| Home | Interview with David Shaw, Los Angeles Times -- Nov. 2003
September 18, 2014

David Shaw, 60, has been a media critic for the Los Angeles Times since 1974. Shaw won the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for criticism for his series on media coverage of the McMartin pre-school child molestation trial. He has written for Esquire, Cigar Aficionado, Food & Wine, Washingtonian, New York, Bon Appetit, and other national magazines, and authored five books including "The Pleasure Police," "Journalism Today: A Changing Press for a Changing America," and a biography of NBA basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain, "WILT: Just Like Any Other 7-Foot, Black Millionaire Who Lives Next Door." Before joining The Times in 1968, Shaw worked for the Long Beach Independent, The Press-Telegram and the Huntington Park Signal. A Dayton, Ohio, native, Shaw graduated from UCLA in 1965 with a bachelor's degree in English. He spoke with about the state of journalism. What's your reaction to CBS's decision to cancel the Reagan mini-series in the face of pressure from conservatives?

David Shaw: I'm always sorry to see any news organization cave into pressure from political partisans on either side. CBS could have avoided this whole thing if they had done just a straight biography rather than one of these phony-boloney docudramas, which I can't stand. It's not like we're talking about Julius Ceaser, and there's no information on him and, gee, therefore, we'd better make it up or take a guess. There's tons of source material -- movies, television, books, magazines, newspaper stories, living people. He certainly had a life that was rich with material. Why they had to invent stuff, I don't understand. They could have avoided all of this if they stuck to the truth. Speaking of politics and the media, Al Gore is considering launching a liberal news network to counter conservative news outlets. Will that approach to news work?

David Shaw: I don't know that he was talking about a liberal news network. I know there was a lot of talk earlier this year to launch a liberal network that would try to counter the conservative talk shows. At that time they were talking more about talk and entertainment than straight news. I don't think any news program that aims to call itself news but comes out with a political bias is going to be that successful. A liberal news network is mutually contradictory. There is no liberal news or conservative news, there's news. And if you announce upfront that you're going to slant it either way, you automatically eliminate a lot of listeners. What Fox has done is announced they're not going to slant it. They're going to be fair and balanced. People can watch them and feel they're getting a fair and balanced account of the news even when they're not. How do you rate the L.A. Times' coverage of Arnold Schwarzenegger so far? Have the media been soft on him because he's a celebrity?

David Shaw: No. Given the fact that we've had thousands of people cancel their subscriptions, none of them as far as I know canceled because they thought we were too soft on him -- it was quite the opposite. I think he was too smart for the media. He used the media. He used his celebrity. When is the last time a candidate for governor -- even before the election -- went one-on-one with Jennings, Brokaw, Oprah, Larry King, O'Reilly, and on the covers of Time and Newsweek. He didn't have to deal with regular press -- he got all he wanted. Has the Los Angeles Times become a better paper since the Tribune Company acquired it in 2000 and John Carroll took over?

David Shaw: I think the L.A. Times under John Carroll, Dean Baquet, features editors John Montorio and Rick Flaste and publisher John Puerner is certainly a better paper than it was under Mark Willes, Kathryn Downing and Michael Parks -- no question about it. In what ways has it gotten better?

David Shaw: The features sections in particular are substantially better than it used to be. Our Hollywood coverage is generally written better. The food section is substantially better. We've done an excellent job covering the major stories, whether it was the recall election or the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The reorganization of all California news into a California section and not pretending to be simply a Los Angeles paper. Getting rid of some of the marginal community newspapers that we were using less experienced reporters on and potentially undermining our brand was a good idea. The paper is more design-conscious and looks better. Has The Times recovered from its breach of journalistic ethics brought on by the Staples Center controversy?

David Shaw: It was certainly and understandbly damaging to the reputation of The Times, it was not damaging to the journalists of The Times. The fact is, unlike Jayson Blair or Stephen Glass, there was no corruption of the journalism. The reporters and editors who put out that one special section of the magazine had no idea that the business side had made this deal that split profits with the Staples Center. They wrote, edited and published the section exactly as they would have done it had they not been a part of it. But it's damaged the reputation of the paper. There have been other things actually before this that it seems to me were a breach of the business-editorial wall that in some ways, from a journalistic standpoint, were more problematic than the Staples Center. But none of that remotely has damaged the journalistic integrity as what Jayson Blair and what Stephen Glass did.

I think John Carroll has an unrivaled reputation for editorial integrity, and because John Puerner feels very strongly about the separation of business and editorial, it made clear that those kinds of breaches are not going to happen again. We had the business section sponsoring a business seminar and the health section sponsoring a health seminar, the book section sponsoring a festival of books, and those have rightly been taken over by people who are not in the editorial department. This might seem extreme, but in light of the Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair scandals, should journalists be forced to sign a contract agreeing that if they're fired for violating a major tenet of journalism, they cannot profit from their misdeeds (i.e., movie and book deals)?

David Shaw: I did a column on why I hate it when they do profit, but I guess I would be opposed to that. Much as I viscerally like the idea, it seems to me to be a violation of their free speech. If some publisher or movie producer is willing to pay them, the public is willing to buy their book or see their movie, I guess there's not much I can do about that. The idea of having them sign this contract also bothers me in part because it suggests the problem is far more widespread than it is. As heinous as Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass, and Janet Cooke's behavior was, you run out of names pretty quickly given the thousands of journalists who work in this country. You recently wrote about Kobe Bryant's accuser being named. Should the tabloid The Globe have published a photo of his accuser?

David Shaw: No, I don't see what you gain by printing the photo. I realize I could be accused of inconsistency. One of my arguments is since Kobe's name was published, so should hers. This seems to me to be a very different issue. Kobe's picture had already been in the paper. We didn't need to publish his picture. Everybody already knew what he looked like... My major argument in favor of publishing her name is that I think we contribute to the stigma by treating alleged rape victims differently than we treat the alleged victims of any other crime. We feed into the stereotype that somehow the alleged victim played a role in what happened and therefore should have some shame and stigma, and obviously that's wrong. You've been a media critic for the L.A. Times for more than 25 years. Is the media doing a better or worse job now than when you first started?

David Shaw: That's a good question. I think individual people who are doing their job have gotten better. They're smarter, they're better educated. There's a greater sense of ethics and responsibility. But sometimes those individual efforts are undermined by the collective corporate will of the owners. The drive for profit margins that would make most other industries giddy with glee don't seem to satisfy newspaper owners. They need bigger and bigger profit margins. And what that means is spending less and less on the product. The cutbacks in staff and the newshole are a problem, and the development of the 24/7 newscycle with all new radio and cable television the Internet has created a desire to rush into print and onto the air more quickly than one ought to. Sometimes you're not as careful and accurate as you should be. The fragmentation of the audience has led some [news organizations] to be more superficial and sensationalistic and to rush to get the kinds of stories on the front page and on newscasts that are not necessarily as important as the things we used to cover. Since 9/11 it has changed somewhat, but leading up to 9/11, for example, foreign news coverage in the American news media you find it precipitously an embarrassment. Is that why the credibility of journalism has dropped in the public's eye?

David Shaw: Certainly that's a part of it. But I also think the polarization of society has contributed to it. We had a story today that said the polarization of society is greater now than at any time in the past 16 years. When you have a polarized society, you have people on both sides attacking the media. That has to have some effect on people's feeling about the media if you're constantly reading the left saying one thing bad and the right saying another thing bad. When I started this job in August 1974, this is the aftermath of Watergate. Not long after Watergate and "All the Presidents Men," the press were heroes. We're not heroes anymore.

Copyright © 2003 All rights reserved.

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