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Meet the (Meta)Press: David Shaw

Who reports on the reporters?

By Jesse Oxfeld - April 29, 2003

For close to 30 years, David Shaw occupied a nearly unique niche in American journalism. He was—and still is—the media critic for the Los Angeles Times, and what made him unique was how the paper allowed him to define the job. He didn't regularly comment on day-to-day coverage, like most critics, and he didn't track the comings-and-goings of the media business, like most media-beat reporters. Instead, Shaw operated in an almost Bob Woodward fashion: He picked the media story he was interested in, he spent weeks or months reporting it, he worked directly for his paper's top editor, and, when he was done, his mammoth, definitive stories ran as multi-day front-page series.

In 1991, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his criticism, after one such series analyzed coverage of the McMartin preschool molestation scandal and, in so doing, took the Times itself to task for its coverage. But, remarkably, Shaw's Pulitzer-winning work is probably not his most famous project. In 1999, under the command of a corporate CEO, Mark Willes, a former Proctor & Gamble exec known at the Times as the "cereal killer," the Times had produced a special Sunday magazine issue devoted to L.A.'s new Staples Center. Unknown to the editorial staff, the arena itself was a business partner on that project, selling ads and sharing revenue. When word came out about the deal, it was a catastrophe. Reporters were incensed, the Times's revered former publisher, Otis Chandler, wrote a letter from retirement denouncing it, and, to no small degree, the fallout ended the careers of several top players at the Times and set the stage for Times Mirror, the once-proud parent company, to sell itself to the Tribune Company a year later. The fiasco also set the stage for Shaw's most remarkable effort: A comprehensive examination of how the Staples Center deal had occurred, a piece that took apart his own paper's culture and operations and ultimately ran to 35,000 words in a 14-page special section.

Then, two years ago, Shaw walked away from that amazing job. He didn't walk away entirely—he's still at the Times, and he still writes on media—but he voluntarily left that catbird seat he'd created. Now he's more like, well, normal reporters, penning weekly columns on his two interests, the media and food and wine. He had a long talk with mb recently about his new gig, his old one, and personal dynamics of reporting on his colleagues.

Birthdate: January 4, 1943
Hometown: Dayton, Ohio. Moved to Los Angeles area at age 2. "I basically consider Compton my hometown."
Now lives: Silverlake area, Los Angeles.
Reads for work: The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Daily News, plus other papers "as circumstances warrant." 30 or 35 magazines, regularly reading about 20 of them.
Reads for fun: "I like reading escapist fiction—I'm not necessarily talking about Danielle Steele or Robert Ludlum—but I do like mystery and private eye."
First section of the Sunday L.A. Times: Business. News comes last. "I start with the section with which I expect to spend the least time and work my way up so that I read last the section that I'll spend the most time with."

Walk me through the your career path, both before the Los Angeles Times and then your whole stint at the Times.
I worked on my junior high school and high school papers. I got a job when I was just four days past my 16th birthday working at a publishing company that published a weekly motorcycle newspaper. They hired me as a janitor, and the first Monday on the job one of the reporters never showed up, so I was asked to cover a motorcycle race. They fired me as a janitor and hired me as a reporter, and five months later—I was still 16—I was the editor of the paper. In college, in the summer of '63, I worked for a small daily, the now-defunct Huntington Park Signal, and at the end of that summer they asked me if I could stay on and work full time; they would work out whatever scheduling would fit around my classes. So I did that for my last two years of college, stayed there a year after that, and in '66 went on to the Long Beach Independent Press-Telegram. Worked there for two and a half years and left in November of '68. Then I worked for the Times for about a year and a half, in their new Orange County edition, and I came downtown in mid '70.

In mid '74, Bill Thomas, then the editor of the paper, asked me if I would take on this new job he'd created, writing about the media. He wanted me to cover media in the same way we cover the other major and powerful institutions in society. I initially was disinclined to take it because I had never liked specialized beats. But I agreed to think about it overnight, and the more I thought about it the more I realized that the media covers everything, and if I wrote about the media I'd be writing about everything. So I came up with a list of fourteen conditions, although I was not that stupid and I rephrased them as questions: Can I report directly to you? Can I pick my topics and be free to reject any suggestions that anybody else makes?" "Will I get the same consideration for that lefthand column on page one that my stories have always gotten? And he agreed to all of those—although he said, "I'm the editor; you can do whatever you want but if I don't like it I'm not going to put it in the paper." So I did it from '74 to 2001.

And then?
John Carroll and Dean Baquet [the editor and managing editor hired after the Tribune Company acquired Times Mirror] decided in 2001 that in addition to doing these kinds of long projects, they wanted me to do more on-the-news things. At the same time, I had for a few years before that been getting—I wouldn't say tired, exactly, but I had started to find it tougher and tougher to give birth to my big projects. I realized it wasn't that after 28 years I was bored with the media; it was that I was really kind of tired of being a reporter—tired of only gathering and reflecting other people's thoughts, perceptions, and experiences. I'd been doing the media beat long enough that I had enough experiences, thoughts, and perceptions on my own. Also, I've been passionate about food and wine for 30 years, so I proposed doing two columns a week, one on food and wine, and one on the news media. And, to make very long story short, when they kicked off the new Calendar section and the new Food section last October, I was in them, and that's what I've been doing.

One thing you didn't mention when you recounted your job history was that in 1991 you won a Pulitzer Prize for your criticism, the only media critic to have done so. "For his critiques of the way in which the media, including his own paper, reported the McMartin Pre-School child molestation case," said the citation. You've sort of been known for writing these things that took on the Times itself. What's it been like to write those and then be in the office?
A year or two after McMartin, if not more, I remember coming to the front door of the paper in a driving rainstorm, and happening to arrive at the same time as Lois [Timnick, the Times's McMartin reporter, who Shaw criticized in his series]. She had literally not spoken to me since, and her arms were laden with books and, being a gentleman, I opened the door for her to walk in. When she saw that it was me holding the door she turned on her heels and walked a block in the rain without an umbrella—because her arms were full—rather than walk through a door that I had held open.

There's this prevailing view that you become a complete pariah when you do the job the way I did it. I do not want to minimalize the fact that there were a number of people who didn't like me. Some of them, because I had written stories that were critical of them or their colleagues; some of them because they felt that I got special and undeserved treatment. But when I won the Pulitzer, they had a lunch where the top editors go with you and nine or 10 of your friends on the staff to have an in-house celebration, and I had trouble limiting it to nine or 10. I've always had a lot of friends at the paper despite the fact that I also had a lot of detractors.

What was it like doing what you do over the last several years, with Mark Willes, and ad/edit, and Staples, and the sale of the company. What was it like to be in your role while the L.A. Times itself was so much the story?
As it happened, when Willes became publisher [and promised to eliminate the traditional "Chinese wall" between advertising and editorial], I had already started working on a series about the wall. Not just at our paper, but about the general problems in the industry; the breakdowns between advertising and editorial. So that was one of those series where I did 4 or 5 parts and one part wound up being—because it was taking place at the time—one whole piece on the L.A. Times. The paper did not become as bad as a lot of people seem to think. Willes didn't tinker with the essential editorial quality of it. But budgets were cut and some very good people left, and there were certainly breaches of the wall that I didn't like, and I wrote about them both in the original series and in my 35,000-word Staples Center thing.

What about the Staples controversy? How did you handle doing a big investigation of your own paper?
I remember Michael [Parks, the paper's editor at the time] saying to me something like "I want to hire you." And I said "I'm already hired." And he said "I want to hire you to do this on Staples. Come by tomorrow and talk to me." And I went in, and I said, "I'm going to be clear. You will not see this. Nobody will see this until it runs." George [Cotlair, a retired Times managing editor who Parks had enlisted to oversee the project] edited it. We picked the copy editor, we picked the news editor, and I talked to our computer people so that no one was able to get into it. I didn't know how long it was going to be; I said it was going to be long enough to do the job. When I was done I turned it in to George. We worked with a few layout people and copy editors who were good and I knew I could trust. We had our own office and we did it all. Our guy said to make it look good it would take 14 pages, in a special section. And we did all that. I was in the plant when they printed it, to make sure that nothing would leak, I personally carried the plates from place to place. Michael would always get an early edition of the paper from the first press run at about 9:00 at night. I found the copy messenger who was going to deliver Michael's paper and I personally pulled my section out of his paper so that he would not see it until everyone else saw it the next morning.

Have you ever felt like you could have had more influence, more attention for your work, if you were at an East Coast publication?
Sure. I have no doubt that if I did the kind of stuff I did, and if it ran in The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal or maybe even The Washington Post, I wouldn't have had to solicit book offers. People would have come to me with book offers. Just look at what [Washington Post media reporter Howard] Kurtz gets. I'm sure I would have been on a lot more TV talk shows. And had a lot more influence, clout, whatever you want to call it.

But that's like saying, if I were a woman I would have won the Miss America contest. I'm not a woman. I would have never been allowed to do the work I did for The New York Times. None of those papers would have given me the space I had at the L.A. Times. I had the freedom at the L.A. Times to carve out the job the way I saw it. Another thing is I'm rooted in L.A. I like living in L.A. Newsweek offered me a job. Esquire. I never let it get past "thank you I'm flattered."

You built this unique position for yourself, with the freedom to write these enormous pieces and the control over every aspect of it. Now that you've moved on to the columns, do you find yourself missing that?
One of the reasons I decided that I wanted to do both media and food and wine was so that I wouldn't give that up. I know that the food editor would be thrilled if all I wanted to do was work for her. But it seemed to me that acquiring 28 years of experience and contacts and interest and knowledge in the media I shouldn't give all that up. I have no illusions that the columns that I write have the kind of impact that some of my series do. Or are as well-read in the business. Or are as well read by the general public. Most of my pieces ran on the front page of the paper. Now I'm on page 18 of the Sunday calendar section. But I had stopped really enjoying coming to work every day. Changing jobs puts me back to looking forward to going into work again. I was a kid who always looked forward to going to school, and I was someone who for the vast majority looked forward to going to work, and that was no longer true. I wanted to look forward to work every day, I wanted to take pleasure out of what I was writing. I wanted to spread my wings a little. I wanted to do the kinds of things that were less reportorial than writerly.

I don't miss it at all.

Jesse Oxfeld is editor-in-chief of

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