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Lefsetz Letter » Blog Archive » The USC/L.A. Times Book

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“Bad City: Peril and Power in the City of Angels”: https://amzn.to/3AGwzKV

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A couple of days ago, “Washington Monthly” published its college rankings. Which vary widely from those in the “U.S. News & World Report,” both of which are completely different from the rankings in the “Wall Street Journal,” which focus on outcomes, i.e. how you do financially after graduating.

Then again, are you going to college for the job?

Even better, go to a top-tier school for the status, that will open more doors than anything you learn in the classroom.

The progenitor in college status ascension is Boston University. BU got a new president, John Silber, who was hated by the students, but lifted the reputation of the school dramatically.

That was decades ago.

Then came NYU. A city school with zero gravitas is now a world class institution with prestige.

As is USC.

Once again, this didn’t happen organically. Rather there was a driving force, a man in charge, who rallied the alumni, leaned on donors, poached professors with reputations and hopefully grant money too.

USC used to be the poor sister to UCLA. Crosstown rivals, UCLA had the prestige, and USC was all about the money, to the point where at athletic contests UCLA fans waved dollar bills in the stands. Yes, if you were poor, you could afford to go to UCLA, you could lift yourself from the bottom to the top. Whereas USC was perceived to be the institution for those with wealthy parents.

Not anymore.

First and foremost, UCLA is not what it used to be. None of the California state schools are. Because of Ronald Reagan. He removed government subsidies. UCLA and Berkeley are better than ever, but they’re harder than ever to get into, because the schools need out-of-state money to pay their bills, leaving fewer slots for Californians. Supposedly, this year, the in-state population is higher, but…

An education is expensive. And if you’re going to pay for it you want the biggest bang for your buck. And USC has gone from a safety school to a status school. It’s hard to get accepted. Which is why all those parents used Rick Singer and bribes to get their kids in.

USC is a monolith. With a long tradition of insider trading. Not the Wall Street kind, but the alumni kind. There is a USC network in Los Angeles. It pays more dividends than having an Ivy League degree. And now it’s not only about the relationships, the school has cachet, that works all over town.

But USC has been in turmoil. It’s not only the Varsity Blues story, but…

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That’s what “Bad City” is about. The misbehavior at USC and the L.A. “Times”‘s effort to uncover it.

Well, the effort of a few reporters to uncover it. Because the author, Paul Pringle, a longstanding L.A. “Times” reporter, claims that he was stifled by the brass, that the story was held back for eons and neutered before it was published.

Of course, the brass is now denying this. But the brass was blown out. Which has to be as a result of the HR investigation, otherwise why would they get fired?

There are a lot of issues in this book.

Actually, “Bad City” is two books. One, the story of specific scandals at USC, most notably those of a drug-taking, drug-supplying dean of the medical school, and the sexual abuse shenanigans of a school clinic gynecologist, but also the story of the inner workings of the L.A. “Times.” DO YOU CARE?

That’s a big question these days. With so many opportunities, so many places to spend your time.

At first “Bad City” is positively riveting. The story of a girl overdosing in the dean’s hotel room.

But then it becomes the chronicle of reporting the story.

And at the end, when it focuses more on the paper, it’s a bit less engrossing. Then again, I spent all afternoon finishing it.

Now L.A. is not a typical city. It’s a giant suburb. There is no center. And as a result much of what happens never permeates the populace. People just don’t care. Downtown is a foreign location. And with the L.A. “Times”‘s circulation crumbling, along with the viewership of the local TV news, most people have no idea what’s going on.

But this is not only in L.A., but in most burgs.

The only newspapers who have figured out the modern world are the “New York Times” and the “Wall Street Journal.” The “Times” by becoming the paper of record and focusing on digital subscriptions for years. The “Journal” by having a hard paywall, and being the only major paper with a right wing slant. As for the “Washington Post,” it’s been flailing recently, numbers are down. 

How many major newspapers can the U.S. support?

Certainly not as many as before. And in truth, the NYT does a very good job of covering California, not only in the paper itself, but with its daily California newsletter.

So…

Papers have been shrunk to make the numbers work. And once you do this you’re a second-class citizen, you’ve signed your ultimate death warrant. You provide less and fewer people pay for it and…

The L.A. “Times” has had multiple owners, a rash of crises at the top questioning its credibility, but…the reporters who remain are still dedicated.

That’s a main theme in this book. The reporters take their jobs very seriously. And unlike in most businesses, they don’t just cower to management. There are ethical rules, ultimately a union. The dictatorial style of management you see in tech does not fly in news.

And these reporters can only make so much money, so they’re dedicated to uncovering the truth.

But it’s expensive to produce news like this. And if you do break a story, your competitors are on it nearly instantly, so readers don’t have to subscribe to the production source to read it.

And now chances are you’re truly uninterested. Too much inside baseball. But let me just say as the old institutions are hobbled or die, the new institutions…do no reporting, they’re just opinion, and journalistic standards are irrelevant. They’re just about rallying the base, and if it involves lying, WHO CARES, the end result is what matters, WINNING!

Which is what USC did. The university circled the wagons, stonewalled, and quietly took care of its problems, letting offenders down easy, paying them big bucks along the way.

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But if you read “Bad City” you will be fully disillusioned. The bad guys win all the time, and those who are supposedly the good guys are in bed with the bad guys!

It’s kind of like the private jet. If someone who owns one gives you a ride, you cannot say anything bad about them, ever, without fully severing the relationship. And the flight may have nothing to do with your core business, but ultimately there’s an intersection and…

This is how America works. The alumni of the Ivys, of USC, are almost secret societies, that pay dividends your entire life, which is why you want to get in to these schools to begin with.

Speaking of investigative journalism, did you read the NYT’s article on the Navy Seals?

“Death in Navy SEAL Training Exposes a Culture of Brutality, Cheating and Drugs – The elite force’s selection course is so punishing that few make it through, and many of those who do resort to illicit tactics.”: https://nyti.ms/3R7hwR9

Sure, the deaths are tragic, but the real story is everybody cheats to pass the test. They take drugs, slack when they think no one is watching, and what does the Navy say? These are the improvisational skills you need in combat!

Wrap your head around that one!

You have to cheat to get ahead. And everybody successful is doing it. And if you’re not, you’re a schmuck, you’re not going to make it. And if you’re an offender, good luck getting caught. Forget his tax issues, Trump took state documents home and insisted he was allowed to keep them, to the point where his attorneys even lied about their presence. And what does his team say? DON’T INDICT HIM OR THERE WILL BE VIOLENCE! Yup, Lindsey Graham said that: 

“Graham Predicts ‘Riots in the Streets’ if Trump Is Prosecuted”: https://nyti.ms/3B32ZAu

That’s how bad it’s gotten, loyalty trumps truth. As for lying in court…that ship sailed long ago.

All of this is in “Bad City.” You don’t finish it and think the good guys won, after all, even those who got blown out at USC got golden parachutes, and have avoided jail. Why should you do the right thing? Why not test the limits?

Forget USC, let’s talk about Putin, the robber baron who is quite possibly the richest man in the world who disappears naysayers and runs his country as if its population is comprised of children with no rights. Navalny is standing up, a few others. But no one at USC stood up, it was the newspaper that brought the malfeasance to light.

This is America. And in “Bad City” Paul Pringle does a good job of delineating it. And unlike in fiction, the story is messy, which real life always is. Which makes this book a bit harder to read.

Then again, it’s got the meat and the gristle. The riveting narrative and the at times boring explanation.

But unlike on TV, investigative reporting is slow. There are a lot of dead ends. And change happens slowly.

God, I wish it were different.

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