The LA Podcast

You worked for a company that was writing editorials

by Hayes Davenport
November 15, 2020

The LAT handed its op-ed page over to Trump voters yesterday. Lots of other people got into it already and I don’t have anything to add. But I do want to selfishly exploit this moment to talk about another choice by the LAT editorial page that has been haunting me for months!

Context: remember how this year’s California primary was moved up from June all the way to March? So we were relevant in presidential politics for the first time in a decade? This move held real significance for the LA Times editorial board: their opinion about who should be president had a chance to actually mean something.

So the board geared up to meet the moment. In early February, they announced which races they’d be endorsing in, including for the Democratic nomination. A bunch of the candidates came to the office for interviews. (I remember someone posted a picture of Bernie during his but I can’t find it now). Presumably the board deliberated their decision at length.

And then… no endorsement came out. They just never did it. There was no article or public statement explaining why. Honestly, nobody even really seemed to notice or wonder what happened (except one sanctimonious dork who sucks).

All we got for an announcement was this correction — made on the day of the California primary, after polls had already been open for two hours — to the article from a month earlier announcing the races they’d be endorsing in:

Wow!! What happened here? I truly do not know. None of the reporters I’ve asked know either. In defense of recently beleaguered editorial editor Sewell Chan, he didn’t take over the page until after the primary, so don’t blame him.

But whatever went down, I bet “much discussion” in that correction is an understatement.

The endorsement of the Democratic nominee is the season finale for a major newspaper op-ed page — especially in a race as contentious as this one was. It is Opinion-Having’s Biggest Night. The New York Times made an entire FX/Hulu show out of it. Some of their editorial board members got kind of famous. I’m guessing the LAT’s board would have enjoyed a little of that attention. Why would you join an editorial board if you don’t want people to pay attention to you? So the decision to skip out on this endorsement probably came after a very long, very dramatic internal conversation.

I do have some theories. No, “the board picked Bernie and the paper’s Big Pharma overlords killed the endorsement!” is not one of them. But I do think the decision was made from higher up than the op-ed page. It just doesn’t make sense that an editorial board would decide on their own to quietly ignore a presidential nomination. (Also notice that the correction says “The Times” decided not to endorse — not the board specifically).

My guess is LAT leadership decided that endorsing a Democratic nominee this year was a very bad business proposition. No matter who they picked, it would probably get people angry and cause a net loss in subscribers — something they really cannot afford. Zero upside, bottomless downside. So the fiscally-sound strategy was to just lay low and hope nobody noticed. They were right: nobody did!

But this would mean that all LAT editorials are, on some level, a business decision. If senior management played a role in stopping an endorsement from being made, the supposed firewall between ownership and the paper’s opinions would seem to be… not real. It probably never has been real at any media outlet, and especially not at a paper in as precarious a financial position as the LAT’s.

True, yesterday’s decision to platform Trump supporters would suggest that subscriber retention is not a factor in their op-ed selection process — but they genuinely didn’t seem to expect the outrage it got. Plus it definitely earned them the most clicks of any op-ed all year, and a lot of positive attention from media people.

(Actually, I do have something to add about the Trump voter thing. There have now been at least two different columns by LAT writers this year about the septic-tank-geyser of racist and anti-Semitic emails they get after writing something negative about Trump. And those columns were both written by men. If the editorial page really wanted a representative sample of Trump voter opinions, they could have asked a female reporter, especially one with a nonwhite-sounding name, for a sample from her inbox.)

The point is: the LAT editorial board quietly passed on their biggest opportunity to share an opinion and never explained why!