When Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band opened the opulent new Staples Center in LA on October 17, the Jersey Troubadour had a few choice words for those watching from the luxury skyboxes. “It’s important for you folks up there…to come out of your rooms to see a rock show,” Springsteen said. “[You have to] mix with people.” Among the denizens of those $300,000-a-year corporate playrooms to whom Springsteen was addressing himself were Mike Miller of Mike Miller Toyota, a major advertiser in the Los Angeles Times, and Bob Zacky of the Zacky Farms chicken dynasty. Many interpreted their presence in the Times‘s box as a form of corporate apology for the paper’s aggressive reporting, which had allegedly upset both men recently.
Yet within weeks of the concert, Times readers, indeed virtually everyone concerned with the future of journalism, had reason to be concerned about the goings-on in the Times box at Staples. Stories in the alternative New Times LA and the Los Angeles Business Journal reported that the Times had agreed not only to become a founding sponsor of the center, paying between $2.5 million and $3 million annually, but also to enter into a business relationship with the center that entailed sharing advertising profits on a special edition of the paper’s magazine devoted to the wonder and glory of the new building and the men who built it. The center encouraged its suppliers to take out ads in the issue, so certain was it of favorable coverage.
That so obvious a journalistic taboo–sharing profits with the subject of coverage–could take place in so venerable an institution was just part of the shock. Almost immediately, 314 editorial employees signed a letter protesting the deal and demanding an investigation. Next came an admission from the paper’s editor, Michael Parks, that he knew nothing about the deal and from the paper’s publisher, Kathryn Downing, that she entered into it owing to a “fundamental misunderstanding” of basic journalistic principle. When Otis Chandler, publisher of the paper from 1960 to 1980 and the man who steered it to greatness, sent a letter to be read aloud in the newsroom condemning Downing and her boss, Mark Willes, for a decision that was “unbelievably stupid and unprofessional,” all hell broke loose at the paper.
Reporters spoke of “bloodlust in the newsroom” and crowed for Downing’s head. She refused to quit, terming Chandler, whose statue graces the building’s lobby, a “bitter old man” and refused. Parks agreed to appoint the paper’s respected media writer, David Shaw, to do an in-depth study of the incident, but otherwise the two sides are stalemated. Chandler does not control parent company Times Mirror’s board of directors, which appears to be backing Downing and Willes, no doubt a reflection of the company’s stock price rising from 23 in mid-1995–when Willes was brought in as publisher and CEO–to nearly 70 today. And amid all the hoopla about Chandler’s dramatic letter and Downing’s incredible admission–the person at the top operates from a “fundamental misunderstanding” of her own profession–the most important issues in the controversy have been obscured.