuals, harnessing the rebels and molding them all into a team.
As bureau chief, Tim was hands-on editor of our coverage of the Rampart police scandal. Two of his reporters, Scott Glover and Matt Lait, uncovered the first signs of it. Tim guided them and gave them all the time they needed. He brought in other reporters. Their coverage was to a large extent responsible for the remaking of the Los Angeles Police Department.
Years before, Rutten and I talked about how the Times covered such stories, wrapping up developments in one, long complete story, maybe too long for readers to handle. In the unlikely event we ever were in charge, we said, we’d try to splash the daily developments on page one every day, like the Herald did. That would have impact. That was our goal with Rampart and I thought it worked. We couldn’t have done it without the support and guidance of editor Michael Parks and our other editors. It was the old Times at its best.
Anyone who knows Rutten understands why his current editors, told to cut costs, would cast their frightened eyes in his well-paid direction. He isn’t an easy, compliant employee. He dismisses people he doesn’t think are as smart as he is, and this encompasses a pretty big universe. Also, they had something on him—a mistake in a column. For that, they had taken away his book beat. I bet he didn’t react to that and other events with the humility demanded by bosses who never studied the Joe Torre manual of managing.
But he was one of the many terrific Times journalists—some calm and straight arrow, others edgy and mercurial—who created a great newspaper. Torre would have played him every day.