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Monday, March 6, 2006

Heavyweight media visionary of the times


LOS ANGELES -- This will be a simple column about a relatively simple man who himself believed in keeping things simple. His name was Otis Chandler, surfer, champion weight-lifter, newspaper-builder. Last week, he died, at 78 years of age. He will go down in U.S. media history as a great man.

For readers in Asia as well as in America, it is vital to understand that Chandler, of The Los Angeles Times, was arguably the greatest American newspaper publisher of his era. This is to take nothing away from those deservedly famous East Coast newspaper families -- the Schulzbergers (New York Times) and the Grahams (Washington Post) -- who were also committed to the need for high-minded news media with a worldwide sense of ethical responsibility.

Chandler's fate was to be an American West Coast child, which presented him with a peculiar destiny. As far back as the '60s, his magnificent -- but hardly cost-free -- vision for the Los Angeles Times was to overcome an intellectual and literary atmosphere considerably less cosmopolitan than Manhattan's and less political than Washington's.

Back then, proposing to spawn a truly world-class daily newspaper in the arid intellectual desert of Los Angeles was tantamount to envisioning some kind of magnificent arts complex on Mars!

But that is what he did, not only enriching Southern California with a newspaper that on its best days was as good as any East Coast paper (and even on lesser days was better than this region had ever seen) but also putting the U.S. West Coast on the national news-media map -- and thus on the national political agenda.

This kind of power comes in large part from the commitment to coverage that unstintingly spans our increasingly tightknit world. What the Middle East and Europe was to the New York Times, Asia and Latin America was to Chandler's Los Angeles Times. In the first half of the '60s, bureaus opened not only outside Los Angeles but outside the United States, including in Tokyo, Hong Kong and Mexico City.

Suddenly the flagship newspaper of the publishing empire then known as Times-Mirror (and now defunct) offered a sense of Los Angeles as more than just a clogged network of freeways or a nasty nest of Hollywood studios. Over time, The Times helped to attenuate the influence of the East-Coast media bias toward the Atlantic and the Middle East (important as they are) by focusing on issues affecting Latin America and Asia.

He saw to it that the L.A. Times' far-flung foreign correspondents were as good as anyone's and, during certain periods of growth, as numerous as anyone's, including those of The New York Times.

Chandler, as publisher, was well aware that The Times was making money by investing money: The product was getting better, more readers wanted it, more advertisers needed to pay to advertise in it. It was that simple.

These days, things don't seem so simple. Chandler was not one to save money by cutting back on foreign staffing, as Time Magazine did recently, especially in Asia. Indeed, the general picture of the U.S. news media today regarding international coverage is anything but Chandler-esque. Network television staffing abroad is conspicuous mainly for its absence, save for the current pack-journalism over-coverage of the Iraq war.

The two major national newsmagazines whose foreign coverage once was arguably superb have retreated into near-editorial parochialism and cultural isolationism. The editorial vision of U.S. newspapers -- not to mention the vistas of their editors -- by and large does not often extend much beyond their immediate circulation areas.

This all comes at a time when America is engaged in the world (for better or for worse) as never before. Last week our domestically besieged president took time for a major trip to emerging giant India and the Muslim nuclear-nation Pakistan. George W. Bush's visit is no less important than President Bill Clinton's visit to the region was in 2000, but U.S. news coverage will be even more underwhelming than that of Clinton's.

Chandler's journalistic legacy was to insist that Los Angeles was an international city. During his perhaps most intense years at The Los Angeles Times -- in the '80s -- the immense rise of China could not have been predicted (Japan seemed the big story). But his stewardship of the largest-circulation newspaper in the largest city on America's West Coast helped prepare us for the 21st century.

Today, due to pressing globalization, cities far smaller than Los Angeles are being transformed more and more into global cities. Are the managers of their local news media keeping up? Vision is essential to a society. Otis Chandler had it. Not many do today. It is that simple, really.

UCLA professor Tom Plate, a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy, began his biweekly column on Asia and America in 1996, when the Los Angeles Times was owned by the now-defunct Times-Mirror Corp. From 1989-1995, he was editor of the Times' editorial pages.

Copyright 2006 Tom Plate


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