(Los Angeles Times editorial page editor Nicholas Goldberg)
In April, our hometown paper’s editorial page became the unlikely topic of national headlines, when the L.A. Times dropped a scathing series of editorials about President Donald Trump. The “Our Dishonest President” series ended up going viral, with its first installment garnering 4.5 million page views. The Times’ nine-member editorial board, which was responsible for the series, functions like an independent newsroom within the newspaper, “metaphorically walled off from the news reporters.”
Nicholas Goldberg, editorial page editor for the Los Angeles Times, spoke with Future of Cities founder Donna Bojarsky about how the series came together, what reactions were like, and the role of a city paper—and its editorial page.
What was the trigger for the series and why? How did it evolve?
Well, like every other newspaper editorial page in the country we’ve been writing about Trump non-stop. We started writing about him at the beginning of the campaign and we wrote a very negative piece about him early on saying he was unfit to be President and we were scathing about him when we endorsed Hillary.
After the election, we were still writing day in and day out about him, but we were writing mostly one-offs, in which we would respond to an executive order, or to a cabinet appointment or to a particular tweet. At some point we just said, we have to pull this together, we have to write a big coherent overview, connecting the dots, about what we think about this bizarre new president, because people out there seem to want to hear it. And they did.
Did you want the whole to be bigger than the sum of the parts?
Yes, exactly. Well, you know, we wanted to pull it together and sort of explain to ourselves and to our readers, what it was we were seeing in Trump, and why it was that we were so upset and disturbed and frightened by this guy. What was it about him that was different from other Republican presidents, and from other people with whom we disagreed on policy issues.
Did you set out to make this a national statement that was going to pierce? Or did you just know that this was something that you needed to do? Did you have a sense, and were you surprised by the reaction that you got?
It certainly struck a chord. It went completely viral. I think it is fair to say that we were surprised by how far it went. I mean it went all across the country, it went all across the world. We usually consider it very good if an editorial gets 50,000 or 100,000 clicks. But the first piece in this six-part piece got 4.5 million page views. So that was enormous. And that means it went to all sorts of places geographically, it went to red states, it went to blue states, it was read by people who agreed with us, and by people who didn’t agree with us, and it started a big national conversation.
What was your favorite comment or reaction both negative and positive?
I don’t have anything specific—I mean, the positive comments were mostly in the vein of, thank you so much for doing this; it was so bold, and brave, and courageous — which I thought was kind of funny, because this is what we do, and it didn’t strike me as courageous, but I was pleased that people felt that way.
And the negative comments which stuck with me were the ones that said, this is unfair, you’re not giving this guy a chance. He’s only been president for 70-some days and you’re already ripping him down and saying that he can’t possibly succeed. We had a lot of negative comments and a lot of the negative comments were just nasty or silly. But that particular comment—that we were rushing to judgement—had some effect on me.
Do you see doing this more? Or other sort of out of formula editorial presentations?
Well, it certainly whetted our appetite to do more big projects. This series got far more attention than anything we’ve ever done, so sure, we’d be happy to repeat that — as long as we can do it without having to sacrifice the quality of what we do. We’ve always know that when we focus our resources and take on a subject in a big way and really do a lot of reporting and present it in a multi-part series, that we can have a large impact.
Do you feel like you have a responsibility to be a bigger voice because you are at one of the best newspapers in the country with one of the largest constituencies in one of the largest cities?
I think all of us who are writing for newspapers about national affairs and state affairs and local affairs have a responsibility to do a good job and to participate and lead the discussions that are going on, and to try to help readers understand the complex public policy issues that face them.
But of course, I feel pleased and proud to be working for a great city paper in a big city with millions and millions of people of all races and ages and incomes and ethnicities, all with strong political opinions. Los Angeles is a fabulous city to be based in as a journalist.
And even though the LA Times has suffered as other papers have during the downturn in the newspaper industry, we still have a lot of resources, we still have a big editorial board, we still are capable of commenting on national issues and on foreign issues, as well as on local issues. And we do feel a responsibility to be a part of that discussion as much as we possibly can.
We come from a very blue city, and it would have been a bigger surprise if the LA Times came out with a six-part story heralding Donald Trump’s actions. Is it the job of an editorial to reflect public opinion, to be neutral, or to lead it?
That’s a really interesting question. I don’t think it is our job to reflect public opinion in the city—I don’t think we see ourselves as the voice of Los Angeles speaking out to the rest of the world. And often we take positions that are unpopular with our readers and with people in Los Angeles. That said, this is a blue city in a blue state, and we are a liberal editorial page.
I think it would be odd to have a very conservative newspaper editorial page in a city that was very liberal. We would be constantly at odds with our readers and that would be awkward and uncomfortable and likely would not be good for business. But that’s not why we take the positions we do. We take the positions that we do because that’s what our editorial board believes and we try to call them as we see them.
Editorials have always been a bizarre sort of thing—they are very important, but mostly because of who reads them and not because of the numbers. Do you think they will last or do you think they might be in jeopardy because people don’t realize the importance that they do have?
I think there are a lot of questions around editorial boards, especially among readers. What is an editorial board? Who writes these editorials? Why aren’t they signed? Whose opinion do they reflect? Is this supposed to be the opinion of the publisher of the paper, or the owner of the paper, or the reporters who work at the paper, or the people who sit on the editorial board or the editorial page editor, or of the city? A lot of people don’t really know the answers to those questions—and there have been media critics over the years who have said oh, it’s time to get rid of editorial pages, they are anachronistic, they come from the past, they don’t reflect anything meaningful.
I personally do think they serve a purpose and I think this particular series on Donald Trump, which broke out and in the end reached more than 6 million people, really proves that. Many readers have been coming up to me to say, thank you so much for publishing
that, it was so helpful and so useful. I think that’s a great reminder of the value of an editorial page. I think what we wrote had a power because it was backed by the institution of the Los Angeles Times, and that it wouldn’t have had that power if it were written as an Op-Ed or one person’s opinion.
What is most important about editorials? Why can’t we lose them?
The vast portion of what appears in the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and the Washington Post is news reporting. And news reporting is supposed to be objective. Reporters are expected to put their biases to the side and interview people on all sides of an issue and present their points of view as fairly and as objectively as possible so that readers can draw their own conclusions. The editorial page is different. It’s one of the only places in the paper where we express opinions. In effect, we say to the readers, ok, so you’ve read our news stories and you can draw your own conclusions, but here are the conclusions that we draw.
I think that it’s great to give people the facts. But it is also valuable to help them figure out who is right or wrong and what moral judgement or what opinions they should have on those facts. Now, where do we have the most impact, a paper like the LA times? Well, we can write about Donald Trump, but we are one of hundreds and hundreds of papers that are doing so. And although this particular series got through and was read in the White House and elsewhere, the reality is that the strongest impact that we, or any editorial page, can have is much closer to home.
The LA Times puts a tremendous amount of time and effort and serious consideration into our local election endorsements. We’ve always put a lot of time and effort into our endorsements. When we endorse in a judicial race, in a city council race, or in a school board race, we’re putting the time in that frankly, most voters don’t have to put in themselves.
When I go vote, I always see people I know at the polling place and I am always curious whether they have looked at the LA Times, whether they brought the LA Times with them, and if so, whether they have it on their phone or ripped out from the paper.
Huge numbers of people in local races rely on us to sift through to talk to all the candidates. We recently had a congressional race in the 34th district that had more than 20 candidates. We brought them all in and talked to all of them.
And another thing about an editorial page is that people may or may not agree with our politics, but I think they understand that we don’t come to this with a special interest or with a stake in the game or with something to gain or lose from either side – we are doing our best to sift through the facts and come to rational conclusions.
I wasn’t here [during the time that the Chandler family owned the paper], but I would argue that things have changed a lot. The Chandler family had a lot of business in the city of LA and in the early days they saw their editorial pages and even their news pages, as I understand it, as a way to push those interests forward. That is certainly not the case these days.
Do you feel an obligation to the city that you represent? How much does a city paper and editorial page owe to its own city?
I’m not sure it’s the obligation of a city’s paper to be a booster for the city or to swoon over the city or to pretend that things are great when they’re not. I don’t think it is the job of a newspaper to be a thoughtless booster. But I do think it is the job of an editorial page and of the paper generally to help people who live in a city to understand their city, understand what the issues are that face residents, what the problems are that some citizens might see and others don’t see, to explain what is going on at City Hall and in the state capital.
There are complicated issues that face Los Angeles day in and day out, and people don’t have many ways of finding out about them, except through the local newspaper. So, it’s our job to explain it to them, to make sure they understand the facts, and — on the editorial page — to help them reach conclusions about how to think about those things.
There is a way of being lively about engaging people, of working to get people engaged and to care, is there an obligation to encourage people to care about where they live?
I think that in everything we do, we encourage people to care about the city that they live in. To care about Los Angeles, to care about California, to feel a part of it, to participate in it, to be civically active, to vote, to do all the things that well informed and moral citizens do.
Again, I don’t think it is our job to be urging people on or to be rah-rah, but I think that by being participants in the city and by bringing the issues that affect the people in the city to the attention of people who live in the city, that I hope is the effect that we have.
Read the full interview at the Future of Cities here.
Donna Bojarsky is a second generation Angeleno and the founder of Future of Cities, an LA based non-profit that aims to reinvigorate the civic life of Los Angeles.