First Person: Otis Chandler: A Publisher with a Conscience By RICHARD BRENNEMAN

Tuesday March 07, 2006

Despite the patrician heritage and the family fortune, Otis Chandler liked to come off as an ordinary guy. But he wasn’t, and that’s why he’ll be missed. 

He died a cruel death. The Lewy body disease that killed him combines the worst features of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, combined with vivid visual hallucinations. 

When I met Chandler, I was a 31-year-old reporter for the Santa Monica Evening Outlook, a great little daily newspaper that has since gone the way of so many suburban dailies—swallowed up by a chain and then killed off, leaving a community without a vital voice and watchdog. 

Chandler, a robust and craggily handsome 50, was publisher of the Los Angeles Times, a paper which then boasted 1,045,000 subscribers (cracking the million mark had been his long-time dream). He was also launching a San Diego edition that was central to another dream—to make the Times the paper of record for all of Southern California. 

The story that brought me to his office was a look at the newspaper war then shaping up, and at the key players—the editors and publishers of the three metropolitan Los Angeles dailies. 

The long-moribund Valley News and Greensheet, a free “throwaway” based in the San Fernando Valley, had recently been sold and was being retooled as the subscription-based Los Angeles Daily News, mounting a challenge to Chandler’s Times and the Hearst Corporation’s Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. 

The Daily News was a Tribune Co. newspaper, named after their flagship, the Chicago Tribune, and the firm had brought in as publisher Scott Schmidt, a former Tribune managing editor, along with a too-genial editor, former Baltimore Sun West Coast Bureau Chief Bruce Winters, to run the rechristened ship. 

The Her-Ex, as newsies called the Hearst paper, was dying, though the family-owned corporation had imported publisher Francis Dale, the Bible-quoting former head of CREEP—the Committee to Re-Elect the President which had run Tricky Dick’s second term run six years earlier—and a legendary editor, Jim Bellows, a former Times editor who had been hired away from the dying Washington Star. 

Bill Thomas was editing the Times, a skilled but somewhat unimpressive administrator. 

But it was Chandler who fascinated me. 

Of the three publishers, he was the only owner, the heir of a family dynasty with a checkered and sometimes bloody past. 

The Otis-Chandler dynasty had enriched itself by lies, deception and union-busting, and had planned and conducted with the California Chamber of Commerce the infamous program of false stories, deceitful movie theater ads and other propaganda—hailed as the birth of the modern media campaign—which defeated Upton Sinclair’s 1934 run for the California governorship. 


The Otis era 

The paper was a reactionary mess when a young Otis Chandler took the helm in 1960, languishing from the 16-year reign of his father, Norman, whose reactionary politics and their impact on the news pages had ensured that the paper gained little respect in media circles. 

Otis himself was regarded as a joke by many in the newsroom when he took the helm after a brief apprenticeship. (One Times reporter told me that during Chandler’s term as apprentice reporter, the heir had invited him to lunch. Expecting white linen and heavy plate at someplace like Perrino’s or the Brown Derby, the hapless scribe was taken instead to Tommy’s, a hamburger joint with seating on battered outside picnic tables.) Chandler was also noted for taking time off whenever the surf was up. 

But installed at the helm, Chandler took his job seriously, and he set out to make his paper a respected national institution. He took a big step two years later when he teamed up with the Washington Post to form a news syndicate, and he opened bureaus across the globe. 

He declared his independence two years later by approving a devastating series on the John Birch Society, a Paleolithic conspiracy-minded group that thought Ike was a commie and which had been favored under the Norman Chandler regime (his sister-in-law was a member).  

While Chandler remained a Republican, he opened the editorial pages to starkly contrasting views, embodied in the hiring of Pulitzer-winning Paul Conrad as editorial cartoonist. 

He was also legendary for flying reporters first class in those days when the curtain separating the front of the plane from the back was a basic class barrier. His theory: That reporters would find sources in their seat-mates, the sort of folk they otherwise might not get to corner for the long hours it took to make a cross-country or trans-oceanic flight. 


Close encounter 

When Chandler received me in his office, he’d been running the paper for 18 years. 

The scene was impressive, and carefully staged. 

His desk was a massive oak plane mounted on a spayed chrome pedestal. A visitor who sat before him was treated to three walls of photos of Chandlers, Otises and Buffums (his wife’s family), with most of the contemporary shots taken on safaris and other hunting trips. 

Behind him and to his right were shots of his Montana hunting lodge, including a well-lit photo that displayed the stuffed and rearing polar bear that stood watch over the fireplace and the countless glass-eyed mounted animal heads that sprouted from the walls. 

But all that was for visitors to see, so I angled my chair to get a look at what he beheld from behind that majestic desk. 

There were only two things. Atop a credenza behind me was an angled row of framed photos of magnificently restored antique cars, his second greatest passion after surfing—I recognized a Duesenberg and a Pierce Arrow in my quick survey. 

And on the far wall, directly facing him, was an incongruously utilitarian map of Southern California, the realm he was intent on conquering. 

I asked the obvious questions I needed for my story, but there was another one I just had to ask. . . 


Candid revelation 

“You’re obviously a man of great wealth and power, and you were born into it. Do you ever worry that you might be out of touch with the great majority of your readers who have to worry about things like whether their next paycheck is going to cover their bills?” 

He stopped, furrowed his brow and stared at me for a moment before the brows relaxed again. “That’s a really good question.” He was silent for another few seconds, then nodded. 

“It’s fairly simple to explain. I have the kind of personality such that I may associate with the important, the wealthy and the notorious, but also others. 

“I have divided my schedule between the business, family and social commitments—and then there is the other side, my hobbies. 

“I enjoy and like to get out with the masses and associate with them. I have some good friends who are in the middle class, including small businessmen. 

“Also, I am a hunter and a fisher, and I have Porsches which I like to race, and I like to ride my dirt bike in the desert and I like to surf. Most of the time when I’m doing these things, people don’t know who I am. 

“I have the kind of personality that lets me go back and forth between several worlds. For example, when I go dirt-bike riding in the desert with my son and at the end of the day we go into a bar with 20 or 30 other bikers and we are all dirty, hot and want a beer. They don’t know I’m Otis Chandler, publisher of the Los Angeles Times.” 

I quoted it all, and the day after my article came out, the quotes went up on newspaper bulletin boards all over L.A. 


Warts and all 

Yes, he was painfully naive. The middle class doesn’t race Porsches or go on safari to hunt elands and gemsbok. 

But Chandler tried, and what’s more, he did it well. 

Yes, his Times was flawed. There was a lot in L.A. they ignored, including many issues confronting the poor and the isolated. 

The paper also ignored organized crime in Southern California, which was one of my own beats at the time. 

According to what an old Times editor told me, mob lawyer Sidney Korshak had arranged with Chandler’s old man to raise the funds to build the Los Angeles Music Center’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion—named for Otis’s mother—if he’d keep the names of Korshak and his pals out of the news pages. 

The mob lawyer’s pals had the wherewithal to raise the bucks. 

The only place Korshak’s name appeared was in the society pages, because the man’s parties were the most legendary in Hollywood. Times columnist Joyce Haber even coined a phrase to describe the attendees, a term that has since passed into everyday usage—the A-List. 

Chandler’s San Diego edition failed, and the paper never became the regional giant he’d hoped. Helen Copley’s reactionary papers in San Diego easily weathered the assault, and the even-more-reactionary Santa Ana (later Orange County) Register thrived despite Chandler’s launching of an Orange County edition of the Times.  

But under Chandler’s regime, the Times became as great a paper as the West Coast has ever seen or is ever likely to see. He had, after all, a real conscience, and with it a sense of noblesse oblige. 

He had transformed the Times from a regional joke into a national force. 

He stepped down in 1980, two years after our conversation, and the paper passed into the hands of professional managers who began downsizing and cost-cutting. 

The Herald-Examiner died nine years later, and the Daily News remained basically a San Fernando Valley paper, leaving the Times as the only metro daily in a region where many suburban dailies were dead or dying. 

The worst came after 1995, when the board brought in former General Mills chairman Mark Willes to run things. 

Dubbed “the cereal killer,” Willes radically downsized the newsroom and ultimately disgraced the paper in 1997 when he struck a deal with the Staples Center that breached the Chinese Wall between advertising and editorial. 

Chandler, then 69, emerged from retirement to issue a scathing indictment of Willes and the damage he’d done to the paper’s reputation. 

It was then he famously told Editor & Publisher’s Lucia Moses, “You can’t run a company based on Wall Street.” 

But he was wrong. 

Soon afterwards, a divided family put the paper up for sale. The buyer, in 2000, was the Tribune Company, a company that slavishly dances to Wall Street’s tune. 

Chandler died last week, and already I miss him.w