Our Obama endorsement and your comments

UPDATE: This post was reformatted after its publication.

The outpouring of reader response to our endorsement of Barack Obama for president, released on our web site Friday morning and in our newspaper on Sunday, has been overwhelming and, for the most part, highly gratifying. By the time the Red Sox had given up the ghost Sunday evening, more than 1,100 readers had posted responses on the message board accompanying the editorial. Many more had written letters to the editor. Quite a few wrote to me directly. I’m told this flood represents a record -- or something close to it -- for reader response to a piece in The Times.

The strong majority of those who wrote, hundreds of readers, applauded our editorial, many for the result but many also offering their appreciation for our reasoning and our writing (as far as I can tell, only one reader found the piece poorly written. I guess you can’t please everyone). As someone accustomed mostly to hearing from people who are angry, I was happily surprised at the outpouring of appreciation for this editorial. To those readers who wrote to compliment us on our work, thank you.

At the same time, a relatively smaller number raised questions or objections that deserve answers. One theme, for instance, was that the editorial reflected a news bias toward Obama (predictably, some saw this as part of our Marxist enterprise. To you, I can only say that I've been at The Times for almost 20 years, and I've yet to bump into Fidel.). I understand why some people would doubt that we can be opinionated in one part of the paper and not in another, and I’m sure some won’t be reassured by anything I can say. Still, I want to emphasize this: All editorials in The Times, including endorsements, are the work solely of its editorial board. The members of that board are listed on our Opinion site here. I lead the board, and I report to the publisher, who oversees our work. No news reporter or editor saw this endorsement before it was written or was even told which candidate we would support. That’s the way we do business on all editorials; this was no exception.

To those readers, then, who object to endorsements because they compromise news coverage, let me just tell you that you're wrong. We endorse for the same reason we write other editorials -- we believe that civic discourse is healthy, and we enjoy participating in it. You don't have to agree, but there's no point in blaming -- or crediting -- our colleagues on the news side. They have nothing to do with our work.

A few readers amusingly suggested that the endorsement was dictated out of Chicago, where Tribune, the company that owns The Times, is based. For some, that suspicion was reinforced by the Chicago Tribune’s presidential endorsement, released a few hours after ours. Again, to be clear: No one from the management of the Tribune company participated in our endorsement in any way. In fact, earlier this year we took a position on a ballot measure where our chief officer, Sam Zell, had contributed money to one side. We took the opposing position. He was not consulted then or in this editorial or in any other piece we have written. Neither he nor any other Tribune executive has never contacted me or anyone on the board to urge a position or to complain about a position we have taken. I am happy to report that editorial policy for the Los Angeles Times editorial pages is developed and written in Los Angeles. I do not know who Sam Zell supports for president.

A couple readers complained that their replies were not posted. I can’t answer for all of those because different people monitored the message board at different times through the weekend, but I was at the helm of that process through the first wave on Friday, and I can tell you that yes, I did delete some responses. Some were profane. Some were racist. Some were threatening to me, the board or to readers who submitted comments. I did not delete any message because it criticized the editorial itself unless the same message was objectionable for those other reasons. I know some people will think that we select replies because they agree with us. All I can tell you is the opposite is true: We especially like to give space to opposing views. No comment was edited, and nothing was rejected because of the position it took on the editorial or the candidates.

Our determination to allow wide latitude on our message boards does produce some disquieting results. Many readers lobbed false charges – notably, the allegation that Obama is a Muslim – and a few were rough on each other. That’s a shame, but to be expected, I suppose, in a campaign that has become as testy as this one. Free speech can be ennobling or destructive, but we’re hardly ones to squelch it; instead, we enforce broad guidelines of decency and allow within them a lot of opportunity for nastiness.

I do hope that as readers continue to argue over this editorial, and over the issues and people in the campaign, they will reach for the ideal of disagreeing over ideas without pillorying opponents. Whatever one thinks of Barack Obama or John McCain, there are serious arguments on the other side. Those committed to politics at its best will listen rather than shout and will use our space to argue but not to wage vile or mean-spirited attacks. I hope you'll join us in that spirit.


Water and The Times

Here at The Times editorial board, we take seriously the matter of precedent. We build our positions upon those of our predecessors, and though we do depart from them when we feel they have outlived their value, we try to honor consistency along with intellectual honesty as we weigh the issues that come before us.

Today, we begin a series of editorials that explore some of the most ancient and deeply held views of our ancestors – the sturdy, rapacious men who built this newspaper and the city of Los Angeles. As many readers know, the early years of this city and its paper were forged by two desperate campaigns, one to lure visitors and new residents to the area, the other to find water. The Times took the lead in touting the region to the east, and William Mulholland, the chief engineer of the city’s Department of Water and Power, struck out in search of water. He found it in the Owens Valley and, again with the help of The Times, persuaded Los Angeles residents to approve a bond measure that would pay to bring that water down the eastern slope of the Sierra Mountains and into the San Fernando Valley. The city annexed the valley and got its water, and modern Los Angeles was born (and, not incidentally, the Chandler family, patriarchs of this newspaper, made a killing on their valley land).

“Glorious Mountain River Now Flows to Los Angeles,” the headline on November 6, 1913 read, followed by this subhead: “Silver Torrent Crowns The City’s Mighty Achievement.” Say what you will about their ethics, our predecessors undeniably could write.

Much has been made over the generations regarding the stealth that Mulholland and the DWP used to acquire water rights from the Owens Valley farmers, of the land deals behind their campaign, of the desiccated valley that the great water heist left behind. Yes, it’s true that our forbears did not do that valley any good, but any honest appraisal must also acknowledge that without their hard work, this city would not be here today.

So, it’s with due cognizance of the past that we today embark on an editorial series about water and its place in the life of this city and the world. This time, we’re doing it not as land barons (it’s safe to say that Harry Chandler would have been crushed to wake up one morning and find himself in possession of the combined real estate holdings of today’s editorial board), but as heirs to a newspaper built on water – and as residents of a region whose history has been formed by its pursuit.

Our first entry in the series, which appears today, looks at the potential for conservation and small-scale innovation in the drive to preserve what water we have before we go looking for more. That’s not an idea that particularly weighed on The Times in 1913, when it was more interested in getting than in saving. But it’s one with enormous potential to alter this city’s water future, as the editorial demonstrates.

Yes, that means we’re breaking some precedent here, but we’re doing it with full consciousness. That paper from Nov. 6, 1913, the one that hails Los Angeles’ water future? It hangs in our board room.


Another day, another installment, another note from the editor

With today’s installment of our series on the 2008 campaign, we move the discussion squarely to our system of justice – and particularly to the stresses on our liberties that the war on terror has created. Liberty, the value we explore today, is an embattled American idea, one honored in peacetime and all-too often abrogated during war.

In the long and recurring clash between liberty and security, we side with liberty and maintain that America’s long-term interests are best served by the jealous protection of its freedoms. The Cold War, for instance, was a clash of governments, but also of ideas, including the question of how much personal liberty a society can and should sanction. In that international competition for loyalty, America’s freedoms – its civil rights movement, its open markets, its acceptance and embrace of unpopular ideas – proved a far more compelling ideology than that of communism. We won the Cold War in large part because ours was a freer country than that of our adversary.

That said, our predecessors on this page have not always seen these questions quite the way we do today.

In January of 1942, with Californians on edge since the bombing of Pearl Harbor and with their fears stoked by the release of a study of the attack that suggested support for it among Hawaii’s Japanese population, The Times joined a clamorous call for the removal of the state’s Japanese. “California is a theater of war,” The Times editorialized on January 28 of that year. “The time has come to realize that the rigors of war demand proper detention of Japanese and their immediate removal from the most acute danger spots.

“It is not a pleasant task,” we then concluded. “But it must be done and done now. There is no safe alternative.”

That was a shameful moment in the history of this paper – one barely made less odious by the fact that our predecessors were in good company. Such devoted civil libertarians as Justice Hugo Black, President Franklin Roosevelt and then-California Attorney General Earl Warren, who 11 years later would write Brown vs. Board of Education, were among those who supported the internment, which began soon after that editorial was published. The internment locked up 110,000 Americans who were charged with no crime, a deprivation of liberty on a vast and abominable scale.

But we learn from history, and today our faith in liberty is more resolute, less insecure than it was in those frightening first months of America’s World War II. We on the editorial board believe wholeheartedly in freedom. We rely on the Supreme Court to protect it. And we hope for a President who, unlike the present occupant of the office, shares our devotion to it and sees it as part of our strength, not as a weakness.


Blogger blowback

As mentioned here previously, journalism professor Michael Skube's Aug. 19 op-ed on how blogs can't replace journalism has generated a torrent of negative feedback. Add to the list journalism professor Jay Rosen, who has penned an example-laden Blowback in response. An excerpt:

Dan Gillmor, a former newspaper man, calls it "journalistic malpractice." And it is that. Also pedagogical buffoonery. In Skube's columns, there's a teacher who doesn't believe in doing his homework - any homework.

So I did it for him.

On the same topic, Editorial Page Editor Jim Newton has written a note to readers that includes this Skube statement over the controversial editing of the piece:

Before my Aug. 19 Opinion piece on bloggers was printed, an editor asked if it would be helpful to include the names of the bloggers in my piece as active participants in political debate. I agreed.

Whole thing here.

Thoughts on Skube, Rosen, Newton, or the L.A. Times? Leave 'em in the comments.


Grazergate, the epilogue

David Hiller's decision to kill the Brian Grazer section this Sunday makes my continued tenure as Los Angeles Times editorial page editor untenable. The person in this job needs to have an unimpeachable integrity, and Hiller's decision amounts to a vote of no confidence in my continued leadership. 
I regret that my failure to anticipate and adequately address the perception of a conflict in this matter has placed Hiller -- whom I like and respect a great deal, incidentally -- and my colleagues on the editorial board in such an awkward position, not to mention Brian Grazer and Kelly Mullens, who did nothing wrong here but have been caught up in all this. Nick Goldberg and Michael Newman are two of the smartest, most talented people I have worked with, and any lapses in judgment here were mine, not theirs. 
I accept responsibility for creating this appearance problem, though I also maintain that the newspaper is overreacting today. We are depriving readers of an interesting, serious section that is beyond reproach, and unfairly insulting the individuals we approached to participate in this guest editor program by telling them it is a corrupt concept. How we come about this decision when 24 hours ago the managing editor of this newspaper was assuring me he didn't see a story after I walked him through the facts, and while Hiller maintains we did nothing wrong, is a bit perplexing. In trying to keep up with the blogosphere, and boasting about their ability to go after their own, navel-gazing newsrooms run the risk of becoming parodies of themselves. 
Among the biggest possible conflicts of interest a newspaper can enter into is to have the same people involved in news coverage running opinion pages. I am proud of the fact that Jeff Johnson, Dean Baquet and I fully separated the opinion pages from the newsroom at the Times.  I accept my share of the responsibility for placing the Times in this predicament, but I will not be lectured on ethics by some ostensibly objective news reporters and editors who lobby for editorials to be written on certain subjects, or who have suggested that our editorial page coordinate more closely with the newsroom's agenda, and I strongly urge the present and future leadership of the paper to resist the cries to revisit the separation between news and opinion that we have achieved. 
We're a long ways removed from the fall of 2004 when Michael Kinsley and John Carroll lured me out to the West Coast, with promises of investing more resources on the LAT opinion pages and web site. Some of the retrenchment is understandable given the business fundamentals, but I have been alarmed recently by the company's failure to acknowledge that our opinion journalism, central to the paper's role as a virtual town square for community debate and dialogue, should not be crudely scaled back as part of across-the-board cuts.  Decisions being made now to cut the one part of the paper that is predominantly about ideas and community voices go too far in my view, and are shortsighted.

Still, I am proud of what we've accomplished in the last two years. The Times has a provocative editorial page of intellectual integrity that adheres to principles over time, rather than the tactical, shrill partisanship that has become too much the norm of our public discourse and plenty of other editorial pages. The op-ed page continues to provide a lively mix of opinion from all quarters, and we have put in place a strong roster of weekly op-ed columnists and contributing editors. Sunday's Current is firing on all cylinders and we have recently launched a series of online-only feautres, including more columns, weekly online chats, weeklong debates and other features. 
It has been a tremendous privilege working here on Spring Street and being associated with the talented team of opinionators on the second floor, and the vast majority of other journalists at the Times building and around the world who are hugely talented and committed. 
I am sorry I let you down, 

Why Brian Grazer?

Some questions have been raised in the blogosphere and in our newspaper (on Friday) about the choice of Brian Grazer to guest edit Current this Sunday, and whether our judgment was affected by a conflict of interest. It was not.

I think it’s important to address these questions, and innuendo, head on because our integrity is our most important currency in this business of offering scarce space in the paper to outside voices. This is why in 2005 I instituted anti-nepotism policies barring editors’ relatives from writing for our pages, even if the editor at issue is disclosed. No one I have a personal relationship with would ever dream of approaching me about trying to get something in the paper.

At issue here is my personal relationship with a publicist named Kelly who works for a firm that does some work for Imagine Entertainment, Brian Grazer and Ron Howard’s firm, as well as most other Hollywood studios. Our worlds rarely overlap since the bulk of her work involves Hollywood clients and I am more interested in stuff like the Mayor’s school plan and Doha Round trade talks.

Given his well-known intellectual curiosity and his track record as a Hollywood producer, Brian is a terrific choice to kick off this quarterly program of guest editors. Brian and his partner Ron Howard have had a hand in bringing such stimulating fare as “Felicity” and “24” to the small screen (as well as my fav sitcom of all time, the tragically short-lived “SportsNight”) and such blockbusters as “A Beautiful Mind” and “The Da Vinci Code” to the big screen.

Two senior editors, besides me, agreed that Brian was a good choice, especially after a brainstorming session with him on January 22. And I believe readers on Sunday will also agree with the wisdom of our choice, when they see what Brian, who has long been known for seeking out interesting thinkers across a wide array of disciplines, cooked up.

The idea of a guest editor program dates back over a year. I believe we were already talking about it when the Independent of London beat us to the punch. Former publisher Jeff Johnson and former editor Dean Baquet both signed off on the concept back then. We approached Warren Buffet Buffett and Steve Jobs initially, but they declined.

What we ask a guest editor to do is assign the bulk of one Sunday’s section – four or five stories. The hope in asking intriguing personalities from various walks of life to serve as guest editor is to offer readers some compelling content we might not otherwise run, as well as an insight into the personality and mindset of the particular guest editor. We have approached well-known figures from the realm of politics, sports and philanthropy to follow in Brian’s footsteps.

The apparent conflict in this instance arises from the fact that I called up Allan Mayer early this year to ask if he’d ask Steven Spielberg if he’d be interested in being our first guest editor. Mayer is a well-known former journalist and public relations guru who is Kelly’s boss. Months earlier, Allan had come into the paper for lunch with a number of editors (at a time when I had no contact with Kelly) to talk journalism and some of the preemptive crisis management he’d done on Munich for Spielberg.

Long story short, Spielberg said he was intrigued, but couldn’t do it then. Allan then suggested Brian Grazer, and I quickly decided this was an inspired choice. I told Nick Goldberg, Current’s editor, and Michael Newman, my deputy, that Allan had suggested Grazer, and we all read up on him and met him, and were excited about his involvement.

At no point was Kelly involved in pitching the concept of a guest editor, or any individual. My conversations were with Allan, who himself had no role in our subsequent talks with Brian and Michael Rosenberg, Imagine Entertainment’s president.

The decision to ask Brian to do this was not mine alone, but was taken by three editors here, and then approved by the publisher. The suggestion that my relationship with Kelly had anything to do with this choice is without merit. Suggestions that she or anyone else has favored access to our pages is also absurd. When Allan has pitched op-ed pieces to the Times – and we can only think of two instances this has happened in the last year – he has dealt directly with that page’s editor, Nick Goldberg.

Neither he nor Kelly would dream of approaching me. One of the pieces Allan pitched was about diamond trade, authored by an African head of state. Nick rejected it. Another was about the Oscars, by Harvey Weinstein. Nick accepted it. In both cases, I was unaware the pitch was being made.

Because Kelly does some work for Imagine, we are planning on disclosing this in an editor’s note on Sunday. But I can assure readers she had no role in our decision to choose Grazer, and readers can make up their own minds as to whether this choice was a wise one. Thanks for reading.


We Explain, You React

In today's Times, Editor Dean Baquet wrote a column on "Why we ran the bank story." We'll have a more extensive post later rounding up public reactions, but for now we want to ask you -- what did you think of Baquet's column, and of the Times' decision to publish the controversial article on the secret government program to monitor international financial transactions?


The Story of the Day....

... is, obviously, the several hundred thousand people marching in the streets of L.A. to agitate for immigration reform. For links to reportage, commentary, and reader-comments on this momentous day, please visit our Borderline blog.


About Us

Hello, everyone, and welcome to the Opinion Section's new daily weblog, Opinion L.A.

Every weekday at this space you will see:
* Links to the day's Opinion Dept. produce.
* Roundups of local opinion journalism from outside sources (alternative weeklies, national political magazines, business and neighborhood weeklies, online publications, city magazines, weblogs, whatever).
Sprinkled throughout the week will be:
* Random only-in-Southern-California stuff, like excerpts from, oh, Mamie Van Doren's weblog.
* A look at people who are bashing (or praising!) this here L.A. Times; and
* So forth.

There will eventually be chances for readers to interrogate various Opinion staffers, some guest-bloggers arguing about this or that, and also a daily version made available through web feed and e-mail.... Plus some other exciting developments we'll be unveiling in the coming week or three. Not least of which is the creation of another new blog -- Borderline, that focuses 100% on immigration politics.

What's the big idea of Opinion L.A.?

There isn't one, beyond wanting to be a one-stop shop for the best in opinion journalism from and about Southern California. Also, to have a bit of fun, and provide a place for readers to debate with us, and with one another.

Who are you?

The ringmaster is Matt Welch, assistant Editorial Pages editor of the L.A. Times, and a blogger in a former life; references available upon request. Many other Opinion Page staffers will be contributing regularly.

What's your policy on comments?

Please, pretty please, and pretty please with sugar on top, use your real name.

What's that all about?

We want to build a better conversation, where people can still freely screech at each other, but without leaning on the cheap courage/crutch of anonymity. Yes, yes, anonymity can be crucial in political discourse, and the most important thing is the quality of the argument, etc. etc. But that's why God invented Blogspot, and there's nothing in our version of the Constitution that says we have a legal or moral duty to host wild-eyed calls to arms from people named "Colin Oscopy." We also might want to use some comments as Letters to the Editor, in which case we'll need much more personal info than your average blog-comment requires.

So -- use a pseudonym, and the barrier to your comment's entry will be raised significantly (basically, if we arbitrarily conclude you're talking smack that you wouldn't dare under your real name). Reveal your identity (which we will never harvest or share with other people), and the only way you'll get blocked is if you advocate violence against individuals or groups, libel someone, make grave accusations against entire categories of humans, or pass yourself off as someone you aren't. Oh yeah -- and we don't work the graveyard shift.

Huh? No comments after midnight?

Unfortunately, for the time being someone here has to approve every comment before it's published. Something to do with a controversial experiment way back when.... That said, we're being as expeditious as possible between around 7 a.m. and 8 p.m. PDT, and are constantly looking to improve our system. Your suggestions welcome, your patience appreciated.

Why don't you link to my blog?

Why don't you ask? Doesn't mean we will -- we're looking for sites from or about Southern California, updated frequently, and with some consistent level of quality.

Consistent level of quality? What about that one guy who I think is terrible and offensive?

Links are not endorsements, nor are all of them 100% PG-13, to say the least. If you are not offended by at least some of these sites, then we're probably not being thorough enough in our selection.

That's all for now; feel free to ask any and all questions in the comments ... and please keep coming back!