Friday, June 22, 2007

Mark Arax Has Left The Building



In all fairness, Mark Arax was not really in the building to begin with, but located in the San Joaquin Valley city of Fresno when he quit The Los Angeles Times last week. Now the paper is without an excellent writer, and we, the subscribers, are the biggest losers.

This is not a post about Mark’s leaving the paper, per se, but about the declining quality of The Los Angeles Times itself. The reporters and editors who left on June first of this year in the Tribune Company buyout began the rapid decline; Mark’s leaving sounds the endnote on a bloody month for journalism in Los Angeles.

On Sunday, May 20, 2007, Mark Arax was a guest in my classroom along with Markar Melkonian, author of My Brother’s Road, and Aris Janigian, another Times reporter and writer of the novel Bloodvine. The occasion was an annual school festival. In the panel discussion, all the writers addressed Mark’s situation. For the anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, April 24, Mark had written a piece for the front page of the paper on the continuing controversy over the historical event. He did this at the request of an editor, based in Washington D.C. for the Times. When editor Douglas Frantz found out about the piece, he held it back and later killed it, stating the Mark had expressed views that might make him biased about the genocide. It seems that several years ago, Mark and several other writers, signed a memo to the editorial staff reminding them of the Times policy that the deaths of 1.5 million Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Turks in 1917 was to be called a genocidal event.

Based on this history, Frantz was claiming bias on Mark’s part. This led to a standoff of sorts between the paper and its veteran reporter. Mark told us that day that he had worked for the Times for twenty years. According to published reports at LAObserved.com, either the Times had to fire Frantz and issue a public apology, or Mark would sue for discrimination. The paper did issue the apology, but did not fire Frantz. Mark was encouraged to take the buyout, however, he would have to sign a waiver promising not to sue in the future. This he refused to do, which led to this settlement in the last week. Mark did sign a confidentiality clause as part of this settlement, so he cannot really comment on the situation now.

As the situation continued to develop, we learned that Douglas Frantz had conflicts of interest of his own that may have made him the wrong editor to be casting blame in the reporter’s direction. Frantz was once stationed in Istanbul as the Turkish Bureau chief for both The Los Angeles Times, and before that, The New York Times. Turkish artifacts and memorabilia litter his office at the paper, and it was later revealed that he was going to a conference in Turkey in June on the Times’ dime. This certainly should have raised some conflict of interest flags in the newsroom.

I am not worried about the future of Mark Arax. I am certain this is the Times’ loss. We will be reading his work again, in magazines and book form. Rising above all of this for a moment, my concern is in the rapid decline of the paper. Indeed, print journalism is going through major changes with the Internet and online sources offering more of what the casual reader wants, but newspapers are the heart and soul of this country’s journalism. It is a shame that so many of them are experiencing such a steep decline in readership, and this says something about the intellectual level of our citizenry.

In reality, there are two reasons why newspapers are in trouble: lack of readership leading to a decline in subscriptions, and an insistence on the part of corporate owners for larger and larger profit margins. Newspapers are not like other businesses. Evaluating their successes and failures the way one would analyze the performance of Walmart is a joke. Newspapers do not have the kind revenue that a normal business might have.

Across the country, corporate owners are demanding cuts at every major newspaper. Reporters, editors, art directors, are being given pink slips. Cost cutting measures should lead to higher profits, but instead, they are crippling the gathering, writing and reporting of information. We are becoming a nation of less informed, ignorant people because of corporate greed.

The Los Angeles Times seems to focus relentlessly on the movie and entertainment industries. The front page is littered with soft news. Editors have cut the Book Review and Opinion sections into one section, while adding a new pullout section called The Envelope, detailing awards and nominees in the industry. Granted, Los Angeles is an industry town, but I hardly think who is fired on Grey’s Anatomy outranks the war in Iraq in importance.

I demand that my students read at least one major American newspaper every day. I subscribe to The Los Angeles Times. But this week, I opened a subscription to The New York Times too. A few years ago, the New York paper was rocked by a plagiarism scandal. Many thought this great American paper was headed for decline. What I am finding is that it is today a better written and reported paper. For now, I will keep both subscriptions, but it is interesting to note that the New York paper is still under the control of a family corporation. The Chandlers sold out long ago with The Los Angeles Times. The Tribune Company is now in the process of transferring ownership to another owner. Newspapers are a unique business, and therefore take some specialized understanding of how they work. The failure to understand is only too evident in the recent history of The Los Angeles Times.

So where do we go from here? I am trying to line up Mark Arax to come to Los Angeles in the fall to teach some writing sessions to my high school students. I will continue to insist that they read newspapers every day. And I hope, fervently, that I will not see the end of decent newspaper journalism in America all for the worship of the almighty dollar and the blessed profit margin.