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a response to the <i>los angeles times</i>

In his March 3, 2007 column Los Angeles Times media critic Tim Rutten wrote about the third hour of News War, which explored the recent years of turmoil at the paper. While he offered praise for the program, he criticized FRONTLINE for not including an interview with current LA Times editor Jim O'Shea in the film and wrote that the broadcast did not fully capture the views of LA Times publisher David Hiller. FRONTLINE Executive Editor Louis Wiley sent the following letter to Rutten and O'Shea.

March 6, 2006

Dear Mr. Rutten,

Thank you for your comments about our recent FRONTLINE broadcast, "What's Happening to the News," the third episode in our series "News War" examining the current state of the news media, including the turmoil in recent years at the Los Angeles Times.

As you say, many readers and people in the news business are well aware that the L.A. Times "has been gripped by uncertainty and unrest for much of the time since its purchase by the Chicago-based Tribune Co." This is what we sought to explore in our documentary as part of our overall examination of the economic and technological challenges facing the television and newspaper industries. We're glad that you found our interviews with former publisher Jeff Johnson and former editors John Carroll and Dean Baquet to be an accurate reflection of their views.

We understand why you and others at the Los Angeles Times, and many of your readers, are disturbed by the comments of Charles Bobrinskoy of Ariel Capital, an important investor in the Tribune Company. But in our reporting we found that Mr. Bobrinskoy is not alone in his view that newspapers must jettison international and national reporting in favor of focusing their efforts on local journalism. Lauren Rich Fine, of Merrill Lynch, for example, makes much the same case, as do many others on Wall Street. We believed it was important to reveal this line of thinking.

In response to our broadcast, we saw that the new editor of the L.A. Times, James O'Shea, sent a memo to the staff, strenuously objecting to Mr. Bobrinskoy's comments. As you note, Mr. O'Shea made similar, though less vehement, remarks to us on that score, saying, "I don't think the Los Angeles Times can be successful by relying on someone else to cover the world for it..."

The reason you know that Mr. O'Shea made that statement to us is because we included a substantial portion of his interview with us on the FRONTLINE Web site, along with a cross-section of people we interviewed for our series. This is part of a longstanding FRONTLINE tradition of publishing what once would have been merely outtakes. For the sake of transparency and to give more attention to our interviewees, who were generous with their time and often make valuable remarks that we cannot fit into the documentary, we post these extended interviews online.

Mr. O'Shea was kind enough to give us a frank and direct interview. Because he is relatively new at the Times, and because our interview with him only took place at the last minute for us, we told him at the time it was unlikely that we would be able to use his comments in the broadcast, but that we would post them on our web site. In our view this is no small thing since FRONTLINE's robust Web site for "News War" has proven very popular. In the short time since the programs have aired hundreds of thousands of visitors have viewed the programs online.

As for publisher David Hiller, we were very grateful that he agreed to be interviewed, especially since the Tribune Company in Chicago repeatedly turned down our requests to speak on camera with a representative of the company. We included many quotes from Mr. Hiller in our report, thinking it was important to have his views on record. You fault us for not including in our film his statement, found in his extended interview on our Web site, that "I continue to believe [in] doing great foreign and international reporting..." [at the Times]. Yet, he does say something almost identical to this in the broadcast: "My plan and expectation is that being a world-class provider of foreign and national news is going to continue to be one of the hallmarks of the Los Angeles Times."

We think it's also fair to note, as we did, the apparent contradiction in what Mr. Hiller says to us on camera: Yes, he'd like solid foreign and national coverage, but, as our correspondent, Lowell Bergman, points out, apparently with less people on staff in the newsroom.

We hope that our reporting in "What's Happening to the News" helps readers and others concerned about the future of newspapers understand the financial pressures and issues at stake behind these and other changes underway throughout the newspaper industry.


Louis Wiley,Jr.
Executive Editor

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posted mar. 23, 2007

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