A sample of articles providing commentary on the Chandler family, the Los Angeles Times and the newspaper industry. Submit your comments and thoughts on the film, the Chandler family dynasty, Los Angeles and the state of journalism today.
Los Angeles City Hall – 300 feet higher than the next tallest building in the city until 1957 – stands for the exuberant dreams of the city’s early 20th century oligarchs, among them the members of the Chandler family. Across First Street from city hall, the mausoleum-like Los Angeles Times building memorializes their greatest fears. An earlier Times building at First and Broadway had been dynamited by labor radicals in 1910, killing 20 employees. When a new Times building was completed in 1935, it was dedicated as a cenotaph for workers that Harrison Gray Otis, the paper’s late owner, and his son-in-law Harry Chandler regarded as fallen combatants in a war for the city’s soul.
The new Times building was the bunker from which Harry Chandler and his son Norman determined the future of Los Angeles. That future was supposed to be white and mostly Protestant, militantly anti-union, anti-immigrant, suburban, and Republican.
From Otis to Harry Chandler, who was publisher of the Times from 1917 until 1941, followed by Norman Chandler and then Norman’s son Otis (publisher from 1960 until 1980), the Times helped to make Los Angeles into America’s most successful lifestyle product. Otis, Harry Chandler, and Norman Chandler relentlessly marketed the city as a place of “health, wealth, and happiness in the sunshine,” and not just in the news columns and supplements of their newspaper, but through the institutions the Chandlers denominated: the Chamber of Commerce, the All Year Club, the Automobile Club of Southern California, and a family-owned radio station (and eventually a TV station and cable franchises).
To assure the untroubled transfer of suburban house lots to white Midwesterners, the Chandlers sustained the city’s notoriously unaccountable system of local government and countenanced a brutal and corrupt Los Angeles police force whose twin mandates were union busting and segregation. From 1900 and through the 1950s, standing by the side of mayors, city council members, and county supervisors were Times reporters, ordering votes, paying off gambling debts, providing ready cash, and cleaning up afterwards.
Beginning with Otis and through three generations of Chandlers, the Times marshaled public opinion to support the tax-payer-funded projects that matched the family’s ambitions for Los Angeles: the federally-subsidized harbor in 1910, the city-owned Owens Valley aqueduct in 1913, the Los Angeles freeway system in 1940, the Dodgers’ move from Brooklyn in 1958, the redevelopment of Bunker Hill in 1963, and the county-operated Music Center in 1964.
As true westerners, the Chandlers required enormous public cooperation to turn their city into a paying proposition. They saw no irony in having the public pay for the infrastructure that made subdividing paradise possible even as they strangled efforts to make it more livable. Harry Chandler resisted a plan in 1930 to ring the city with a belt of public parks and free beaches. Los Angeles never got its “emerald necklace” of public places and it remains one of the most private of big cities today.
As Joan Didion has noted, the Chandlers imagined “a new kind of city, which would seem to have no finite limits . . . that would eventually touch the Tehachapi range to the north and the Mexican border to the south, the San Bernardino Mountains to the east and the Pacific to the west . . .” This project – “annexing space to the limits imposed by geography” – is nearly the city we have.
Harry Chandler was followed as publisher of the Times by his son Norman Chandler. He boosted bland conservatives for political office who desegregated the police and fire departments in the 1950s but not the city’s housing, and who presided over the adoption of a Times-supported redevelopment plan that hollowed out downtown’s ethnic core and made it a ghost downtown. The paper, named one of the 10 worst in the nation, stayed firmly partisan in its conservative ideology even as Los Angeles rapidly changed from the “white spot” the paper had once proclaimed the city to be.
Norman Chandler is remembered today as the husband of Dorothy Buffum Chandler (called Buff), who briefly pivoted the centerless city on the achievement of her own aspirations for Los Angeles. She uniquely bound the Protestant wealth of downtown to the Jewish and movie wealth of the city’s westside from 1960 through the 1970s to build the Music Center on Bunker Hill. It was a bravura performance, but it also depended on public spending to achieve new Chandler dreams.
Buff Chandler’s other achievement was ensuring that her son Otis would be the publisher of the Times. Beginning in 1960, Otis Chandler reinvented the Times as the West’s most important newspaper and, he thought, a rival to the New York Times. He extended the reach of the Times to suburban Orange and Ventura counties. He expanded the paper’s international bureaus, gave the paper a strong presence in Washington, bought talent, and gave the paper a moderate editorial position. With the acquisition of newspapers like Newsday and the Dallas Times-Herald, he sought to shape the opinion of a nation. Otis Chandler made the Los Angeles Times respectable and, finally, he made the paper nearly great.
In those days, Los Angeles was nearly great, too. Mayor Tom Bradley’s 20-year coalition of westside liberal whites, south-central African-Americans, and downtown corporate interests focused on making the city the economic capital of the West, what Bradley always called “a world class city.” Bradley, like the Times, projected a bright future on the region’s infinitely malleable landscape, as if its raw material of small houses on small lots sustained by hundreds of thousands of working-class jobs in the Cold War economy would continue forever. That Chandler dream – which also depended on public spending to be realized – began to fade as the Cold War ended.
Otis, bored with the paper and increasingly at odds with the rest of the Chandlers, stepped aside as publisher in 1980 and passed management of the Times to Tom Johnson. Johnson’s successors were weaker men acceptable to the multitude of Chandler cousins. Mark Willes, a cereal executive, became the paper’s publisher in 1997. He lifted the value of the family’s stock and demonstrated that any publisher chosen by this generation of Chandlers was incapable of leading the Times or imagining what Los Angeles could become.
The sale of the paper to the Chicago Tribune in 2000 was the Chandler family’s last triumph in the commodification of Los Angeles. Having sold L.A. over the previous 100 years, the Chandler family no longer needed L.A.
The Cold War is long over. The aerospace economy is gone. The city’s department stores have passed in and out of bankruptcy and are owned elsewhere. The banks themselves are headquartered in Georgia and New York. The industry of our everyday dreams – the making of movies – is owned by absentee landlords. The Times was the last, big corporate presence that mattered by being in Los Angeles. And now, that doesn’t matter at all.
The Tribune Company – which had no vision for the Times and no comprehension of Los Angeles – fell to Sam Zell, a self-described dealer in distressed properties, in 2007. A year later, the company was bankrupt.
D.J. Waldie is a contributing writer at Los Angeles magazine and a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times.