When I ran the satirical business news blog The Walnut some years ago, I wrote a story about the Wall Street Journal running blank pages to save money on staff.
The Journal had just gone through a round of layoffs (a relatively mild one compared to the blood-letting that goes on now). The absurdity of publishing white space was meant as a jab in the eye at the bottom-line at all costs mentality.
But in the case of James Rainey, who writes the L.A. Times’ “On The Media” column, it may not be a bad idea.
Rainey has been with the paper since 1984, mostly as a cityside reporter. He seems to have been handed a plum column last year as either a reward for lasting so long, or because there’s no one else left standing to do it. Neither is a particularly compelling reason for doing so. As a result, you get – I guess, er, I suppose – what you’re sort of willing to pay for.
Indeed, Rainey expounds with an irritating spinelessness. A recent column began condemning The Washington Post’s ethical lapses in promoting a series of pay-for-access events to its editorial staff. It concluded with him stating newspapers should hold pleasure cruises to promote readership. He came close to pummeling Sandra Tsing Loh for the nauseating hypocrisy of using her family for book and broadcast material while cheating on them, but inevitably pulled his punches and declined to contact her husband for comment.
When Rainey actually did perform a full-body slam of L.A. Weekly News Editor Jill Stewart for allegedly biased coverage in an advocate tabloid, it ran just days before The Weekly beat the Times 5-2 in awards from the L.A. Press Club. It was a competition judged by editors from out-of-town publications, making Rainey’s own judgment on the local talent look particularly foolish.
Stewart is as close to a street brawler in L.A. journalism circles as one gets, but she barely had to pop the switchblade to cut her opponent to shreds. “Rainey did not contact me for his wrongheaded column,” she wrote in a rebuttal published in the Times. That pretty much summed it up: passive-aggressive laziness practiced by someone far more familiar at this stage of his career with burnout than scorched earth.
So it almost makes sense that Rainey switched his sights to someone who really can’t defend herself: local TV personality Jillian Barberie Reynolds. Rainey’s beef: she lacked sufficient empathy for her 95 colleagues at Fox 11 News who recently lost their jobs.
Barberie Reynolds is one of several largely empty-headed pinup-wannabes who have relied far more on sexiness than talent (Sharon Tay, Elita Loresca, et al) to build a career. She’s never profound, mostly harmless, occasionally entertaining and completely self-absorbed. In other words, as predictable as an atomic clock. That’s why she’s been perennially marooned on the tropical island of “Good Day L.A.,” where the audience wants perky and little else.
Yet Rainey sees her as the devil incarnate, calling her the “Medusa-haired, wailing siren who epitomizes the noxious celebrification of what we once called news.” He also was displeased with her talking about her sex life on Howard Stern’s show, and suggested that an abusive past had something to do with her behavior.
It would be appropriate for Rainey to have a bug up his ass about Barberie had she been anointed primetime anchor in the wake of such bloodshed. But that’s never going to happen. She will continue to be morning eye candy until her looks hold on, and she may host an occasional dumb sports show or another resurrection of “Blind Date.”
And again, Rainey didn’t try to interview his subject. Instead, he called her”representative,” who predictably declined comment. Doesn’t Reynolds have a phone line at Fox 11, or at least voicemail? Or couldn’t have Rainey gotten out of the office and spent a couple of hours camped out to interview Reynolds when she got to her car? Nor did he bother to interview a mental health professional to try and bolster his amateur(ish) diagnosis.
Instead, he padded out his column with some comments made by one of Reynolds’ colleagues, John Schwada. His blog noted that the layoffs affected young up-and-comers and that seniority rules meant those who “can be seen several times a day playing solitaire in your edit bay, have boozy breath and are operating on autopilot” were retained.
Another irony that sailed by Rainey’s head: Schwada had been the star city hall reporter at the L.A. Herald-Examiner when it folded 20 years ago. The Times immediately snapped him up, then promptly banished him to the bowels of the Valley bureau when some staffers grumbled he hadn’t paid his dues. I can only wonder what role Rainey – then five years into his now way-too-long stint at the Times – played in that decision.
But Schwada’s tenure at the Times is in the past. Rainey’s is not. Someone in charge over there – if there is anyone left – needs to take a closer look at what he’s been doing. And begin the debate as to whether a few column inches of white space a couple of times a week might be more soothing to its ever-diminishing readership.