Former L.A. Times City Editor Bill Boyarsky has written a new book telling the extraordinary story of how that newspaper and its owners shaped the history of Southern California – and it’s terrific.
In “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” Boyarsky weaves a compelling narrative through a collection of several hundred photographs, many of them gallery quality, pulled together by Peter Jones, a filmmaker who produced a PBS documentary of the same title.
“The likeness of the first publisher, General Otis, made him appear fierce,” Boyarsky writes, recalling his first day at the paper in 1970, and his first view of the bust in the lobby of founder Harrison Gray Otis, who spawned the Chandler clan that dominated the Times and the region for more than a century.
From that day until I retired in 2001, I never looked at his bust without thinking how much I’d have hated to have to ask this man for a raise. His steely determination and Harry Chandler’s cunning and business skill – combined with a vision they shared – helped transform L.A. from a dusty frontier town to a huge metropolis that extends far beyond the city boundaries into the vast area of the Southland. Norman (Chandler) made the paper into a profitable enterprise. His son, Otis, made the Los Angeles Times a great newspaper that was even more profitable.”
Calbuzz caught up with Boyarsky the other night at a Borders book signing in Goleta. He told us that much of the research for the book was based upon volumes of previously unpublished source material, including oral histories by Chandler family members, that had been assembled by Jones.
For much of its history, the Times “was not only a right-wing rag, it was a boring right-wing rag,” Boyarsky said. “The whole paper was a publicity machine for L.A.-oriented promotional projects.”
It wasn’t until Otis Chandler became publisher in 1960 that the Times escaped its legacy of bias and boosterism and began to focus on journalistic excellence: “Otis made it a great paper,” he said, “and it was a great paper.”
An old school newspaperman who made his bones working the night police beat at the Oakland Tribune in the 1950’s, Boyarsky was hired onto the Times in 1970 by then-City Editor Bill Thomas, straight from a picket line in a strike against AP, for whom he’d gone to work in Sacramento. Boyarsky devoted the next three decades to a storied career at the paper, where, among other things, he covered politics, wrote a city column and became a kick-ass city editor before walking away in 2001 with three team Pulitzers in his pocket.
One was for the 1997 North Hollywood shoot-out, in which two bank robbers triggered a long and deadly gun battle with LAPD officers, whose firepower was overmatched by the fully automatic weapons and body armor of the criminals. All you need to know about Boyarsky is that when he heard a bulletin about the incident on his car radio while heading into work, he immediately diverted and drove straight to the scene.
The new book is his sixth, including one co-authored with his wife, Nancy. Framed by the stories of the Chandler family’s four publishers, it tells the parallel tales of the paper and the region, from water and land grabs, racism, political and police corruption to fanatical anti-union crusades, the murderous 1910 bombing of the Times building and Otis Chandler’s drive to redeem the past by turning the Times into a world class paper – at least until rival family members seized control.
Chandler’s surprise resignation as publisher in 1980 signaled the start of a chain of events that eventually led to the sale of the Times to the Tribune Co. which later sold to real estate mogul Sam Zell, whose troubled ownership has now put the company into bankruptcy
In the mid-’90s, the board installed as the paper’s top executive Mark Willes, a cereal industry executive who got his journalism training at General Mills, and who brought embarrassment and scandal to the paper with his determination to “tear down the wall” between the newsroom and business operations. Willes and his protégé, publisher Kathryn Downing, did a deal in 1999 with Staples Center to share advertising revenue from a special issue of the paper’s magazine about the center’s opening that was produced by the editorial department, unaware of the secret agreement.
When the newsroom staff revolted, the departed Otis Chandler called Boyarsky on the city desk and asked him to read a message to the staff: “I delivered the message, much to the chagrin of my bosses,” Boyarsky recalls.
As reported in “Inventing L.A.,” Chandler’s words are worth recounting:
To the employees of the Los Angeles Times, particularly of the editorial department because they have been so abused and misused…[by] the downsizing of the Times…the shrinking of the Times in terms of employees…the ill-advised steps that have been taken by current management….breaking down barriers, the traditional wall between editorial and the business departments.
My heart is heavy, my emotions are indescribable because I am afraid I am witnessing now a period in time in the history of this paper that is beyond description…I applaud the efforts of individual reporters who have spoken openly at their recent meeting with Kathryn Downing, and I also heartily endorse the letter that was presented to [Editor} Michael Parks on November 2 which calls for a full and impartial publishing of all of the events that led up to the Staples controversy.
If a newspaper, even a great newspaper like the Los Angeles Times, loses credibility with its community, with its readers, with its advertisers, with its shareholders, that is probably the most serious circumstance that I can possibly think of. Respect and credibility of a newspaper is irreplaceable. Sometimes it never can be restored no matter what steps might be taken in terms of apology by the publisher, apology by the head of Times Mirror or whatever post-event strategies might be developed in the hopes of putting the pieces back together.
When I think back through the history…of this great newspaper…I realize how fragile and irreplaceable public trust in a newspaper is. This public trust and faith in a newspaper by its employees, its readers, the community, is dearer to me than life itself.