THE BLOG

Farewell to a Washington Fixture

12/21/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I was hoping more would have been written, marking the demise of the Los Angeles Times' Washington bureau last week It certainly deserved more than a few lines of copy; more than a "30" to mark the end of a distinguished chapter of journalism. Try the loss of pride, dignity and self-respect by the owners of the Times who showed not only a disdain for journalism but for greater Los Angeles. It's unfortunate that there was not an angel with sufficient capital to outbid the interlopers from the Windy City for the right to keep the Times in the hands of local owners.

Neither the Chicago Tribune or its subsequent owner, Sam Zell, have understood the degree to which the Times' reporters and editors in Washington helped subscribers and other readers in Southern California and beyond understand the complexities of national politics. Neither television or the internet did that. By wielding the axe, Zell displayed the same mentality as the nation's bankers and automobile executives and we all know what they've done lately for society as a whole. He reminded me of the arrogant executives like Larry Tisch who invaded the television networks in the early 1980s, underhandedly preaching their contempt of the journalists on their payrolls. They hated the newsmen, not for what they said, but for what they cost.

Too bad Zell never met Otis Chandler. He might have come to understand that people of means do not have to be sneaky about what they say to their employees. By being straight forward they commanded loyalty. Otis inherited the Times from his father and was determined to overhaul its reputation as a right-wing rag. His dream always was to turn the Times into an exceptional newspaper and he did just that. He hired editors like Bill Thomas and Frank McCulloch, as well as a gifted editorial cartoonist named Paul Conrad. Chandler's determination was to equal if not exceed the reputations of the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal as national newspapers by making a bureau in the nation's capital that would excel like no other competitor. At first, he hired Robert Donovan from the New York Herald Tribune to oversee a three-man bureau in Washington. When Jack Nelson, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist from the Atlanta Constitution succeeded Donovan in 1974., he sought out the best journalists in the nation he could find and ended up hiring one reporter a year during his 21- year reign. The Washington bureau peaked at 40 reporters and seven editors by 2004 under Doyle McManus who then was forced to watch the bureau disintegrate in recent weeks.

But it was more than numbers that distinguished the Times' reporting by its Washington-based correspondents. Gaylord Shaw, David Wilman, Alan Miller and Kevin Sack won Pulitzer Prizes. Nelson, Ron Ostrow and Bob Jackson were widely praised for their coverage of Watergate; Mike Wines and McManus for their Iran Contra reporting. The list went on and on, winning recognition for the scoop on Timothy McVeigh following coverage of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, for the Times' expose of Curveball, the alleged source for Iraq's false weapons of mass destruction and for the corruption charges against Alaska Senator Ted Stevens.

In a few weeks, the nation will be on the verge of dramatic change with the emergence of a new Administration. That will require more and not less aggressive reporting from Washington. To brush off the Times' past record with a mere "30" is selling history short.