Out of Time

The L.A. Times internal investigation is complete and someone has to take the fall.

Published December 21, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

The Los Angeles Times published the report of its internal investigation into its profit-sharing deal with Staples Center sports complex on the front page Monday, months before it was expected. Weighing in at 11 chapters (not including preface and various afterwords), the special report, written by Times media critic David Shaw and edited by former managing editor George Cotliar, reads like the findings of a Watergate or Contragate investigation. And it features about the same degree of vagueness and memory loss on the part of the principals involved.

As media junkies across the country are aware, the Times printed a special magazine touting the glories of the new complex on October 10 without revealing to its readers that it was sharing the profits from the advertising in the section with the center. Subsequent publicity about the deal (most notably a stinging j'accuse from New Times L.A.) brought the fury of the editorial staff down on the heads of editor in chief Michael Parks, publisher Kathryn Downing and Times-Mirror CEO Mark Willes. This report arose out of the brouhaha and is meant, in part, to put the issue to rest.

Unfortunately, there is no rest for the wicked and someone has been very bad. Those who view this as a plain-and-simple issue of compromised editorial integrity see Willes as the undisputed villain of the affair. It was he who, as former publisher, advocated bringing down the wall between the edit and business side "with a bazooka, if necessary." But as CEO (and a legendary corporate bloodletter) he has been seen as too far above the fray. It's like hating Satan; there's just no fun in it.

A far more terrestrial target has been Downing, Willes' hand-picked successor. This report doesn't do much to burnish her image: She is portrayed as unconcerned about her lack of editorial experience and dismissive of those who think selling newspapers is any different from selling cereal. ("Business is business" was the virtual mantra of her mentor, Willes, who made his bones laying off people at Nabisco -- and making the company profitable -- and she seems to have adopted it as well.) Shaw cites a poll conducted by Editor & Publisher in which 75 percent of the newspaper publishers polled said they thought anyone entering publishing from another business would "lack an understanding of editorial ethics."

But Downing seems to consider ethics a county outside London. Responding to investigators' queries, she falls back on her previous assertion that, having never been a publisher before, she didn't know she was doing anything wrong. (Indeed, most of the people on the advertising side still don't understand what all the fuss is about.)

Now, I've never been a cop but I think that if I started tomorrow I would know better than to take money from people on my beat -- whether or not I was looking to arrest them. Newspaper ethics aren't that arcane, and certainly shouldn't be mysterious to someone like Downing, the former chief executive of Matthew Bender, a legal publishing company. Still, that's her story and she's sticking to it.

The person most culpable in this matter -- the person to whom the question "what did he know and when did he know it" most applies -- is editor Michael Parks. He seems to suffer most from the Alzheimer's-like memory lapses that afflict so many of those interviewed. Though he was present during at least one meeting in which the nature of the deal was made plain, he cannot recall ever realizing what it meant.

Editors remember raising the issue with Parks as early as September 13, but his response has somehow vanished from his memory. "I'm sure I let [the business side] know I found this to be problem," Parks told Shaw, which doesn't sound like he's so sure at all. Even his confrontation with Downing is indistinct in both men's memories; there was a lot of concern but no action. This happened a full month before the special issue was published; they could have stopped it and, according to former Times editor in chief William Thomas, should have. "If you take a big [financial] hit, that's too bad," he told Shaw. "You pay for your stupidity."

It's time for Parks to face the music. If he wasn't paying attention to the commitments he made on behalf of editorial, he should have been. The scandal has been an unmitigated disaster for the L.A. Times, throwing into question its status as a great American newspaper. Parks' vague denials don't cut it, not in an investigation this thorough.

It is somehow fitting that this all arose out of an attempt to promote a professional sports facility. (Philip Anschutz, whose company owns the Staples Center, also owns the L.A. Kings hockey team and about 25 percent of the Lakers.) No one believes that professional teams care about their fans anymore, or that team owners or individual players care about anything but the bottom line. Newspapers are still one of the few places where readers believe that they can read news that is not influenced by the paper's advertisers. And like a key player on a losing team, mouthing clichés after a big game, Parks would like to put this whole thing behind him and move on.

He's the one who should move on. Michael Parks should resign.

By Sean Elder

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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