Liberals at the Los Angeles Times have long enjoyed the legacy of an eccentric publisher, Otis Chandler, the surfing scion who set the paper on its leftward course in the 1960s and 1970s. But now they find themselves under an eccentric less congenial to their sensibilities -- Sam Zell, who has fired more than 300 employees since assuming ownership of the paper earlier this year.
In late July, disgruntled staffers unfurled a banner off the paper's building that said, "Zell Hell: Take back the Los Angeles Times."
Unlike Chandler, Zell has zero regard for the pieties of mainstream journalism and made it clear early on that he found the paper's New-York-Times-of-the-West pretensions ridiculous and boring. He has said openly that he doesn't even bother to read the paper unless he happens to be passing through L.A.
In a New Yorker profile last year, Zell described himself as an "economic conservative" and confessed that he likes the columns of Charles Krauthammer and David Brooks but thought the "rest of the New York Times's columnists are preposterous." He had no use for Hillary Clinton either, according to the piece: "At a recent dinner party, the mention of Hillary Clinton's name prompted him to use a four-letter obscenity to describe her."
Otis Chandler was known for showing up in sandals; Zell has been known to saunter into meetings with bankers in a red polyester jumpsuit. He offered up this sartorial musing to the New Yorker: "if you dress oddly and you're really good at what you do you're seen as eccentric; but if you're not so good you're seen as a schmuck."
Apparently Zell has all the quirkiness of Chandler without the quasi-socialism. Times staffers must have shivered when they read in the New Yorker profile that Zell once sent a music box as a gift to friends and colleagues that played a song deriding the Sarbanes-Oxley Act: "Sarbanes-Oxley/ They've got moxie/ But for businesses/ Their act is toxic/ It's not rocket science/ We're killing profits with compliance."
Addressing a University of Hawaii business class a few years back, Zell said: "The idea that somehow or other the business community is full of all these greedy characters -- you should see the greed in teachers' unions! You should see the greed in any political organization!"
HAROLD MEYERSON, the Washington Post's resident socialist, harrumphed in June that the "Los Angeles Times was a hyperpartisan, parochial broadsheet until Otis Chandler became its publisher in 1960 and began the work of transforming it into the paper of both record and insight that it's been for the past half-century....[I]n Zell, what Los Angeles has is a visiting Visigoth, whose civic influence is about as positive as that of the Crips, the Bloods and the Mexican mafia."
Anybody who provokes hysterical outbursts from the Left like this one can't be all bad. Chandler's era, by the way, was just as "hyperpartisan" and "parochial" as the one that preceded it: he just transferred the paper's biases and cliquish concerns to progressive circles.
Liberals at the Times can't blame Zell for the paper's forgery fiasco in March. That was a product of the old regime: In its Chandler-esque, PBS-style investigative mode, the paper tried to explore the twists and turns of the "hip-hop world"; the results were farcical.
The story titled "An Attack on Tupac Shakur Launched a Hip-Hop War" was supposedly based on "FBI reports" that strengthened the late Shakur's claims that friends of Combs had arranged a 1994 shooting in New York as retaliation for Shakur's refusal to sign with Combs's Bad Boy Records.
The only problem with the story was that the FBI reports had been fabricated. Bloggers at smokinggun.com detected odd misspellings and typeface in the claimed reports, and the Times had to admit quickly that it swallowed a hoax whole.
AFTER ZELL SEVERAL months ago decreed that reporters produce more stories -- because he considers the output of Times staffers feeble compared to the output of their counterparts at his other papers -- critics warned this would diminish the "quality" of the paper and risk its reputation for national and international news. In other words, reporters wouldn't have months to explore the nuances of the hip-hop world or other topics Times editors consider essential to the commonweal, such as its week-long investigative series a few years back on female boxers.
Chandler and his liberal successors, desperate to win the approval of East Coast liberals, had endlessly commissioned such articles, boring local readers senseless. The paper acquired a reputation as the "velvet coffin," a place where liberal reporters could leisurely cover topics of interest to them and their elite friends but of little interest to the paper's consumers.
Zell, for all his eccentricities, can at least see the oddness of that anti-consumer policy for a newspaper. The paper's troubles didn't begin with Zell; they were a long time coming, gestating under another eccentric whose dilettantish vision for it was bound to prove unprofitable and tiresome over time.