Since Los Angeles magazine published my article “What’s the Matter With the L.A. Times?” we’ve heard from many readers, including many current and former staffers at the paper whom I had not interviewed for the piece. Overwhelmingly, these editors and reporters described feeling gratitude that the kind of misguided leadership and personal attacks that they and their colleagues have suffered in editor/publisher Davan Maharaj’s newsroom had been finally brought to light.
Then there were the paper’s managing editors, Lawrence Ingrassia and Marc Duvoisin. Both sent letters to the magazine, while also complaining on social media. What they wrote in both venues was fascinating for what was and wasn’t said. Here, first, are their two letters in their entirety:
In his letter, Ingrassia makes many unsubstantiated allegations while attacking my integrity and the credibility of the piece. Notably, though, he does not contest any specific anecdote, assertion, or fact included in my account of the Times’ mishandling of a multipart investigative series on the prescription opiate OxyContin, nor, more generally, of the conduct of his boss Maharaj.
He does not, for example, contest my reporting that Maharaj sat on the OxyContin series for months while offering no feedback to the three investigative reporters who wrote it; that Maharaj denigrated the reporters and their work to others in the newsroom; and that this treatment led two of the reporters to quit the Times before the series was published. Nor does he contest my assertion that Maharaj’s inappropriate remarks had created such a hostile work environment for women that two female editors working beneath him filed complaints with the Times’ human resources department.
Ingrassia makes no suggestion that a correction of these troubling facts is warranted, nor of the dozens of others regarding Maharaj’s stewardship of the Times that were reported in the article.
Nor does Duvoisin dispute a single assertion in the piece—at least not in his letter. In the article, I reported on the existence of a score sheet that had been taped to the back of a door in an office where Maharaj regularly held meetings; attendees used the sheet to keep a tally of inappropriate remarks the editor-publisher made during a given session. On December 9th, two days after the magazine posted the piece on its website, Duvoisin went on Twitter and labeled the score sheet as: “Total fiction. Attribution? ‘One source told me.’ Why you always need at least 2.”
Duvoisin’s own reporting would prove shaky in this instance. Multiple newsroom sources have told me that, in the wake of his tweet, he was approached by a colleague present at those meetings, who confirmed the score sheet’s existence. Colleagues cautioned Duvoisin against spreading his false accusation any further.
(I was not Duvoisin’s sole target on social media. After David Uberti of the Columbia Journalism Review confirmed that he had heard about many of the same problems in Maharaj’s newsroom when he reported his own feature about the Times, Duvoisin responded with the following apoplectic tweet: “@DavidUberti yur dodging. u didn’t publish crap re Davan becuz it didn’t check out. Now u try to back-door it by saying ‘I heard same.’ Lame”)
Regarding the OxyContin series, Ingrassia’s assertion that I “used only anonymous sources to attack the integrity and achievements of fellow journalists” is untrue. I was expansive in pointing out the achievements of the OxyContin team and other current Times reporters’ and story editors’ achievements all the more remarkable in the face of Maharaj’s mercurial leadership.
The L.A. Times’ inclusion of a non-disparagement clause in its buyout packages is an anomaly among major newspapers. Neither USA Today nor The New York Times demands that departing staffers promise to say only positive things about their former employer in exchange for severance payments. As I explained in the piece, the threat of legal retaliation meant many of my sources feared speaking on the record.
Ingrassia calls this reality a weak justification for my use of unnamed sources because the Times offered to waive its non-disparagement clause for anyone who wanted to talk for the article. Times communication director Hillary Manning did make such a proposition, but here are some inconvenient facts Ingrassia fails to mention. Manning waited until two days before the article was due at the printer to email us with her offer. Previously, she had asked for the names of our anonymous sources—a puzzling request from a news organization that itself relies on anonymous sources—and we had refused to give them to her. Now, in her email, she said that my argument that the Times-imposed gag clause required many to speak off the record was an excuse. “We would like to get rid of that excuse,” she wrote, “by hereby waiving the non-disclosure agreement for any anonymous sources for any criticisms they have, as long as they don’t slander the Times.”
I had given each confidential source my word that his or her name would not be revealed; the Times’ last-minute proposal to throw out its own gag order didn’t change that commitment. Nor could I have assured my sources that their former employer’s offer would protect them from legal action, given that Manning had expressly raised the possibility that that the Times might still sue them for slander.
Ingrassia says the article relies on “third- or fourth-hand rumors.” In fact, the piece is all substantiated either by first-hand observers or participants or by reporters and editors close to participants who told them about their experiences with Maharaj within a day or less of when particular incidents I described took place. Furthermore, I was careful not to include observations that smacked of sour grapes or included the kind of ad-hominem attacks that Ingrassia vaguely accuses me of. (I rejected one interview in its entirety because the subject’s grievances seemed highly personal. That subject soon filed a lawsuit against the paper.)
I find it utterly perplexing that Ingrassia would assert that Maharaj was not given the chance to respond to the story. Over six months, I asked and asked and asked to speak with Maharaj, approaching him in person at an event (he told me an interview would not be a problem) and then filing several requests with Manning, the Times communications officer. When that yielded nothing, I told Duvoisin how much I wanted to hear Maharaj describe the positive strides he believed the paper was making, as well as address negative assertions by former employees. None of these efforts resulted in an interview or an email exchange with Maharaj. Manning did provide a blanket statement from Maharaj just before our deadline, which I quoted in its entirety.
It is true the magazine did not agree to present to the Times communications department every fact or assertion about Maharaj’s conduct, after he had declined to make himself available for half a year. Although Ingrassia calls this unfair, here’s what the Times’ own ethical guidelines have to say about fairness to the subject of a hard-hitting article:
“People who will be shown in an adverse light in an article must be given a meaningful opportunity to defend themselves. This means making a good-faith effort to give the subject of allegations or criticism sufficient time and information to respond substantively. Whenever possible, the reporter should meet face-to-face with the subject in a sincere effort to understand his or her best arguments.” I made every conceivable exertion to afford Maharaj the opportunity to respond substantively to the article.
In the wake of the piece’s publication, I received an email from a former masthead editor who suggested that Maharaj’s decision not to take that opportunity was strategic. “As you discovered,” this editor wrote, “Davan believes he can stall or kill stories by stonewalling reporters. He’s said that to me several times.”
The excellent third installment of the OxyContin piece finally ran on December 18th, 2016 – eleven days after my piece appeared on line. In the closing days of the year, 19 days after Duvoisin attacked him as “lame,” Uberti of CJR heralded the OxyContin investigation as among the best journalism of 2016. The series is indeed Pulitzer-worthy material that was achieved in the most intolerable of circumstances. Here’s hoping that 2017 brings more such ambitious projects and that the Times’ top editors do everything they can to support their employees’ work, not hinder it.