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October 13, 2003

LA Times Editor is Defiant: Don't Like Our Investigations? Go Elsewhere.

John Carroll, editor of the Los Angeles Times, tries to level with readers about the Schwarzenegger groping story. But his own press think defeats him.

It is rare for the top editor of a major newspaper to write a Sunday column answering politically loaded charges about the paper’s reporting. But give credit to John Carroll, boss of the newsroom at the Los Angeles Times, for what he published on Sunday— a first-person public accounting of his decision to go with the story of women who were groped by Arnold Schwarzenegger.

His commentary—entitled, “The Story Behind the Story“—has the virtues of classic newspaper journalism: Carroll speaks in a plain language, favors the direct form of address, (“I’d like to tell you how the Los Angeles Times decided to publish the stories of 16 women…”) and refuses to either back down from critics or baby his readership. In the long run, people will respect that more, he thinks. This is a very adult way of going about things.

Carroll knew the Times would get blasted by some—including of course the Schwarzenegger camp—for releasing the stories five days before the vote. He also knew that some of the high-profile blasters would come in with wild charges, which would spread instantly across the Internet, in talk radio, and in the huge echo chamber where we pretend to debate an incident that may (or may not) be newsroom malpractice. Carroll and company anticipated—correctly—that the chamber would react, not to the newspaper’s decisions in plain view, but to its intentions, said to be concealed from view. Thus, the Times itself, covering the controversy about its page one actions, quoted Jon Fleischman, former executive director of the California Republican Party: “The L.A. Times has become more of a political hit maker than a journalistic source.” The image there is hit men who do their work on the front page. Fox’s Bill O’Reilly: “There’s no question the Times used its vast resources to try and keep Gray Davis in office.”

I’d underline the “no question” part of O’Reilly’s statement, a signal that we’re in a realm of absolute certainty about intentions at the LA Times. This is the chamber’s most noxious sound: certainties bouncing off walls between camps. We know the Times had the story and sat on it, until the moment of maximum impact. We know the newspaper has a puppeteer in Sacramento, and it’s the Gray Davis machine. We know the story is dubious because four of the six woman quoted were off the record. Come on, we know what this is about (a favorite on-air phrase of O’Reilly’s). We know they’re at it again.

This phony certainty about how his newspaper operates (and what he, John S. Carroll, did and thought) is the real subject of his Sunday column. The title is “the story behind the story” because that is what Fleischman and O’Reilly and other voices in the chamber say they have: “come on, it’s a hit, an attempt to derail Republican victory by a liberal newspaper.” No, says Carroll to his readers, it works like this:

Schwarzenegger’s reputation with women—long the subject of Hollywood gossip leading to some (incomplete) reporting in Premiere magazine—cried out to be fully investigated as part of the Los Angeles Times’s continuing look at the major candidates, “covering their life histories, their stands on the issues, their personalities and their characters,” as Carroll put it. The investigation was begun soon after Arnold announced for governor. When the story was nailed down, vetted by lawyers, and solid enough to withstand the scrutiny, we published it. And we’d do that again—I would do it again, Carroll said—because the verified facts are relevant to voters before they vote. In the course of explaining all this, Carroll says something I found odd and revealing.

One of our goals is to do more investigative reporting. At the risk of offending still more readers, I’ll say that if you’re put off by investigative reporting, this probably won’t be the right newspaper for you in the years to come.

That is a rather gutsy—even risky—thing for a top editor to say. After all, the opposite claim is the one normally voiced by his newspaper: No matter who you are, how you vote, the Los Angeles Times is, is, is the right newspaper for you. So to kiss off subscribers who are “put off” by investigative reporting… that’s a strong statement. It’s also a weird thing to say to readers, though not to fellow journalists, who may have been the intended audience.

“Investigative reporting” is a clear cut category in press think, (and prominent in the Pulitzer Prizes) but it is not, to borrow an academic phrase, a term of reception. Readers upset at the Times, or just wondering in healthy fashion about its actions, don’t say to themselves, “there they go, it’s that investigative reporting thing again.” Normally, people react to the contents of the articles themselves— here, to the character policing going on, the eruption of private life into the news columns, and the ethics of all that, the right and wrong of sex and sexual harassment on the front page just before an election.

Maybe your circle is wider, but I’m not sure I know anyone who is “against” investigative reporting in principle, as a priority in newsrooms; and I doubt that the Times gets many letters saying: you stop that, you stop all that investigating right now. If I were an Angeleno, and a subscriber to the Times, I would not feel any need to be for or against, turned on or put off, by “more investigations” in the abstract. I’d want to know a bit more. What do you plan to investigate? Where are you going to direct your fire? If we need more investigations, it must be that we suffer from ills not being examined by other agencies, so what are they? Saying to readers, “get ready for more investigations,” absent any list of priorities or even a statement about the world we live in, is just confusing— an almost unreadable pledge.

Even stranger is that Carroll calls it a goal to do more such reporting. A goal? How does that work? Civilians are not likely to understand that a certain kind of journalism has become an end in itself, a public goal of their newspaper. And yet the editor is defiant: don’t like it, go elsewhere! The head of a hospital doesn’t say, “our goal is to do more surgery.” The candidate for state comptroller doesn’t say, “I promise more audits, that’s my general policy.” The police chief doesn’t say “more under cover teams is our goal.” He says crime-fighting is the goal, and undercover officers are a means to an end that police and public share: safer streets. That’s the common ground for discussion. It’s also common sense.

Carroll, in a column that levels with readers, is eager to defend the genre of investigative reporting—a trade category that is not common ground—but in all of 1,700 words he does not try to explain why “character” is a fit subject for public probing by a powerful newspaper. (He just assumes it.) He does not tell us how journalists come to know what good character is, such that they can document cases of bad. These are matters of moral judgment. They make for hot button issues. They light up the phone lines at talk shows. But they also raise profound questions of right conduct, as well as “character” as it stands in the press. And they are far more likely to concern readers of the Sunday Los Angeles Times, more likely to generate discussion too.

I think Carroll is a man of integrity and principle and his column shows that. But it also shows the dangerous insularity of standard press think in cases like this. The echo chamber, where instant charges of conspiracy and ill-will bounce around, is by definition an insular world. And come on, we know what this is about is as likely to come from Noam Chomsky as it is from Bill O’Reilly. Proposing that a hit was ordered at the Los Angeles Times, that the Democrats were behind it, is to John Carroll a kind of obscenity, with the same prurient appeal:

The electronic revolution has brought us many blessings, but it has also blindsided us with a tidal wave of pornography. In similar fashion, we are now getting a faceful of rotten journalism journalistic pornography, actually in which ratings are everything and truth is nothing.

He’s not wrong about that. And he is right to stick up for his reporters—including one Pulitzer winner, Gary Cohn—when their work is attacked in angry, know-nothing fashion. But most readers, civilians in this political war with the press, are not angry know-nothings. Nor are they educated to the newsroom’s internal categories. They understand the newspaper as a civic and moral actor, and it is not necessarily comforting when a moral actor with great power and illegible priorities has no doubts. True, the echo chamber only pretends to debate the practice of journalism; but on the biggest questions Carroll only pretends to defend it.

David Shaw, the LA Times press reporter, on Schwarzenegger’s domination of the news media.

Columnist Jill Stewart, former LA Times person and now a Carroll critic, fires back at his column.

Hugh Hewitt is not impressed with Carroll’s defense. Lengthy analysis from a critic about what other responsible critics are saying.

Posted by Jay Rosen at October 13, 2003 7:36 AM