The New York Times’ Double Diss of Los Angeles

Its reporters misunderstand what ails the L.A. Times—and what that has to do with the city’s civic fabric.

The sun shines over the Los Angeles skyline on January 5, 2018. 
A building boom not seen since the 1920's is underway with the construction of new concrete and glass towers. / AFP PHOTO / FREDERIC J. BROWN        (Photo credit should read FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)
L.A. is a bit hazy to the New York Times. FREDERIC J. BROWN/Getty Images

Little gets Angelenos more riled up than a New York Times piece about their city. On Tuesday, the Grey Lady attempted to wax majestic about the problems at the Los Angeles Times, which has suffered some turbulent changes as of late. After the newspaper’s publisher and CEO was placed on unpaid leave following an investigation into sexual harassment, an award-winning business editor was mysteriously escorted out of the building before she could even close her laptop, and the Huffington Post reported that the paper may be building a new national desk outside the union that newsroom employees just formed—all of this before owner Tronc replaced the paper’s top editor this week to quell the unrest—the New York Times suggested that the paper’s troubles are “symptomatic” of problems with Los Angeles’s very civic fabric, a blinkered double-diss of newspaper and city containing a litany of self-owns.

Bristling when the New York Times misdiagnoses your town is a cherished municipal tradition just about everywhere outside the Tri-State Area, but this article is an unusually contradictory and unconvincing attempt to connect Los Angeles’ vast geography and what it describes as a lack of civic institutions to the travails of its newspaper. In the telling of Adam Nagourney and Tim Arango, two L.A.-based New York Times reporters, the Los Angeles Times’ struggles are of a piece with, and perhaps even intertwined with, the city’s purported lack of “strong institutions that bind it together.” (Full disclosure: I used to work there.) They continue: “For all its successes, Los Angeles has not developed the political, cultural and philanthropic institutions that have proved critical in other American cities.” That may sound right to editors on the opposite coast. But the thesis makes even less sense than the Chargers’ reasons for leaving San Diego for L.A.

The Times article partially hangs its argument on a “lack of philanthropy,” citing a Charity Navigator list that ranks L.A. at 14 among “major metropolitan markets”—and neglecting to mention that the same list puts New York at No. 19. According to those same statistics, L.A.
still gives above the national average. Nagourney and Arango mention L.A.’s Walt Disney Concert Hall as an example of a philanthropic undertaking that barely got off the ground, but the Los Angeles Times reported just last year that the city’s “strong fund-raising has helped quintuple” the endowment of the L.A. Philharmonic, which calls the venue home and is “stronger than ever.” That hardly sounds like a community that doesn’t come together to support major institutions.

The New York Times rests the remainder of its case on Los Angeles County’s undisputable vastness: It’s made of up countless neighborhoods and discrete cities spread across valleys and hills all the way to the Pacific coast. To the Times of New York, which argues that L.A.’s sprawling geography helps foster a lack of civic cohesion, the personalities of these enclaves automatically preclude any greater shared identity: “People here are more likely to identify themselves with the city or neighborhood where they live—be it Glendale, Compton, Beverly Hills or Whittier—rather than Los Angeles,” they write. Sure, these are all census-designated cities within Los Angeles County; why wouldn’t residents also identify with the places they live? How wildly unreasonable would it be for Williamsburg or the Upper West Side or Riverdale to have their own characters! In one of the few quotes that actually addresses their point, former Antonio Villaraigosa claims that Los Angeles’s sprawl hampered his ambitions during his two terms. It’s possible, but it’s also a helpful argument if you’re currently running to be governor and need to defend your record, which he is and does.

In another contradiction, the New York Times asserts that L.A. lacks a unifying political or civic leader because it’s “become increasingly and economically diverse”—but later highlights Mayor Eric Garcetti’s fast rise to national and global stardom as a point of local pride. While the piece faults L.A. for failing to tackle large issues like “homelessness, education, and battered streets”—challenges hardly unique to Los Angeles—it admits that the city’s economy is “humming,” that there are new museums and newly arrived sports franchises (look—civic institutions!), and that it will host the 2028 Olympic Games. It might have also noted that on that last point, L.A. pulled off what most metropolises do not—its Olympics will be laudably thrifty, likely dodging the fiscal nightmare that greets so many host cities.

What L.A. lacks, the New York Times fixates on, are elites—perhaps the kind that used to own the Los Angeles Times and that might again insulate it from its current woes. In an argument that might have worked better during the Gilded Age, the New York Times suggests that being a “relatively young city, filled with recent arrivals who do not have the history of the kind of old-line families who have defined civic foundations in established cities like Boston and Philadelphia” is a bug, not a feature, of Los Angeles. But as the Los Angeles Times’ assistant managing editor points out, relationships with elites were often “much better known for corruption and using their power for self-enrichment than creating a better city,” and so L.A. has rightfully been wary of them. While it’s odd enough to suggest an international city like Los Angeles lacks the requisite n’oblesse oblige to solve its civic problems, the article itself points out that even though philanthropist Eli Broad is set to retire, others are beginning to step into his shoes. If there is a concrete challenge that has deepened because of Los Angeles’ dearth of institutions and the rich people who fund them, I couldn’t find it in this article.

Which brings us back to the Los Angeles Times, which has seen tremendous turnover in leadership in this decade alone. The paper has undoubtedly dulled in its presence in and influence over its city over the past decade, but it’s hard to find a newspaper that hasn’t. Like papers in many cities—like Washington, D.C., and, yes, New York—the Los Angeles Times was once owned by dynastic patricians before being sold to a plusher buyer, in its case the former Tribune Company, now Tronc. That local elites could not hold on to the paper is not a problem particular to the Los Angeles Times, whose agonies were magnified during the terrible reign of real estate mogul Sam Zell, who bought Tribune in 2007 and gutted the paper’s ranks through numerous rounds of layoffs and brought the parent company to bankruptcy the next year.

Those layoffs, and other struggles many other newspapers have suffered, have taken a toll on the Los Angeles Times. As newsroom numbers have dwindled, so has the paper’s ability to actually cover its beautiful, vast city and hold those scant civic leaders accountable. That is a problem, and not one the New York Times bothered to ponder here.

So, yes, the New York Times got it wrong on L.A. again—maybe it’s too vast and too diverse to achieve its foggy notion of a unified city, whatever that means—but that has little to do with what’s gone wrong at the Los Angeles Times, whose problems are intimately tied up with the rest of the media industry’s.

At least the New York Times found one way Angelenos come together: by hating articles like this one.