When I was appointed city editor of the Los Angeles Times in 1998, I reached out for advice to one of the smartest people I knew, Warren Christopher, former U.S. secretary of state and Los Angeles civic leader without equal. Christopher, who died in 2011, had one word of advice. “Crusade,” he said.
I also remember what Bill Thomas, the then-editor of the Los Angeles Times, told me when he hired me 28 years earlier. “Explain,” he said, explain what’s really happening.
Crusade and explain. That’s the job of reporters covering government and policy and the politics shaping them. It’s always been a challenging task, but today’s fractured media scene makes it even more so. Journalists in Los Angeles face a contracting landscape and, because of that, extraordinary challenges to keep the spotlight on our public institutions — challenges that, if not met, could have grave implications for how policy is made, how government functions and how the public is served.
Covering government, politics and policy has never been easy in Los Angeles. In New York, Chicago, San Francisco and other big cities, power is centered in City Hall, often split between a powerful mayor and a legislative body. Los Angeles County, by contrast, has 88 cities and powerful regional agencies in charge of water, transportation, pollution control and other vital services. Power is diffuse, accountability difficult to determine. I’ve reported on sheriff’s deputies pushing around low-income black tenants in the Antelope Valley, affluent Malibu residents fighting beach access, the 1992 Los Angeles riot, and public school troubles in Los Angeles and Compton. What they had in common was that each involved myriad government agencies and many consumers of government services. And I was supposed to root out the problems, find out who or what was to blame for them, report why and how they happened and how people were affected — crusade and explain.
Over the last decade, the Times’ staff has been cut by more than half, leaving those who remain concerned about the paper’s ability to expose corruption and bad policies — stories like the Times’ coverage of corruption by top leaders of the city of Bell. Those articles won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. But these problems and concerns are not unique to the Times. The Daily News, once a formidable presence at City Hall, is now seriously diminished, a shell of its former self. The Orange County Register once had a full- time reporter covering Los Angeles government and briefly experimented with a Los Angeles edition; those are long gone. The L.A. Weekly once had the great Harold Meyerson on the government beat; he departed years ago. The San Diego Union-Tribune, once a regional player, now has largely retreated to its home turf.
Here’s the simple truth: Fewer reporters with less competition is not a formula for holding government accountable.
But there’s nothing more tiresome than an aging scold, especially a journalist ranting about how things were different in the good old days. So I put in a phone call to Davan Maharaj, the editor — and recently named publisher as well — of the largest of this region’s news organizations. Maharaj has the considerable responsibility of putting out a paper under a Chicago management that fires editors and publishers with the frequency of National Football League owners dumping coaches.
I asked Maharaj if the reduction in staff had diminished the Times’ ability to crusade against civic and corporate evils and to explain the complex policy issues that affect Angelenos. “I would say a resounding ‘no’ because we have no doubt the largest metro staff in the country,” he said. “We have about 100 people covering California. That doesn’t count people on the business staff.”
Maharaj cited the Southern California Gas Co. methane leak near homes in Porter Ranch as an example of how the paper is throwing resources at big stories. As he noted, the paper also showed grit covering the San Bernardino killings (in fact, the Times recently won a Pulitzer Prize for those stories) and devoted staff and space to the defective scopes that caused death and serious illness at UCLA’s Ronald Reagan Medical Center and other hospitals.
I asked him how he sees the Times’ role in the civic life of the region.
“The Times has to be the place that provides the best accountability journalism,” he said. “That is why we are expanding our coverage of power and influence in Sacramento.” He said John Myers, the new Times Sacramento bureau chief, had told him of the precipitous decline of reporters in the Capitol press corps. “Far fewer reporters cover influence groups and state agencies, and we are hiring reporters to shine a light on the lobbyists and the agencies that are not covered at all,” Maharaj said.
Finally, I asked how he kept up morale in a national media environment of buyouts and departures.
“It’s a tough one,” he said. “But you try to tell reporters they work for one of the best institutions in the country…. Despite what is going on with the business, we as journalists in Los Angeles can still change the world and have an impact in our community.”
It was honest of Maharaj to admit that it was tough to keep up staff morale. And I was encouraged to hear about hiring more reporters, although he didn’t say how many or how accomplished they might be.
Crusading and explaining takes experienced reporters and editors with deep relationships and knowledge of their subject matter. I don’t think the LAPD Rampart scandal investigation, led by Scott Glover and Matt Lait a decade and a half ago, would have been so successful without the help of other reporters and editors who had a extensive knowledge of the LAPD. The Times has good coverage of the department now, but with shifting priorities and fewer people, will it be enough to keep the spotlight on the police? And though other sources may fill some gaps — ProPublica is producing smart investigative work across the country, and KPCC has been adding reporters on local beats — thoughtful coverage of Los Angeles public policy requires deep pockets, experience and staying power, a tall order for today’s news organizations.
When Lait and Glover turned up the first signs of the Rampart scandal, I thought of Warren Christopher’s mandate to crusade. Christopher, among his many accomplishments, headed the Independent Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department — the Christopher Commission — after the 1991 police beating of Rodney King. I had covered commission hearings and accompanied Christopher as he campaigned through Los Angeles for the reform charter amendments that were approved by the voters. Those amendments, and the Times’ coverage of police brutality and the riots, started the LAPD on the road to reform.
It took me a long time to win Christopher’s trust — and the trust of many other Angelenos, rich and poor, famous and infamous, big shots or good people known only on their street or neighborhood, all of them my sources. My bosses gave me the time and the freedom to do that, to spend a few days, a few weeks or longer to pursue stories that the paper felt should be told.
Communities benefit when a vibrant press is watching over the formation of public policy and those who make it.