How the Los Angeles Times could beat the New York Times in Washington: By covering politics with a View From California instead of Nowhere
The once-mighty Los Angeles Times Washington bureau is a shade of its former self. A total of 15 reporters and editors toil where not so long ago there were 60.
The bloodsuckers in suits at tronc (formerly Tribune) were about to close the DC office entirely to pay the rent in LA when a little-known biotech billionaire swept in to save the bureau — and the rest of the paper.
New owner Patrick Soon-Shiong has pledged to make Washington reporting a priority, compete with the New York Times and the Washington Post and “make a major impact on the nation.”
His goals may sound grandiose, but the LA Times has a real opening when it comes to covering Washington. That’s because the New York Times and Washington Post daily coverage of what Trump is saying and doing is selling their readers short.
For the sake of avoiding “opinion,” those two newsrooms are routinely leaving out essential context. Every day, Trump is dividing the country, spreading disinformation, embracing authoritarianism, fomenting chaos, discrediting the press — and departing from reality. Leaving out that context normalizes his presidency — when any rational assessment is that there is nothing remotely normal about it.
Sure, the Post and the New York Times have engaged in slugfests over scooplets from Bob Mueller’s investigation of possible Trump collusion with the Russians. They’ve both done some extraordinary investigative work uncovering the corruption that infests the Trump administration from the top down. And their analyses are increasingly blunt.
But that’s the exception, not the rule. As Washington Post media writer Margaret Sullivan put it after the first year of Trump coverage, “There’s been great accountability journalism, but a very poor signal-to-noise ratio.”
The reason: When it comes to daily coverage of Washington, the reporters and editors at both papers — along with the major wire services — are stubbornly clinging to political-reporting conventions and rituals that, to put it kindly, Trump has rendered anachronistic.
These journalists are still trying to stuff Trump’s lies, fantasies, nonsense and overtly cruel behavior into the traditional, value-neutral president-said-yesterday format, obligingly quoting his words, leaving characterizations to critics, and allowing each new distraction to exist in a contextless vacuum, as if they weren’t each part of an ongoing dystopian narrative in which the president is constantly assaulting core American values.
Long before Trump, Jay Rosen, the New York University journalism professor who keenly observes the political media, was regularly trying to call attention to the major structural problem that Trump has now exploited so effectively.
“Somewhere along the way, truthtelling was surpassed by other priorities the mainstream press felt a stronger duty to,” he wrote — way back in 2010. “These include such things as ‘maintaining objectivity,’ ‘not imposing a judgment,’ ‘refusing to take sides’ and sticking to what I have called the View from Nowhere.” (More recently, Rosen has called for the press to suspend normal relations with the Trump presidency.)
The partial self-lobotomization that the View from Nowhere requires from its devotees is not a new problem (not hardly). But in a time of Trump, taking the View from Nowhere is fundamentally dishonest and a profound disservice to readers everywhere.
THE VIEW FROM CALIFORNIA
The way the LA Times DC bureau can make the most dramatic and most positive “major impact” is to chuck the View from Nowhere — and proudly and publicly replace it with a View from California.
A supermajority of Californians see Trump for what he is. California is future-focused — in distinct contrast to Trump’s fantastical visions of a mythological past that he wants to return to. California is leading the state-level resistance to Trump initiatives in areas such as environmental deregulation, health care, immigration and voting rights. Its people are multicultural and pluralistic. They take seriously their role as stewards of the earth.
So from California, the view is clear: Trump is a profoundly regressive force whose actions and statements are dangerous. And he’s being enabled. Congress has abdicated its role as a check to presidential power. The Supreme Court is no longer committed to protecting minority rights. The result: an irrational and unrestrained president threatens the future of our country as a pluralistic constitutional democracy.
A bureau that openly embraces this view as a baseline, and is unafraid to call out assaults on pluralism, for instance, would cover Trump very differently from more typical DC reporters, who censor themselves for fear of appearing to take sides.
It would operate almost like a foreign bureau. That means no undue deference to authority and no allegiance to stifling local conventions.
There’s a near-precedent for that in the form of the Knight-Ridder Washington bureau, particularly in the run-up to the war in Iraq. Its staff prioritized mid-level expertise over high-level access, refused to bend to big-media corporate pressure not to appear out of step with the country, and almost uniquely reported that the war was being undertaken under false pretenses. (And guess what? A movie about them just came out.)
Kyle Pope, editor in chief of the Columbia Journalism Review, looked back on the first year of Trump coverage and called it “a disappointment, for those of us who expected a new attitude, a new approach, by the US press.”
Trump still controls the conversation, Pope wrote. “I fear that all of our words, and all of our rightful outrage, are not getting at that bigger truth, the deep, personal, soulful anxiety of Donald Trump or life in Donald Trump’s America. That requires a new journalistic enterprise, more creativity in terms of what form that journalism would take, a rethinking of how we tell our stories.”
The LA Times DC bureau could show the way.
COVERING THE LYING, NOT THE LIES
A California-representing DC bureau wouldn’t feel obliged to report the content of Trump’s lies, but rather their context: his pathology, their propagation, and the courtiers who praise him for them.
Norman Pearlstine, the grizzled and hardly radical mainstream-media veteran that Soon-Shiong hired as a caretaker editor, recently discussed his thoughts about covering DC with the Columbia Journalism Review.
“You have to keep trying to cover him and his administration as best you can, on your terms when you can,” he said. “Sometimes you’ll have to do it on his terms. We don’t have the luxury of saying we’re going to skip this story.”
But I disagree with Pearlstine about that second part. In normal times, it wouldn’t be such an issue. But the fact that the American public is being lied to continuously is the biggest story of the moment, and disseminating each lie is just contributing to the problem.
Similarly, reporters need to recognize that the Trump presidency has been an unending series of minor dramas, ultimately distracting them from the overall narrative arc, which is way more disturbing.
Without the right context, incremental news stories simply become so much Trumpian white noise.
Pearlstine also said: “To the degree you can, especially with a limited staff, you want to dig into the issues of substance where there are very real changes taking place that show the power of the chief executive and where it can be implemented.”
And that’s more promising. Jay Rosen is right: send the interns to the White House briefing room. (And if you do write about the briefing itself, don’t quote the non-answers from Sarah Sanders; write about how she doesn’t answer the questions.)
And it’s wonderful that major news organizations — goosed along by Politifact and FactCheck.org — are increasingly following up on major fabrications and falsehoods with articles disputing them. But calling out falsehoods can’t be an afterthought any more. The LA Times DC bureau would make the fact-check the main story, instead of the sidebar.
And the bureau would also avoid the kind of stilted euphemisms our top reporters too often use to describe Trump and his behavior. No, he is not “earthy and direct”; he is anti-intellectual and explosive. No, he is not “unorthodox” and “combative” when it comes to Europe and Russia; he is irrational, impulsive, hostile to pluralistic democracies and fond of autocrats. And yes, he lies all the time.
Similarly, the next time Trump calls a group of non-white countries “shitholes” or refers to immigrants as “animals” who “infest” the United States, it’s not enough for journalists just to point to what he said. The LA Times DC reporters would bluntly explain that these are unmistakably and horrifyingly racist comments that dehumanize people and denigrate entire populations and cultures — and that by any reasonable standard for a president of the United States, they are contemptible.
THE INEVITABLE CRITIQUE
There are, of course, many reasons not to do this. They’re just not very good reasons.
Reason №1: Opinion doesn’t belong in news stories. Our job is to report the facts and let the readers reach their own conclusions.
There are always a lot of judgment calls involved when a reporter constructs a news story; what’s important, what’s unusual, what’s scary, what’s not worth putting in. Reporters and editors make those calls based on journalistic values.
Things American journalists traditionally value include the truth, fair play, transparency, civil liberties, free speech, peace in the world, humane treatment of others, a connection with reality.
You could call all of those “opinions” but without “opinions” like that what possible good is journalism?
There’s a reason that not one of the top 50 American newspapers endorsed Trump for president. It was not a matter of partisanship; many of them traditionally side with Republicans. Those editorial boards recognized that Trump’s values are antithetical to journalism. And although the news and editorial sides of a newsroom operate by different standards, they share core values.
When I think of the sort of opinion that doesn’t belong in straight news stories, I think of advocating for a cause, or sharing a personal viewpoint, or telling people how to vote. Telling people the truth is not opinion, it’s reporting.
When a newsmaker says something untrue, or cruel, or dangerous, stenography with a bit of “critics say” at the end isn’t enough. Without judgment and context, readers don’t have enough to make an informed decision.
Reason №2: We’ll lose readers who support Trump.
The difference between Trump dead-enders and the rest of us is increasingly that they live in their own news bubbles and are averse to facts that don’t support their worldview.
Most of the fact-averse are probably not reading newspapers much anymore. Others are — but is this likely to be the final straw?
Using euphemisms and avoiding hard truths so those readers aren’t offended isn’t fair to anyone.
On the plus side, the potential to gain readers locally, nationally, and internationally, by standing firm on principle and telling it like it is, is enormous.
Reason №3: We want a chance to influence the Trump voters, so we modulate our tone.
See the answer to №2.
Also: As it happens there is a coherent and true storyline reporters can and should tell that would serve the non-racist Trump voters well — better than simply trying to be inoffensive.
That storyline is that they weren’t wrong to want to support someone who promised to bring more benefits to American workers; but they were conned. They were understandably fed up with elites; but they were conned. They wanted to drain the swamp; but they were conned. They wanted to stop spending money on useless wars; but they were conned. And they never imagined they were being conned by the Russians; but they were.
Reason №4: We don’t want to be a divisive force in our communities.
That’s a pretty compelling reason for local newspapers, many of which have a long tradition of maximizing circulation by not pissing any subscribers off.
But on the state, national and international level, “not pissing people off” is not a great business model.
Reason №5: We’re afraid of other journalists calling us liberal.
That will happen. So what? And keep in mind that history will be on your side.
Reason №6: We just want to do what everyone else does, but do it better, with fewer resources.
Good luck with that.
The LA Times Washington bureau would try to understand Trumpism, but not the way the New York Times does — which is largely by asking people if they still support Trump and then quoting them.
Instead, the LA Times could help the nation grapple with the essential questions that the mainstream media has never really answered: What happened to us? Why did so many Americans fall for him? Why do so many still support him, and with such fervor? How did so many people become susceptible to disinformation and conspiracy theories? Has all this hatred been there all along? Can these people be reached?
A big element of all this, of course, is flat-out racism. But a corrolary of the View from Nowhere seems to be that you can’t say people are racist unless they tell you so themselves — and that the entire topic of racism, in fact, is too fraught to really address except anecdotally and only once in a while. A bureau that sees demographic issues more clearly would dig into this element of the story, not avoid it.
Reporters who really want to “understand” Trump voters — rather than just give them free space in the paper — would explore not just what they say and feel, but why they feel that way. For instance: What makes them different from people who have empathy for Dreamers and undocumented children? Was it a personal experience? The way they were raised? Something they saw on TV? Do they generally lack empathy? What do they think of legal immigrants? How do they feel about Latinos and African-Americans? Do they fraternize with brown people? How long have they felt that way? Do they have friends who feel differently?
In the absence of coherent answers from the news side, opinion writers alone are putting forth hypotheses. For instance, New York Times op-ed columnist Charles M. Blow recently wrote that Trump’s “supporters have become rage-junkies for whom he can do no wrong,” and that “Trump has vented an American racial anxiety, giving it power and a perch, giving it permission to be vocal and even violent.”
That sounds about right. But hypotheses like this are testable, and reporters should be testing them.
THE GOAL IS ANTI-PARTISANSHIP
A rational observer can hardly escape the fact that the modern Republican Party is unhinged from reality, traffics in deception, favors policies that are radically cruel, and is led by a megalomaniac.
But I’m not advocating that the LA Times Washington bureau be partisan — quite the opposite. And I’m not talking about being bipartisan, either.
I’m talking about being anti-partisan. Anyone coming to Washington who is not blinded by political ambition can see that both parties have failed and are corrupt and are out of step with most Americans.
That doesn’t mean they are similarly culpable. Other than sharing the Republican Party’s slavish devotion to money, the Democratic Party has an entirely different set of failings. Its leaders remain the same elitist career politicians who brought you Hillary Clinton and managed to lose to Trump. They are inconstant, hedging, observably insincere, and prone to seeing the least-popular political positions as pragmatic.
In spite of this, mainstream reporters continue to craft their articles to reflect the presumption that there are exactly two sides to each issue — one Democratic and one Republican — that they are facially equally valid, and that people with alternate views are extremists. This is what The Atlantic’s James Fallows and others have so aptly called “false equivalence.”
But in reality, the American common ground may actually lie outside the current Democratic-Republican axis, rather than at its middle, which opens up a world of interesting political-journalism avenues.
Similarly, mainstream reporters tend to ignore the background noise of profound corruption that permeates Washington and makes policies that have overwhelming popular support — like universal healthcare, background checks for gun owners, increasing taxes on corporations and the rich, a campaign finance overhaul — dead on arrival in the capital.
Reporters fresh from California would see that more clearly, and recognize its significance on a daily basis.
They would also see how Washington’s elite journalists often get intimately and seamlessly bound to the other members of Washington’s ruling elite, laughing with liars and torturers over champagne and passed food, and too often identifying with their sources more than their readers.
A MAJOR IMPACT ON THE NATION AND THE WORLD
The Los Angeles Times Washington bureau has an incredible history of great editors, bold coverage, and independence.
It first became a force to be reckoned with in 1963 under editor Robert Donovan, and the legendary Jack Nelson led it for 21 years, from 1975 to 1996.
Ronald Ostrow, an investigative reporter who worked side by side with Nelson in the early 1970s, said the bureau back then “was unmatchable.” Nelson, for instance, landed the first story that brought Watergate right to the heart of the Nixon reelection campaign.
The bureau thrived for decades. By the late 1980s, the LA Times/Washington Post news service had 650 newspaper clients worldwide, far surpassing the New York Times service.
At its peak, in 2004, the bureau had grown to 60 staffers.
Doyle McManus, the bureau chief from 1996 to 2008, recalls that gradual staff cuts began in 2005, several years after the LA Times was bought by the Tribune Company. But when Chicago billionaire Sam Zell took control of Tribune, he “cut the bureau by more than half in 2008,” McManus wrote me in an email.
More recently, several top reporters fled the bureau when tronc threatened to close it, leaving 15 staffers in all.
So now it’s time for a revival.
As it happens, LA Times reporters Eli Stokols and Sabra Ayres put a refreshingly non-neutered look at the Helsinki summit from the get-go, calling it stunning and noting that Trump blamed the U.S. for the poor state of U.S.-Russian relations. So that’s promising.
Imagine what could happen next.
The Los Angeles Times would get the best reporters in the country banging down the door of their DC bureau if it offered them an opportunity they can’t get anywhere else: To relentlessly tell the truth about Trump — and Washington — for a major news organization.
For California-based reporters, it would be a chance to take on the most important stories in the world. And surely some veteran DC reporters are eager to be able to use all their brainpower to report and write rather than having to twist what they know into a form that won’t raise the ire of editors on the lookout for attitude.
The work these reporters would produce could have huge appeal to a national and international audience.
And it could change everything about Washington journalism.