Mon, May

Rare Insights from the LA Times Editorial Board: Transparency, Endorsements, and Judicial Accountability


GELFAND’S WORLD - Did you ever wonder how newspaper editorials come about? Most of us always assumed that the owner decided what he wanted (it was, of course, always a Him) and either wrote it himself or told some editor to write it. Then we got the official word, intended to instruct the administrators of whatever small town it was, and thereby civic policy was established. You wouldn't expect to see a lot of sympathy for those charged with crimes or for hobos in the small city editorial. 

But on Saturday, the Los Angeles Times made its editorial board available in a session at the Times Festival of Books. 

A word about the event itself. The Festival has been taking place on the USC campus for a number of years now, and this year was no exception. There were two differences from previous events. There was no Covid concern to speak of, and the press and online pundits were all worked up about USC's odd choices in terms of its graduation speaker. The chosen valedictorian turned out to be a Muslim woman, someone who has apparently been critical of Israel, and this condition seems to have inspired an all-out panic among the learned elders at the school. They made up some stories about their concern for safety and security, cancelled the valedictorian speech along with all the outside speakers, and obviously hoped that the whole thing would blow over. 

So what was the reality on Saturday, April 20 on the USC campus? As in previous years there were tents containing thousands of books, panels of authors in rooms full of listeners, and thousands of visitors. There were perhaps a few dozen protestors (at least that I saw), and they were well behaved. You had to look hard to find them. There was one small group with written remarks asking the authorities to "let Asna speak." I asked them if they were protesting about the valedictorian, and they said they were. They weren't chanting or shouting. They were just there. 

So aside from issues of overpriced parking and one booth that sold water at four dollars a bottle (making airport water seem reasonable), things were jolly on this warm spring day. 

What interested me was a panel consisting of the Los Angeles Times Editorial Board. I wasn't sure how they would collect four or five elderly men wearing gray suits and vests so we could hear what the descendants of the Chandlers had to say, but that wasn't who or what they were. 

For one thing, the editorial board members look fairly young, at least from my perspective. They were Mariel Garza, Carla Hall, Robert Greene, and Tony Barboza. I knew one of them (Greene) from back in the days that he wrote about neighborhood councils for L.A. Weekly, but the others were new to me. 

Let's get to the meat of the discussion. The obvious questions were the following: 

How do you decide what topic to editorialize about?

How did you get picked to be part of this board?

How do you decide what to say?

How about endorsements? 

It turns out that they live well apart from each other (Los Angeles being what it is) and so they meet several times a week on Zoom. They can lobby each other about some topic of interest, and sometimes it takes quite a bit of cajoling and reasoning to get the others to agree. They then discuss the topic, come to some conclusions, and eventually create an editorial that does not include their own names. 

There was no discussion about whether the owner of the paper interferes with their decisions, but it was clear that for the most part, they have a lot of freedom to define their own agenda and to reach their own conclusions. Where this becomes most tangible is in the endorsement process. 

For some reason going back in history, California has a process by which judges are subject to election every few years. Once in a while there is an open seat, and those seats are fought over by numerous candidates. Judges have enormous power and responsibility, so it is important that we get the better people elected. And this is a significant problem, because the candidate needs to have both legal competence and a tolerable personality, not to mention a strong moral sensibility. 

Most of us don't know anything about the candidates. We might assume that an incumbent is OK, having survived several years on the bench without being indicted, but we don't really know for sure. And when it comes to candidates running against each other for an open seat, we know even less. 

This is why it is important to have some credible endorsement for each Superior Court seat that is up for election. A bad candidate can do serious damage and should be prevented from getting elected. Many of us rely on the Los Angeles Times for judicial endorsements. The board doesn't have to make ultra-fine distinctions, but should at least know something about the candidates, be able to detect deviations from acceptable judicial temperament, and do the vetting as to whether a candidate is considered generally honest and honorable. They assured us that this is what they do. 

A lot of us will just take the Times judicial endorsements to the poll and vote them. Their endorsed candidates gain a significant advantage. 

We have to assume that the editorial board endorsers are not adopting any radical viewpoint of either the far left or far right. We are looking for judicial candidates who represent some politically centrist point of view, in the sense that they will sentence violent criminals to prison, but they will maintain some sensitivity to human weakness. We want neither a hanging judge nor a judge who throws open the jail house doors, but someone who can offer a second chance when it is indicated while preserving the public safety against career criminals. 

No pressure, right? But this kind of endorsement is the most important one that the editorial board offers. For every other office, we voters have some sort of clue: political party, endorsements by other elected officials, and mainly how the candidate performed in a previous office. It wasn't hard for me to figure out who got my vote for Assemblyman or Governor, but I really do need the help for some judge working out of a courthouse in Alhambra. One additional thought: Some judges are known to be rude and abusive to attorneys. It would be useful for voters to know. 

One comment we heard that was not surprising. They told us repeatedly that there is a wall between the newsroom and editorial, in the sense that the two operations do not try to affect each other's actions. The news side is supposed to be dispassionate and doesn't tell editorial what position to take. The editorial side apparently does not tell the news side to spend more time looking into the voting patterns of the City Council. 

I wonder if maybe this isn't a mistake. Considering the declining fortunes of American newspapers, perhaps it is time to consider changing the old journalistic model that newspapers claim to live by. Maybe the Los Angeles Times could do a little experimentation -- try becoming the crusading newspaper that old movies used to show. Drill a few holes in that wall between editorial and news. 

How to run a political ceremony 

Assemblyman Mike Gipson hosted a signing ceremony the other morning. He and the gathered audience were there to celebrate bills that he authored, which made it through the state legislature, and which were signed by the governor. They included a bill about suspects dying in police custody and a bill about making the DMV experience easier for seniors. I just want to mention a few things that made this event workable. There was free parking, there was an adequate meeting space, there was hot coffee, and there were restrooms. Added to that, there were a number of dignitaries who spoke briefly and well. The event, at LA Harbor College, compared favorably with the Festival of Books in terms of accessibility. You could park and get a drink of water for less than $24. Actually it was all free down here in the harbor. 

A historical day 

Wow. The very first day of the very first criminal trial of a one-time American president, and it is barely making the news. Wags managed to choke out the fact that the first witness called by the prosecution was a Mr. Pecker. You can write your own jokes about the name, but the content is significant. Under Pecker's management, the National Enquirer would buy stories from people that would have been damaging to some celebrity. The Enquirer would buy the exclusive rights and hold the seller to a nondisclosure agreement. Then the Enquirer would simply not publish the story. 

That's one way to protect some sleeze ball from the bad publicity that he rightly deserves. We'll see where Pecker's testimony goes tomorrow. 

(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected].)