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Los Angeles Times Back in the Endorsement Game
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Los Angeles Times Back in the Endorsement Game

Los Angeles Times Back in the Endorsement Game

Los Angeles Times Back in the Endorsement Game
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For the past 35 years, The Los Angeles Times stayed out of the mix when it came to endorsing presidential candidates. This year, they're back. Dennis McDougal, a former Los Angeles Times reporter, explains why he thinks the paper dropped endorsements in the first place and why paper endorsements don't really matter these days.

NEAL CONAN, host:

And now, it's time for the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page.

Roughly every four years, many of the candidates for president tried out a string of newspaper endorsements - the bigger the paper, the better. For the past 35 years, though, The Los Angeles Times has stayed out of the mix. This year, they're back. We'll talk with a former reporter for the paper about why he thinks the Times dropped endorsements in the first place and why he says the days when newspaper endorsements really mattered are over.

Dennis McDougal is author of "Privileged Son: Otis Chandler and the Rise and Fall of the L.A. Times Dynasty." His op-ed, "The Perils of Picking Presidents" ran in yesterday's Times, and he joins us on the line now from Memphis.

Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Mr. DENNIS McDOUGAL (Former Reporter, Los Angeles Times; Author, "The Perils of Picking Presidents"): Nice to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: And let's talk more about the L.A. Times' decision to endorse presidential candidates again, but the story behind why they stopped endorsements is fascinating. What happened 35 years ago?

Mr. McDOUGAL: Well, Richard Nixon was the elected, or actually reelected president, in 1972 and was that was the last time that the Los Angeles Times endorsed for the presidency. And he had a long and rocky history as far as his relationship with the Chandler family.

CONAN: Of course, Richard Nixon from Southern California.

Mr. McDOUGAL: Oh yes. First, a congressman from Whittier and then a senator, and very quickly after that, vice president of the United States.

CONAN: And you pointed out that maybe in the 1950s, there were some people in the country who might have thought Richard Nixon was a crook, but none of them got that information from the Los Angeles Times.

Mr. McDOUGAL: Well, that's true. Southern California pretty much belong to the Los Angeles Times. By the late 1950s, early '60s, the Times was - it had some weak opposition or competition from the Hoechst(ph) paper in Southern California. But for the most part, the Los Angeles Times was the biggest noise south of San Francisco and west of the Mississippi.

CONAN: And this was a long time before the labels of liberal media might have applied?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McDOUGAL: Well, not if you talk to some members of the Chandler family. But yes, I think by and large, the national sense of liberal bias in the media though it was yet to come.

CONAN: Richard Nixon, though, his long relationship with the Chandler family and the Chandlers' newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, but then, a new generation came to power with the paper.

Mr. McDOUGAL: Yes. There were - the newspaper was essentially started by Otis Chandler's great grandfather, General Harrison Gray Otis. His son, Harry Chandler, took over, and then after that, Norman Chandler took the reins of the paper as publisher in the 1940s. Otis was his son, his only son, and was the anointed prince of the newspaper. Norman was a dyed-in-the-wool, slightly-right-of-center Republican and the pages of his newspaper reflected his bias, I guess you would say. And it had made a habit since the 1920s of anointing everyone from city council and then all the way up to governor of the state of California.

CONAN: We are talking with Dennis McDougal about the Los Angeles Times' decision to resume presidential endorsements.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And in any case, when the - the Young Turk took over, disagreed with his father but nevertheless wanted him to sustain the tradition of endorsements. But you write that he felt a bad taste in his mouth after that 1972 endorsement.

Mr. McDOUGAL: Well, it began a lot earlier. Otis was educated in the East and had a different sensibility from his father and his grandfather. He brought back with him from Massachusetts a sense - a different sense of what a newspaper was. So when he became publisher in 1960, his idea was to radically makeover the Los Angeles Times, turned it into a genuine newspaper rather than a mouthpiece for the California GOP. By 1972, he'd been at it for 12 years, and had pretty much made over the newspaper with the exception of the editorial pages.

CONAN: And then made the decision to stop endorsing presidential candidates. And what I wanted to ask you now is that a great deal has changed in the past 35 years, including the ownership of the Los Angeles Times, which I guess just a little while ago shifted hands to a new ownership in Chicago. But nevertheless, they've decided to start endorsing presidential candidates again at a time when maybe the newspaper's presidential endorsement doesn't mean a whole lot anymore.

Mr. McDOUGAL: Well, that's my opinion. I think it's shared by a good many people. I think that the power of major metropolitan dailies and this newspaper has dissipated noticeably over the past 10 to 15 years. It's been deluded in large part by the Internet but also like cable news and television in general. There's just too many places to go to get your news, that's one of the reasons that we see daily newspapers circulation dropping to the floor. Along with that drop in circulation and the speeding away of advertisers is also loss in terms of influence with the voters. I don't think people pay that much attention to newspaper endorsements any longer.

CONAN: And it should be pointed out that they probably do pay attention to local bond issues and candidate for city councilor and that sort of thing. Nevertheless, you suggest that maybe Otis Chandler was way ahead of his time in nixing the hubris of endorsing for president?

Mr. McDOUGAL: Yes. Well, the Times never did stop its endorsement, or at least weighing in on propositions and local offices. It continued to advice people on who to vote for for the Congress or who to vote for city council. It just stopped officially endorsing for president, governor and senator in 1973.

CONAN: Dennis McDougal, thanks very much for your time.

Mr. McDOUGAL: My pleasure.

CONAN: Dennis McDougal, a former reporter from the Los Angeles Times. His latest book is "Five Easy Decades: How Jack Nicholson Became the Biggest Movie Star in Modern Times." You can see his link to his op-ed at our Web page npr.org/blogofthenation.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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