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From AJR,   October 1998  issue

Finger-pointing in Los Angeles   

By Lori Robertson
Lori Robertson (robertson.lori@gmail.com), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.      

It's not unusual for newspapers to play an important role in the civic affairs of their communities. But how much involvement is too much? That's the question being debated in the wake of a controversial donation by the Los Angeles Daily News that has also touched off a mini-flap involving the News and the L.A. Times.

It all began with an August 8 Times article reporting that the Daily News had contributed $60,000 to Valley Voters Organized Toward Empowerment. Valley VOTE is a coalition of San Fernando Valley homeowners and business groups that is heading a petition drive for a study of the Valley's possible secession from Los Angeles.

Secession from the sprawling City of Angels has long been a hot topic in the Valley, where many residents feel they pay too much in taxes for too few services. Though actually located in the suburbs, the Woodland Hills-based Daily News, whose circulation is concentrated in the Valley, has extensively covered the Valley's relationship with the rest of the city.

The Times article, published a day after the Daily News revealed the contribution in its own pages, ended with a quote from James M. Naughton, president of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, about the importance of separating journalism from community efforts to sway public opinion. The article also mentioned the fact that Times Publisher Mark H. Willes was a member of the Los Angeles Business Advisors, a group of corporate executives assembled to discuss ways to improve the city's business environment.

Daily News Editor David Butler is quick to cite Willes' LABA membership when asked about his paper's unusual contribution. LABA dues are $40,000, paid by Times Mirror. The relatively quiet organization garnered attention in early August when it publicly vowed to fight efforts to create elected neighborhood councils, an alternative to secession. On August 17, the Daily News ran a 3,000-plus word piece on the organization, listing some of its 26 members and highlighting Willes' involvement.

Willes' membership dates back to December 1995--when he was chairman of Times Mirror, the Times' parent company, but before he named himself publisher. And despite parallels suggested by Butler, the Daily News is the one suffering the brunt of the criticism.

Though the paper did reveal its contribution to Valley VOTE first, it was the Times article that got most of the Daily News staff's attention, says Dave McNary, a News business writer and chairman of the paper's chapter of the Newspaper Guild. The News' six-paragraph piece was "really buried," he says. McNary uses two words to describe staff reaction to the contribution: "resignation and disappointment."

Butler says it is his understanding that the decision to make the donation--the largest revealed single donation to Valley VOTE and nearly 15 percent of its total contributions--was made by Publisher Ike Massey. Though Butler says he wishes "an announcement had been handled in a different sort of manner," he supports Massey's move, saying the donation complements the paper's editorial position that the people should sort out the secession quandary. Massey did not return repeated phone calls from AJR.

Butler stresses that Valley VOTE merely advocates a feasibility study; it doesn't call for secession. But Times Editor Michael Parks says, "Valley VOTE would not be gathering signatures on a petition" if it didn't favor the separation.

The 202,000-circulation Daily News, owned by William Dean Singleton's MediaNews Group, would be a likely beneficiary of secession. A new San Fernando city would become the nation's sixth-largest, with 1.2 million residents, and its newspaper would be the Daily News. Butler brushes off suggestions that this was an underlying purpose of the contribution, saying actual withdrawal from L.A. is "a decade or so off in the future. I don't think anybody thinks that's really the motivating factor here."

Regard-less of the cause, newsroom buzz about the contribution prompted a meeting attended by Butler, Managing Editor Ron Kaye and about 35 staffers. Afterward, the paper decided to include a disclaimer, a short paragraph mentioning the Daily News' contribution to Valley VOTE, at the end of all stories about the petition drive.

McNary says he thinks management was "surprised by the level of anger" at the meeting. Besides editorial questions, McNary has a financial objection: He says the salaries at the News are not as high as they are at comparable papers, yet management was able to donate big bucks to a civic cause. To McNary, the disclaimer is a "very small victory... I don't think it really changes people's opinions very much."

As for the Times, circulation 1,095,007, its response to questions about Willes' involvement in LABA has been simple--this just isn't the same thing as the News' contribution. Willes joined the organization as the CEO of Times Mirror, and he serves in that capacity. Parks allows a similarity between the two papers' actions "only in the broadest terms that both newspapers as businesses and as newspapers want to participate in the public lives of their communities." He says: "There's an essential difference in that Mark Willes is participating with other CEOs in discussions and a policy advisory group that is concerned with the whole city. The Daily News is the largest financial backer of a secession drive in the city."

In an August 20 Times article about the petition drive, Willes is quoted as saying he "didn't have any philosophical problem" with what the Daily News had done. He did not return phone calls from AJR, but communications manager Mike Lange says Willes has stated that he sees nothing wrong with newspapers playing a civic role. "You have to be clear about it," Lange continues, "and we are."

Times reporter Jim Newton, the lead reporter on the city's charter reform, says he disclosed Willes' LABA membership in a story about the group last year. At the time, Newton says, neither he nor his editors raised any ethical questions. Now that city charter reform debate has elevated the organization's profile, the paper is strict in revealing that Willes is a member when LABA is mentioned, he says.

Such membership in community boards is not unusual for news executives, says Aly Colón, an associate in ethics and diversity at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. While it's important for newspapers to play a civic role, he says, papers must ask: "Where do we get involved, and how do we get involved? And how will that be perceived by the public as regards to our news product?" He says even if the Daily News' coverage is fair and impartial, its action "plants seeds of doubt."

Jan Schaffer, executive director of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, agrees. While it's appropriate for a newspaper to talk about the secession issue, she says, "when a newspaper has a financial stake and takes a financial stake in that discussion, it muddies the waters... In my view it crosses the line."

The August 14 issue of the News included a letter to readers from Massey explaining the paper's position and emphasizing its commitment to objective coverage. Butler says there have been no reader complaints, and jokes that he instituted the disclaimers "to placate journalism reviews."

Colón and Schaffer think the disclaimer helps but doesn't necessarily solve the original objectivity problem.

Though the Daily News will likely emerge from this contretemps unscathed, the questions that it has raised remain. This episode is "not an isolated example," says Schaffer. "To varying degrees, we see some of this all the time. I think newspapers are struggling with what is the most appropriate role for them to play in the community."