They were the golden years at the Los Angeles Times under Otis Chandler. Staff members flew first class to cities across the country and sometimes around the world to gather news and features first hand. Editorial budgets were fat and reporters were eager to go where the stories were, vying for the front page’s favored Column One, set aside for original and innovative work, running down the left-hand side of the page.
Ambitious and eager for self-aggrandizement, we were equally proud of what we did and what the Times had accomplished in shedding its old reputation of right-wing, union-hating, race-baiting rag to emerge as one of three great dailies in the country, alongside the New York Times and the Washington Post. It was a time of pride as well as profit, and we all knew that we were a part of something real and meaningful.
Like Camelot, magical kingdoms eventually turn to dusty memory, as the Times, now a shadow of what it was in the Otis Chandler era, struggles just to stay afloat, its advertising and circulation down, its staff pared to an almost skeletal size, observing the future of print journalism with concern and trepidation.
I was a part of that Golden Era as reporter, feature writer and eventually a columnist until last January when I too was downsized. And so I have a special interest in Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times from Angel City Press, which artfully parallels the growth of Los Angeles and the newspaper under three generations of the Chandlers. Based on the PBS documentary by Peter Jones, complete with more than 200 photos dating back to the 1800s, this is not only an important book but an exceptional book, laced together by ex-Timesman Bill Boyarsky’s faultless prose, the merger of a reporter’s terse observations and a columnist’s insights, jobs he held during 30 years at the Times, leaving as city editor in 2001.
The book isn’t just about Otis Chandler. It begins with Civil War veteran Gen. Harrison Gray Otis who joined the newspaper that was to become the Times in 1882, followed shortly thereafter by the first Chandler, Harry, who later became the General’s son in law. They were not only the founders of the Times but pitchmen for the city itself, seeing it grow almost overnight from a sleepy town of 12,000 to a metropolis of 320,000 in the 30 years from 1880 to 1910, and the growth never ended.
Virulently anti-union, the Times was bombed into debris and 21 employees killed in 1925 by what the General called “anarchic scum,” one of the many epithets employed in the free-wheeling Times by the man Boyarksy regards as “the old master of vitriol.” Two union men, brothers Jim and John McNamara, went to prison for the bombing, saved from execution by the wit and skill of celebrated defense attorney Clarence Darrow, whose fame would increase five years later in the Scopes “Monkey Trial.”
Norman Chandler followed Harry and while less bombastic than his predecessor still lobbied for those elements that would transform a village into a world class city. The Chandlers had gone all out for a deep water harbor, water for the San Fernando Valley and a general development of the urban areas, but their hucksterism included a less appealing side of them, and that was a campaign to sell L.A. to the world as “the White Spot.” Boyarsky points out that the phrase could be translated as a land of sunshine, but more likely was an appeal to those who preferred a city devoid of non-whites, a slogan that might have helped stoke the fires of brutal attacks on Chinese-Americans and Latinos, and later contributed to the hysteria that landed American citizens of Japanese descent into internment camps during World War II.
Otis Chandler followed Norman, and the newspaper that encouraged a neoconservative agenda, racism and union-busting was a thing of the past.
The Golden Age at the Times became the measured voice of a city which by now had achieved world class status, a power on the Pacific Rim that would not be denied. Those of us who were a part of the Golden Age cannot hope to see its likes again in today’s faltering fortunes of print journalism. Perhaps a sequel to this book would be not so much inventing L.A., but reinventing the Los Angeles Times.
Al Martinez is a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the Los Angeles Times, author of a dozen books, an Emmy-nominated creator of prime time television shows, a travel writer, humorist and general hell-raiser. Try him. He’s addictive.
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