Norman Pearlstine is about to be out of a job and likely is breathing a sigh of relief. Having successfully run major media entities like Forbes, Time Inc. and the Wall Street Journal, Pearlstine has tried for the past two and a half years to steer the recovery of the Los Angeles Times. He’s had some positive things working for him: A supportive billionaire publisher who has supplied massive refinancing and a gorgeous new headquarters. Also an eager readership that has survived years of frustration because of mismanagement.
Nothing can be more ominous than good portents, however: Despite Pearlstine’s stalwart efforts, and a near doubling of digital readership, the Times staff has seemed bent on self-immolation with its editors and reporters delivering more apologies than news. Last month, the newspaper published a special editorial section declaring its regrets for gaps in coverage dating back to the 19th century. As for Pearlstine, the executive editor, he has decided to move on.
To some in the media business, the problems of Times ring an alarm bell: Just as the Times can’t seem to overcome the forces of divisiveness and gloom, are other corporate entities destined for a similar fate?
It is perhaps no coincidence that the Trump administration, whose statements have poisoned moves toward cohesion, last week officially suspended all government diversity training programs. According to Trump’s executive order, these programs have only succeeded in propagating “offensive and anti-American race and sex stereotyping and scapegoating.”
So what is the appropriate response? “Donald Trump is about to be defeated and it’s time for people to snap out of it, stop talking about moving to New Zealand and start building on the recovery,” comments the CEO of one media company who insists on talking off the record. “We’ve got to put aside the distractions and the gloom.”
A Trump defeat combined with the winding down of the pandemic, he believes, could stoke a strong recovery in many sectors of the economy. Even in the woebegone movie business. “Hollywood has come to a stall because of a stand-off between the studios and the exhibitors,” observes a veteran producer. Once that “stall” has ended, he believes, filmmakers could fuel a comeback rivaling that of 50 years ago when exciting new movies found an excited new audience. “The film industry is in crisis, but perhaps it can learn a lot from examining the 1970s,” asserted the Washington Post last week.
Though many believe in the prospect of a broad recovery, no one wants to talk about it, as though optimism would jinx the upcoming election. And the sounds of silence are especially prevalent at the Los Angeles Times. Thanks to a $500 million buyout by a billionaire biotech entrepreneur, Dr Patrick Soon-Shiong, the Times had launched into an ambitious program of expansion. A battalion of new reporters and editors was brought aboard to expand coverage and improve diversity. Pearlstine, 78, was cognizant of the historic gaps in the paper’s coverage, particularly those involving minority communities.
However, discord instantly began to sink the initiatives. “Since last year six prominent editors have been either pushed out, demoted or had responsibilities reduced because of ethical lapses, bullying behavior or other failures of management,” the Times recently reported in a lengthy self-analysis.
Why the discord? Clearly, some of the new recruits were prepared for turf wars, rather than for fellowship. Some also seemed caught up in the mood of Trumpian conflict – “scapegoating,” that mysterious word used by the administration, may have played a part.
Much of the problem, too, reflected back on mistakes of the past – some of which I personally witnessed. When I covered the Watts Riots and other race stories as a reporter for the New York Times, I was struck by the fact that no Black reporters were in evidence – or Black police officers. We were a small fraternity of white men dodging bricks and bullets.
Black reporters were also underrepresented during my years as a reporter at the Wall Street Journal, and also when I covered crime at the Chicago Sun-Times. The New York Times tried diligently to recruit a more diverse staff with marginal success from time to time. And the same was true at Variety, which I edited for 20 years but never realized my personal goal of creating a more diversified staff qualified to cover the richly diverse landscape of show business.
When I made offers, as I did many times, they would be topped by magazines or TV networks. Understandably, job seekers want to maximize their income potential in a competitive market. I wish I had had more success at the time. As someone whose byline has been on page one of major newspapers covering stories on racial issues, I had all the motivation to push for diversity.
So there are years of neglect to overcome. The challenge is to accomplish the task in an atmosphere of optimism and recovery. Not one of “scapegoating.”