Tales from the crypt

L.A. Times editors knew about the Staples deal; N.Y. Times vs. Brill's redux; AP's slo-mo on Korea massacre.

Published December 6, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Many media stories, like zombies and some '60s rock bands, will not stay down. Here are some fresh updates on stories recently reported in Salon Media.

The L.A. Times and Staples Center: Yeah, they knew that.

The story of the Los Angeles Times special magazine on Staples Center (no "the," please; the purveyor of paper clips is too classy for that) lumbers on. According to a piece by Scott Winokur in last Sunday's San Francisco Examiner, a number of top editors at the once-venerable daily knew about the unusual deal to share profits with the company that built the sports arena they were covering -- yet were powerless to stop it! Originally, editorial claimed that it had not been informed of this unusual profit-sharing deal until New Times Los Angeles made hay with it on Oct. 21.

"People knew about it early enough," Times magazine editor Alice Short told the Examiner. "I would say probably the third week of September or so, around Sept. 20." (The special issue was published Oct. 10.) She and her staff were "disgusted" with the Times' deal to share $2 million in advertising revenue with the magazine's subject (probably the most flagrant violation of "church and state" tenets by a major newspaper in recent history).

While it may not be surprising that the editors working on the special issue knew about the deal with Staples, their knowledge makes all of editorial's subsequent grandstanding about being betrayed by the big bad business people look a little disingenuous. It's hard to say that editorial wasn't complicitous in this when a seemingly large number of editors knew about it. When angry Times editors and reporters confronted publisher Kathryn Downing and editor Michael Parks on Oct. 28, the duo took the heat (though neither offered to resign) without any indication that members of the editorial side might have been in the loop.

While it's likely that a disgruntled magazine grind spilled the beans to the New Times (the weekly is rife with former Times staffers), none of those editors spoke up when the pitchforks were being brandished at Downing and Parks. It makes you wonder how many names will be named when Times media writer David Shaw files his "internal investigation" of the affair.

According to Winokur (whose exhaustive article looks into the whole history of the advertiser-friendly Times that Times-Mirror CEO Mark Willes has wrought), sports editor Bill Dwyre complained to Parks about the deal, but Parks seemed unconcerned. "Hopefully, nobody will find out about this," Dwyre recalls saying.

Maybe the New Times will be hiring next spring, when Shaw's report is due.

The New York Times vs. Brill's Content, continued:

The Times finally sent a letter to Brill's in response to the magazine's piece ("Crash Landing" by Robert Schmidt, November 1999) about the paper's coverage of the Los Alamos spy story and then posted the missive on its Web site. Times editor Stephen Engelberg, who worked on all the stories in question, blasts Schmidt and Brill's journalistic watchdog publication, saying "your reporting was marred by a pattern of omissions, inaccuracies and leaps of logic that gave your readers a distorted picture of a complex body of work." Readers who thought my piece on the Schmidt story was too kind to the Times and too hard on Brill's ("The Independent Voice of the Information Age") should read this screed -- but first pack a lunch. At 4,125 words, it is almost the same length as the article it critiques.

Not to be outdone, Schmidt has responded to Engelberg's missive, in tones even haughtier, in a posting on Brill's site. "As I'm sure Engelberg knows," Schmidt writes, "reporters are not supposed to be shills for FBI agents or any other sources. Indeed, that kind of reporting about speculation brought America the McCarthy era, the Richard Jewell case, and, most recently, the treatment of Wen Ho Lee."

This is called, in the business, "everything but the kitchen sink." I am only surprised he didn't toss in a mention of the Times' poor coverage of the Holocaust during World War II. Further brickbats to follow?

News at the speed of procrastination:

Speaking of Brill's, the December issue features a report by Chipp Winston on the Associated Press' Korean massacre story that made headlines Sept. 29. I spoke with AP reporter Martha Mendoza about her research (she was one of the now-disbanded investigative team that interviewed U.S. soldiers who claimed to have killed hundreds of Korean refugees nearly 50 years ago) the day after the story broke.

But Winston goes behind the story to examine AP's decision to sit on it for nearly a year. According to AP editor Bob Port, who spearheaded the investigation, AP president Louis Boccardi and executive editor William Ahearn "just didn't want to do the story" -- due in part to the shellacking CNN took for its Tailwind story. (In June 1998 CNN aired a report on "Operation Tailwind," claiming that the Army had used nerve gas on American defectors in Vietnam. The network later retracted the story.) Boccardi denies AP was reluctant, though he admits it took too long to decide. Still, Port's account goes a long way toward explaining why the investigation -- which began in April 1998 and is now the subject of military scrutiny -- took so long to see the light.

By Sean Elder

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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