Extra! Extra! Journalists Gaze at Own Navels!
The L.A. Times screwed up. But do we have to read 35,000 words about it?

The Wall Street Journal, Friday, December 31, 1999

Last week the Los Angeles Times published a 35,000-word special section, edited under an unusual arrangement in which the Times' editor, Michael Parks, was not allowed to change, or even to see, the section before its publication.

What, another Unabomber manifesto? No, this was an extensive investigative report on . . . the Los Angeles Times. Times media reporter David Shaw was looking into Times publisher Kathryn Downing's breach of the traditional Chinese Wall separating the news and advertising departments. A newsroom revolt had erupted in October after reporters learned that Ms. Downing had agreed to share advertising revenues with the Staples Center, a sports complex that was the subject of a special issue of the Times' Sunday magazine.

Result: a front-page apology from Ms. Downing and Mr. Parks (who still have their jobs), accompanied by a ponderous statement of the Times' new "principles of editorial integrity" and followed the next day by Mr. Shaw's interminable report revealing who knew what and when about the deal.

Is anything more tiresome than high-minded journalists brooding over their profession? In fairness to journalists, the answer is surely yes. A magazine called Brill's Accountancy would be at least as dull as Brill's Content, and if a major newspaper published 35,000 words on electrical engineering, pharmaceutical companies would take a hit on their sales of soporifics.

Still, journalists have far more access to Americans' eyes and ears than their counterparts in accounting and engineering do, so we hear a lot more about their--excuse me, our--profession, and much of it, like the L.A. Times' self-flagellation, is sanctimonious and silly. That's why it's refreshing to pick up "City Editor," a tour of journalism circa 1934. It was written in that year by Stanley Walker, city editor of the New York Herald Tribune, and has just been reissued by the Johns Hopkins University Press.

I opened "City Editor" expecting to be made wistful for an age when journalism took itself less seriously, when reporters drank before deadline and newspapers reflected the outsized personalities of crusading owners like Joseph Pulitzer and Col. Robert McCormick. It turns out, however, that the professionalization of the press was well under way by 1934.

Although Walker viewed the growing concern with objectivity and ethics as a good thing, he was disdainful of the tendency to moralize. "There has long been, in the curious business of journalism, a yearning for respectability, a hankering for righteousness," he writes. "There have been solemn meetings at which pious tenets have been set forth as guiding principles for working newspaper men. Somewhat in the fashion of sentimental madams who obtain an inner glow from attending early Sunday mass, the editors feel better for a few hours after such sessions. Then they return to the job of getting out a newspaper, there to find what they knew all along--that it is a business of imponderables, of hairline decisions, where right and wrong seem inextricably mixed up with that even more nebulous thing called Good Taste."

Walker quotes a series of windy ethical pronouncements, some of which now seem quaint. The Detroit News instructed its reporters and editors: "Be careful and cautious, fair and decent, in dealing with a man's reputation, but be doubly so--and then some--when a woman's name is at stake. . . . Even if a woman slips, be generous; it may be a crisis in her life."

But if such proclamations reflect the sensibilities of their times, that "hankering for righteousness" springs eternal. Compare the L.A. Times' 1999 statement of principles with this 1921 declaration from a Missouri editors' association: "In every line of journalistic endeavor we recognize and proclaim our obligations to the public, our duty to regard always the truth, to deal justly, and walk humbly, before the gospel of unselfish service."

The Times statement sounds less like a sermon and more like a motivational seminar, but it says the same thing: "Our duty is to the truth. We pledge to seek and report the truth with honesty, accuracy, fairness and courage. By seeking truth and sharing understanding, we will strive for the improvement of society."

No doubt Mr. Shaw's dogged and meticulous work in getting to the bottom of Staplegate will in its own small way help make Los Angeles a happier, wealthier, more harmonious community as we approach the dawn of the third millennium. But did his story have to be so damn long?

In 1934 Walker boiled down the issue of editorial independence to one sentence: "Few of the persons employed in the advertising department of any newspaper have any clear conception of the essentially different character of news and advertising, nor can they understand, . . . once it is granted that a newspaper is in business to make money, why it is that prostitution may still be wrong and, in the end, may lead to bankruptcy."

Now that's concise. Too bad Walker wasn't around in 1999 to edit Mr. Shaw's magnum opus.

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