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Otis Chandler took a newspaper that had generated almost as much ridicule as revenue and turned it into one of the nation's best. (Los Angeles Times / October 15, 2014)

To grasp the breadth of the changes, it is necessary to understand what The Times had been. More than merely a newspaper with a conservative editorial policy, it was an openly partisan mouthpiece for the conservative wing of the Republican Party.

Not only did it champion GOP candidates, its editors helped select them. Not only did it not, as a rule, endorse Democrats for elective office; it didn't cover their campaigns. Readers could be excused for thinking that only one political party existed in Southern California.

For most of the first 80 years of its existence, the paper was such a journalistic laughingstock that humorist S.J. Perelman once wrote that while traveling through the Western United States by train, he asked a porter to bring him a newspaper and "unfortunately, the poor man, hard of hearing, brought me the Los Angeles Times."

Chandler realized that to build up The Times' reputation, he had to demand fair and nonpartisan news coverage. His efforts led him directly into confrontation with a powerful force for the status quo: his own family.

During Chandler's first year as publisher, the paper ran one of the most important series in its history, stories that helped define the new Los Angeles Times.

The conservative movement that would lead to Barry Goldwater's presidential candidacy in 1964 and to Ronald Reagan's subsequent rise was in its nascence. On the fringes of that movement -- and especially active in Southern California -- was an ultra-right-wing organization known as the John Birch Society.

The Birchers argued that presidents Eisenhower, Truman and Franklin Roosevelt were either Communists or Communist dupes. They wanted the U.S. to withdraw from the United Nations. They saw the sinister hand of communism behind such government initiatives as fluoridation of the water supply and integration of the schools.

Alberta Chandler, the wife of Chandler's uncle (and rival) Philip, was a prominent member of the Birch Society, and she and Philip had played host to Birch Society President Robert Welch.

But when Williams, the editor, suggested that the paper look into the organization anyway, both Otis and Norman Chandler gave him the go-ahead.

Reporter Gene Blake produced a five-part expose, written in calm, matter-of-fact language. The stories described the Birchers' extremist tactics and positions and, largely through their own words, depicted them as a threat to, rather than a defender of, the American way of life.

After the series was published, Otis asked for an editorial criticizing the Birchers. When Williams showed him the piece, the publisher said it wasn't tough enough. Williams wrote a new one, warning that the Birchers' extremism and smear tactics were subversive acts that could "sow distrust and weaken the very strong case for conservatism." Chandler signed it -- and published it on Page 1.

The series and editorial landed like a bombshell. More than 15,000 readers canceled their subscriptions, and Chandler's breach with some members of his family was widened still further. Philip Chandler resigned from the Times Mirror board seven months later.

But the series also served notice that The Times was in the process of becoming a different -- and much better -- newspaper.

George Cotliar, who joined the paper three years before Chandler became publisher and served as an editor for almost 40 years, said The Times had been widely regarded as "a crappy newspaper and a politically biased newspaper, and the Birch series and the editorial were a statement to the staff too.

"It was a sign that you now have a boss who believes in good, tough journalism, who wants to produce the best paper in the country and who'll support you in your efforts and make it possible to achieve that," he said.

That was far from the only example of Chandler's reversal of long-held dogma at The Times. The 1962 gubernatorial campaign was another.

In 1958, the paper had covered the governor's race between Republican William F. Knowland and Democrat Pat Brown in its traditional way: Brown's campaign was virtually ignored while Knowland's was championed.

In an extreme example of the paper's penchant for treating Democrats like nonentities, one lengthy article featured Knowland's attack on "my opponent," "the Democratic candidate for governor," who was described as a tool of "union bosses" and socialists. Not once did the article refer to Brown by name.

When, by late September, it appeared that Brown might win -- as he ultimately did -- Times political editor Kyle Palmer, the paper's lead reporter on the campaign, wrote a column acknowledging that the situation "sounds a trifle grim for us Republicans."

By 1962, Palmer was gone and the gubernatorial race between Brown and Richard Nixon was covered primarily by two new reporters: Richard Bergholz, who had come from the Mirror, and Carl Greenberg, from Hearst's Los Angeles Examiner.