John Carroll and the L.A. Times

John Carroll and the L.A. Times?.The news industry is wrongly convinced that the world is fascinated by such inside developments as executive comings and goings. That said, as staff member of the Los Angeles Times for more than 20 years, I feel obliged to contribute my own take on the voluminously-reported announcement that John Carroll will be departing the job as editor of The Times next month.

It?s hard to overstate the positive impact that John?s arrival in 2000 had on the newsroom. The staff was deeply demoralized. His predecessors included one extremely polarizing and self-involved newsroom boss, and another who was intelligent, earnest, well-meaning, and (unfortunately) inexperienced. They had both been unfit, in different ways, to deal with a corporate management ignorant of how to run a newspaper.

This is a business in which potholes invariably open under your feet as you stumble along. Our corporate and newsroom managers alike displayed an unerring ability to step into every pothole up to the kneecap. Their innocence of a newspaper?s unique role in the community, as much more than a business enterprise, led them into the most frightful public errors of judgment.

An appointee of our new owners, Tribune Co., Carroll?s difference from his predecessors was instantaneously apparent. Much has been written about his courtliness, wisdom, and gravitas, but too little about his breadth of experience. He had been a newsroom executive for so long that there was scarcely a pothole that he hadn?t seen before. People who have worked more closely with him than I attest to his remarkable sureness of judgment, his ability to analyze a challenge and render a firm and well-reasoned ruling.

Not everybody on the floor agreed with all his decisions, but that?s hardly the goal. They were invariably sound, defensible, and derived from consistent principles of management and news judgment. After a period when decision-making at the paper had been alarmingly random, he brought stability to the operation.

Further, he restored pride. The 13 Pulitzers won under his leadership were part of the boilerplate of every article published about his retirement last week. Critics have been ridiculing this factoid, as though it conceals some darker truth, such as that the paper?s supposed liberalism has contributed to a circulation decline. Leaving aside the fact that this latter assertion is nothing but an ignorant partisan trope, most commentary about the Pulitzers misses the point.

No decent reporter or institution should base its self-esteem on its Pulitzer
statistics. Piles of superb and important work are overlooked by the prize system, and plenty of lousy, mendacious, or mediocre work is rewarded. Whether Carroll led The Times to 13 Pulitzers or not, the fact would still remain that, along with his managing editor and successor Dean Baquet, he markedly improved the reporting and writing of The Times.

It?s proper to revisit two projects he supervised directly. One is the 2003 report on Arnold Schwarzenegger?s history of groping women. Mass quantities of ludicrous claptrap have been written about the content and timing of this story, which ran a few days before the election. One freelance columnist, whose efforts to tell it like it is are frequently hampered by lack of knowledge, went so far as to allege that Carroll deliberately held the story until the last minute for maximum political effect. From second-hand knowledge of the episode and first-hand knowledge of the newsroom, I can say that this allegation is simply wrong.

The important thing is that no one has ever effectively challenged the veracity of the report; in fact, Schwarzenegger eventually acknowledged its truth. Furthermore, although Schwarzenegger appears to have kept his hands to himself as governor (as far as we know), the 2003 article illuminated flaws in his character that have become all too relevant to the sad course of his governorship?his arrogance, crudeness, and sense of entitlement among them.

The second project, one of the 13 Pulitzers, is last year?s investigative series about King/Drew Medical Center, an inner-city institution that deteriorated into a charnel house while a cadre of local politicians protected it from scrutiny and action. Newspaper series are often cursed for their tendentiousness and bloat. This one was different: an astonishing, infuriating, and lucid indictment in which every word told.

It was a crystalline example of how to Do It Right, it belongs on the credit side of Carroll?s ledger, and it explains why he will be missed. I?ve worked under six editors over my career, and he was unquestionably, and by a wide margin, the best of them.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation