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LAPD: Death by the Thousands Cut?

Last month, UCLA Magazine published a solid article on alumni who had shunned the typical career paths open to them to join the LAPD. They were portrayed as intelligent, articulate and disciplined. I felt safer knowing that these fellow Bruins were in local law enforcement. I was also impressed they had the open minds to undertake careers in what has typically been a blue-collar profession.

What I have not seen in print is the LAPD’s recent deep cut in starting pay, particularly for four-year college graduates.

As of January 2010, a raw recruit without a four-year degree earns $45,226 a year when they sign on with the LAPD. If they had signed on in 2009, they would have earned $56,522. That’s a cut of $11,296 a year, or 20%.

Recruits with a college degree received the same 20% pay cut, and now earn starting pay of $48,880. They previously earned $61,095. That’s a cut of $12,225, well over $1,000 a month.

To earn their old starting pay, new cops without a college degree will have to advance to step five of the seven-step pay structure for the basic patrol rank, while those with a degree have to advance to step seven. That takes about 18 months (a one-step advance comes after graduation from the academy, and usually every six months thereafter. College graduates enter the academy at step three).

Until the LAPD union contract is renegotiated in the middle of next year, that means these new cops will continue to be paid about 20% to 25% less than their colleagues with similar experience – not exactly the best way to boost morale and retain staff.

These steep cuts were made to prevent rank-and-file patrolmen from being furloughed or even laid off. From the perspective of the LAPD’s union, the Police Protective League, it makes perfect sense. Unions usually strive to protect the most senior employees. And given a rookie L.A. cop can be fired for any offense before their 18-month probationary period is up (six months in the academy and their first year as a sworn officer) they comprise the constituency least likely to raise hackles over having their pay slashed.

However, it raises some troubling questions about the direction the LAPD will take as it tries to keep its ranks above 10,000 sworn officers. And it raises even more troubling questions as to why I am writing this post, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

The LAPD pays a 7.5% differential to recruits with four-year degrees. Many police departments do so: studies have shown that college-educated cops receive fewer complaints from the community about their conduct, are involved in fewer use-of-force incidents, and make good supervisors. New LAPD chief Charlie Beck only recently earned his bachelors degree from Cal State Long Beach – no doubt because his lack of a degree was going to hamper his further rise in the department.

But the LAPD’s recently instituted pay cut is going to make it tougher for college-educated recruits to join the department. The starting pay was once generous for someone just out of school. Now it barely tops what a brand-new teacher at a local charter school earns.

It may work as a short-term fix to the city’s budget woes, but the department should not be surprised if its ever-present drain of officers to other departments begins heating up should an economic recovery take hold soon.

Which brings me to the next troubling issue: Why am I the first journalist in L.A. to write about this? I’m a healthcare writer by training and inclination, and I haven’t covered law enforcement in any form for nearly 20 years. Most of the space in this blog is devoted to slamming my colleagues for what I perceive to be their missteps or grumbling about politics. I shouldn’t be a resource of reporting on the LAPD.

Yet neither the L.A. Times or Daily News have covered this story. The Times’ David Zahniser made the briefest of mention of cuts in starting pay when the Police Protective League approved the changes in late 2009. But it appeared in his blog, and not in the newspaper. Not a single mention of this has been made in any media outlet since. Most of the coverage has been in the reduction of overtime for officers, and the elimination of some specialized units, thereby putting more police on the streets.

There may be some editors at the Times who would argue that cutting the starting salaries of police officers isn’t news. I’ll point to what happened when the New York Police Department cut its pay to raw rookies to just $25,100 a year back in 2005. The New York Times and other media outlets chimed in with extensive coverage – including interviews with new cops having trouble paying their bills – and op-eds.

Eventually, the NYPD found it couldn’t attract quality recruits, so about 18 months ago it raised the starting salary back over $41,000. It also raised the base pay after five and a half years from under $60,000 to over $76,000. It now approaches $91,000 with incentives and allowances added in. That appears to be far above what the LAPD now offers to officers with similar experience. That gap hasn’t been reported on either.

I know all about this because the New York Times has covered this issue extensively.

It wasn’t that long ago the L.A. Times and Daily News covered the LAPD with the same relentlessness. Not a day went by when there wasn’t some coverage of the department, either good or bad.

Now, its editorial staffs brutalized by deep personnel cuts – both papers have about half the editorial staffs they did a decade ago – and they let a story slip by that should not have.

I’m not bragging about covering it here. I’m embarrassed. But the Times and Daily News still have about 700 more editorial staffers than this blog. I want to read about how this may affect the LAPD’s recruitment efforts and morale in some actual depth. Pardon the pun, but not seeing it at all, in any form, will amount to a cop-out.

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A Business Yarn

A department store credit card on which I’ve kept a zero balance for years recently jacked up the annual interest to 57%. The store also made a dunning call for a bill of less than $40 – on the same day payment had been received.

At a well-known local deli, I saw the owner – who inherited the business from his father – stand in a corner while his staff worked maniacally. When a customer had some grievance, he told him he didn’t like his attitude.

Yesterday, an executive who is paid seven figures to run a not-for-profit organization called me personally to tell me a report I had spent weeks writing was “baloney” and wanted his money back.

These events happened at around the same time the titans of finance testified that they had no idea their actions had created the financial crisis. They also insisted they weren’t “fiduciaries” – they have absolutely no duty to protect their customers. I disagree; they do the best job on the planet representing the second syllable of that word.

I often think about the retribution that may be visited on such sultans of smugness. I’ve decided that the best punishment is to hand them a ball of yarn and make them sell it.

I have spent the last six years in the yarn business, co-owning Unwind with my wife. Stephanie runs the front end, day-to-day operations. Since I can’t knit and couldn’t sell missiles to Hamas, I stick to the glamour tasks of filing the sales tax returns and chasing after the woman who wrote $1,500 worth of rubber checks when we happened to be out of town.

I know a little bit of why all those people mentioned above are so nasty; running a business is a humbling experience. Enjoying some success – even if it’s not all yours – is exhilarating.

Well, sometimes. Four years ago, Stephanie called me in tears during the annual Super Bowl Sunday sale, certain that the line of people snaking around her store to buy merchandise would deplete her inventory and put her out of business. I reassured her that as long as she didn’t accept lead ingots for payment, that was unlikely to happen. (By the way, this year’s sale begins on Sunday morning).

Our business logo

But that pleasant, competent, ready-to-help and slightly self-effacing tone has created something remarkable – a cadre of customers willing to help. They fill in for Stephanie on a regular basis. They help out for special events. More than a dozen showed up on a recent Sunday morning to help take inventory. They get some yarn in return, but that’s it. If one of the volunteers complains about something, another usually puts them in their place.

I have written about business for nearly 20 years, and have not witnessed anything quite like this. True, the yarn business is focused on women, who tend to be more giving than men. It also promotes the collegiality of a group activity. But usually “friends” of a business owner find a way to sponge off of them. These friends freed up enough time so Stephanie could focus on the most difficult part of a retail enterprise in an economic downturn: recalibrating inventory and managing cash flow.

Meanwhile, the Great Recession picked off local yarn stores at an alarming rate – at least a dozen I am aware of. They’ve closed in Eagle Rock, Valley Village, Santa Clarita and the San Gabriel Valley.

Our store’s 2009 sales were flat compared to 2008. If two big-spending customers hadn’t left the area, last year’s sales would have been a little bit ahead. At any rate, 2009 and 2008 kept pace with 2007, which had been a growth year. This achievement will likely be one of the signal events of our marriage, comparable to my keeping my portion of the bathroom counter clean.

Despite the fact that our little business is poised for a recovery, there are still a million things to do. The sign outside needs to be spruced up. Some of slipcovers on the furniture are threadbare. The website and webstore need a redesign. Slowly and methodically, they will get done. They always do.

In the meantime, if Forbes or Fortune decides to write another article on the most-widely admired CEOs – why not pass over another sleazy investment banker and put Stephanie on the cover instead? Or, if not her, all the small business owners who toil away in obscurity, don’t bully their customers, and show up on their own every morning to unlock the front doors.

By the way, I run my own businesses as well. Here are links to my sites:

Payers & Providers (a healthcare publication)

RFS Consulting (a healthcare communications firm)

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Taking Pot Shots

An acquaintance of mine disclosed a rich history of LSD usage over a recent lunch.

“You can take drugs and not have them ruin your life,” he declared.

I could dismiss him as a deluded liberal hippie goofball, but he’s run a couple of large public bureaucracies in his career – including one in Los Angeles County. And since he likely has more than a nodding relationship with District Attorney Steve Cooley, I wonder if they’ve chatted about his recent vow to crack down on the marijuana dispensaries that have sprouted up throughout Los Angeles.

Cooley and his partner in crime busting, L.A. City Attorney Carmen Trutanich, have vowed to prosecute pot dispensary operators, particularly those who accept any money. Cooley says he will ignore any dispensary regulations promulgated by the L.A. City Council. When Cooley was recently on a local public affairs radio show – where he conveniently ducked taking callers’ questions – he claimed ignorance about SB 420, the seven-year-old state law that gives municipalities the right to regulate dispensaries.

Politically, I can understand Cooley and Trutanich’s position. The City Council has put the “it” in dithering when it’s come to drafting regulations – opening up loopholes that have permitted hundreds of dispensaries to appear over the past couple of years. And while both men are law enforcement figures, they’re also elected officials. Putting some deluded liberal hippie goofball pot peddlers in prison could position them for a run at higher offices.

L.A. County District Attorney Steve Cooley, left and L.A. City Attorney Carmen Trutanich have vowed to crack down on marijuana dispensaries. They appear wiling to trample on the state law governing their operation to score political points.

But as attorneys, they should know better. The way SB 420 was written, dispensary operators could have hundreds, if not thousands, of marijuana plants in their inventory. As non-profit cooperatives, the operators may be reimbursed for “reasonable” expenses to cultivate and/or procure marijuana for their customers. Given that the executive staffs of many local non-profits earn six-figure and sometimes seven-figure salaries, this will be a non-starter. I sense millions of dollars will soon go down the drain to prosecute cases that will result in few, if any, convictions.

Meanwhile, it is difficult to drive through the recessionary streets of L.A. and fail to notice the commercial “for rent” signs have grown thicker than a Humboldt County bumper crop. Many of the new businesses I do spot are marijuana dispensaries. Every one I’ve seen has been decidedly low-key, with subdued, almost chaste paintjobs and signage. One within walking distance of my house is so anonymous it’s drowned out by the neon lights from the corner dry cleaner. I risk sounding like a deluded pro-business conservative goofball, but those dispensaries are providing sorely needed jobs and cash flow to landlords. Given L.A.’s draconian gross receipts levy, they could probably provide some sorely needed local tax revenue as well.

But that’s not the story being told by Cooley and Trutanich. They regularly link the dispensaries to armed robberies and other violent crimes, although neither has provided specific crime-related data. Trutanich also claims the marijuana being sold contained dangerous pesticides, although he tends to lapse into a stoner-like haze when pressed about the specifics of the lab testing that’s been performed.

Meanwhile, the local media report allegations that pot dispensary patrons disturb the neighbors or sell to teens. According to a recent piece in the L.A. Weekly, which has relentlessly covered the pot dispensary issue, “teenagers can be seen heading into them after school lets out in Hollywood, Fairfax, Northridge, the San Fernando Valley, Wilshire District and other areas.” The author of the article did not interview a single teenaged patron.

If true, these issues are the same quality-of-life woes that bedevil the neighbors of successful strip clubs, liquor stores and yogurt shops. They can be tackled with well-written regulations and rigid enforcement. At the height of the 1980s crime wave, liquor store owners were successfully pressured to shoo away loiterers and clean up graffiti. Zoning regulations quarantine most strip clubs to industrial areas. And heaven help any restaurant owner who expands without adding parking spaces — they die a death of a thousand citations. Yet the dispensaries are portrayed as occupying some more sinister portion of the business spectrum where owners and patrons deserve a bitter end.

Political capital might be earned by doing so, but the public has forgotten that the author of one of the bestselling memoirs of the past 20 years admitted that “pot had helped” get him through high school and college, as well as  “booze; maybe a little blow when you could afford it.” He was so off-handed in his disclosure that Barack Obama probably ingested drugs in quantities far larger than one might assume.

Our current President and my recent lunchtime companion fall into a large swath of highly successful Americans who have used drugs without any apparent harm. A college friend shook me up when I discovered her predilection for smoking cocaine and heroin. She’s a high-profile gang prosecutor these days; Cooley’s her boss. I have had other drug-using friends and acquaintances who have written books, taught and performed other productive activities.

Certainly, some people cannot control their drug usage. But that occurs whether laws exist to bar their consumption or not. And even the most tripped out citizen on the planet can tell you that spending $40,000 to $50,000 a year to incarcerate a dispensary operator versus raking in more than double that in tax revenues to allow them to stay in business is a no-brainer.

There is a move to place a proposition on the November 2010 ballot to legalize marijuana use straightaway and make it subject to taxation. Given the current environment, it will likely never be approved, let alone make it to the ballot. Which means more than a decade after California’s voters approved the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, the political firefights over how it should be dispensed rage on. And lord knows how many of our taxpayer dollars will continue to go up in smoke as a resultTaking

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Y’all Wanna Move to Roosha?

“Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid.
As a nation we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’
When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except Negroes and foreigners and Catholics.’ When it comes to this, I shall prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.” – Abraham Lincoln

How can I resist this quote when the burghers of the backwaters lined up this week to yet again worship at the moth-eaten, mad cow-diseased altar of Sarah Palin? According to the sly reporting of the New York Times, these people swore they would “take back their country” by doing everything in their power to get her into the White House. That they hadn’t read her new book or had any ideas what she would do if actually elected was beside the point.

Of course, if you purchase the secret redneck decoder ring (available at your local Wal-Mart), it all translates to: “Goddamn, what is this uppity Mooslim, Commie Socialist Nigra doing runnin’ MY country??? Lock away all the white wummin and get me my scopin’ rifle!”

Not unlike Barack Obama, Lincoln put up with this crap every single day of his political career until the nut cases indeed finally did him in. That quote – one of the few attributed to him that is dead on yet doesn’t soar – crystallizes the black exasperation he often felt. He represented a new paradigm: a bootstrapping backwoodsman with an intellectual’s temperament few people “got” until it was too late. The only previous President he had resembled to any degree was Andrew Jackson, like him a rural striver, but one fortunate enough to enjoy huge success as a commander during the War of 1812, and shrewd enough to exploit it for political gains. Otherwise, Jackson was just as hot-headed, paranoid and trigger-happy as his fellow Tennesseeans.

Indeed, Lincoln so alienated the Southern states that according to the eminent Civil War historian Shelby Foote, not even a “crank” redneck cast a vote for him in 1860. It’s fascinating that as recently as 50 years ago – when Foote used that term – that someone who thought Lincoln was fit for the presidency would be considered a crank.

Why am I bringing this up? Well, being one of the few mouth-smashing liberals in America, I believe it is time for the Sarah Palin rooters to leave the building. There is simply no rational explanation for their desire to elevate such a bumptious half-wit to such a powerful office. It only demonstrates this nation has too large an ignorant and prejudiced populace, one that refuses to be educated for its own good. Moreover, it will gladly use that ignorance to serve a malignant desire to imperil us all. At a time when there are simply too many short and long-term crises to solve, it would best serve the country to do what Lincoln did when he suspended habeus corpus during the Civil War – going beyond the Constitution in the short-term to preserve in the long-term.

Which is why I remembered the Great Emancipator’s quote, and why Russia would be the perfect destination for them. Here’s why:

1. Putin & Medvedev = Bush & Cheney…But Forever!

When George W. Bush said he looked Vladimir Putin in the eye in 2001 and was “able to get a sense of his soul,” it may have been the only intuitive observation of his entire presidency. Both men are glaringly alike: incurious, autocratic megalomaniacs who not only disdain the opposition, but believe it shouldn’t exist at all. Putin, as a matter fact, could be a template for the “unitary presidency,” that technocratic little term the neo-con fascists cobbled together during Bush’s first term as an excuse for marginalizing Congress and smashing the Constitution into rubble.

Vladmir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev's political relationship should calm all those recent Rooshan immigrants longing for the halcyon days of Bush and Cheney.

Putin was forced out of the presidency by term limits last year, but he assumed the presumably lesser prime minister’s role, with his dimwitted puppet Dmitry Medvedev assuming his old job. But really, everyone knows who’s calling the shots. Sound like a familiar relationship? Yet unlike the Bush/Cheney duet, these guys will have held power at least 16 years, and likely beyond that. This should be a very reassuring arrangement for the new arrivals.

2. The rich, and only the rich, are in charge

No bigger oligopoly exists on Earth than Roosha, where the only people who have the ears of politicians are the obscenely rich, and everyone else might as well live on Neptune – or else. Stepping out of line can still land you in one of those gulags Uncle Joe Stalin was so fond of. Indeed, only $150 annually is spent on healthcare per capita! Thousands of doctors have been laid off and hundreds of hospitals have been closed in recent years. It’s a right-winger’s dreamland: if you can get rich, God bless you. Otherwise, shut the fock up!!

3. They shoot journalists, don’t they?

The Committee to Protect Journalists announced in September that Russia was not only one of the most dangerous places on earth to ply the trade, but one of the worst at solving their murders. Witness Anna Politkoskayva, Russia’s equivalent of Dana Priest, the Washington Post reporter who broke the stories on the CIA’s secret “black sites.” After being unsuccessfully poisoned at least once, she was gunned down in the elevator of her apartment building in 2006. The killers have never been found; some low-level thugs were tried earlier this year, but acquitted. All those code words about the “mainstream media,” “media elite,” “liberal bias” and Fox News’ “Fair and Balanced” slogan boil down to a desire to slaughter anybody who tries to unearth the truth. You couldn’t find a better place to nurture such kindred spirits.

4. Nyet, we have no environment

Russia is in some parallel universe regarding environmental protections. Its factories belch unfiltered smoke, even the most rural portions of Siberia are covered with garbage, and everyone smokes. Oh, and no one – NO ONE – wears seatbelts, an amusing prospect where most of the roads are rutted mudtracks and little is spent to improve or even maintain them. A perfect home for all the naysayers who insist that global warming is a myth and that the government intrudes too much in their lives. And since the average life expectancy of a Russian is about 15 years less than it is for Americans, I will have to listen to them grumble about wanting to live free for significantly less time.

5. But Sarah May Still Visit!

Those departed compatriots of mine may still cast a wistful eye toward the Motherland as they adjust to their new life in Roosha, but have no fears. Sarah Palin always insisted she could see Roosha from her backyard. Assuming that is correct, you’ll have no problems stealing admiring glimpses of her. Of course, she won’t be able to hear you, but take comfort in the fact she never listened to you anyway. And since you’re doing this to make your country a better place to live, Honest Abe would no doubt be proud. If you ask me if it’s the right thing to do, I only have two words: You Betcha!

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We Should All Be So Dov-ish

I’ve visited many company headquarters in my years as a journalist. Only one has been more memorable than a pallet of two-by-fours.

Indeed, American Apparel’s offices and plant just east of downtown Los Angeles is by far the most dynamic place of business in town. Visitors begin their odyssey in gloomy freight elevators out of some Prohibition-era caper. They’re let out onto corridors teeming with models, suits and seamstresses, all moving at a mile-a-minute. There are garment workers everywhere: if they’re not hunched over their sewing machines, they’re eating meals of colorful ethnic cuisine, obtaining exams at the on-site medical clinic or a shoulder-rub from a workplace masseuse. If you think Diego Rivera by way of “Project Runway,” you get a pretty clear picture. Each visit has left me mildly surprised I wasn’t charged admission.

Sadly, this workplace vibrancy was diminished by an order from the Immigrant and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) last September to fire 1,800 American Apparel employees – about a quarter of the company’s workforce – because they are undocumented immigrants. The employees had 60 days to prove they belong in the U.S., but that window closes this month. Few, if any, of the fired workers returned to their jobs.

The firings are considered a departure from ICE policy during the Bush Administration, when such undocumented workers would be detained and deported.  This is the same federal government that e-mailed me a nine-digit Employer Identification Number in seconds when I started a new publishing venture earlier this year. Those fired American Apparel employees had considered their obtaining nine-digit Social Security numbers an impossible dream.

American Apparel presents a tempting target for the feds: Dov Charney, its chairman and CEO, is the most outré leader of any publicly-traded company in the nation. Charney has photographed hundreds of American Apparel’s notorious print ads featuring skimpily clad models, presumably far closer to the master bedroom of his Silver Lake home than his company’s bustling headquarters. His sybaritic shenanigans inside American Apparel have become the cornerstone of many an attorney’s workplace litigation practice.

Dov Charney is easily the most outre leader of a publicly-traded company in the country. But the Canadian emigre has got some balls when it comes to the rights of undocumented workers.

But Charney has also demanded legal status for all of his employees, and pays them an average wage of $18 an hour, plus benefits. He has a point: if you work hard and abide by the law, your host country should try and make an accommodation. His efforts have been denounced by self-proclaimed pro-business politician Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-San Diego, as an addiction to foreign workers. But Bilbray isn’t much of a fan of the domestic worker, either: he voted against increasing the federal minimum wage two years ago to $7.25 an hour.

I want employers like American Apparel to abide by the law, but I feel that this mass firing has in some way trampled on our past compacts. Less than a century ago, as many as 3 million Europeans immigrated here each year as a cheap source of labor. Most encountered brutal prejudices, but the deal was clear: work hard and you can stay, which is something Charney would like to see repeated in the 21st century. Virtually all of those European immigrants entered the country legally, but my guess is if Italy, Russia, Ireland and Germany had borders with the U.S., many of those people would have snuck across them rather than stop at Ellis Island.

Charney himself immigrated from Montreal, and his peccadilloes aside, he’s worked harder than virtually all of us. Yet if he had not created a business that employs 7,000 Southern Californians and the power and influence that accrues with such an accomplishment, he might have been escorted back to the Great White North years ago. Given his success, one would assume all of Charney’s employees work very hard as well, and therefore should be allowed to remain at work.

Which brings be back to Rep. Bilbray. Like many neo-conservatives, he worships at the altar of Ronald Reagan. But he will never acknowledge perhaps the most generous and historic act of Reagan’s presidency: the 1986 amnesty granted to millions of illegal immigrants. I’m thankful for it on many mornings and evenings, because the coffee shop closest to my house is owned by an amnesty recipient. He had been working as a busboy at the restaurant in the mid-1980s when the owner decided to retire and sell out to him, the deal hinging on his becoming legal and a citizen. He’s since opened a second restaurant that’s enlivened a dilapidated West Hills strip mall. He pays all his employees well above minimum wage; his cook clears $1,000 a week. They do indeed charge admission here, but my bill is rarely more than $25, even when I’m with my family.

Of course, I may be confusing the issue when I wax about immigrants who offer fair wages and wane about natives who consider it more practical to put 1,800 working stiffs on the streets in a steep recession who would likely be law-abiding individuals but for the lack of a nine-digit number. But we live in a world that every day is fueled more by political expediency and less by common sense.

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Rainey’s Precipitation Redux

I confess to erring when I wrote a couple of months ago that the L.A. Times editors should consider running white space in lieu of James Rainey’s media column. Instead, he’s become the gift that keeps on – well, you can guess the rest.

In yet another of his “You readers are all stupid, now read to what I have to say” masterpieces, he rips what he acknowledges are a minority of fruitcakes who criticized writer Amy Wallace’s article in Wired magazine that rebuts the alleged links between rising cases of autism and childhood vaccines.  This is in spite of the fact that Wallace, when interviewed on NPR, openly welcomed the responses she’s received, even though a few have been misguided and even profane.

Rainey doesn’t bother to disclose that. Instead, he laments that the world is brimming with idiots, ever emboldened by their Internet connections. “We see a wave of amateurs convinced they can write a pithier movie review, arrange a catchier song, even assess our planet’s shifting weather conditions, better than the professionals trained to do the job,” he writes.

I’ll concede on global warming, but songwriting and movie reviews?  I must have missed the Beatles’ and Elvis’ formative years at Juilliard. I’m unaware of Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert graduating from the Bosley Crowther School of Celluloid Critique at Columbia University, but I don’t always keep track of such esoterica. However, I’m pretty certain Rainey attended for his doctoral studies.

As an amusing aside, the online version of Rainey’s article is bracketed by Google ads hawking the same disinformation he is trying to debunk. But I digress.

Rainey makes it sound as if sanctimonious, know-it-all blowhards suddenly began appearing with the advent of the Internet. They’ve always been out there. But 50 years ago, they needed to type a letter, correct the mistakes, address, stamp and mail it. Nine times out of 10, the target threw it in the garbage without so much as an acknowledgement of receipt. Now, people can slam their targets without leaving their chairs. So, why not?

I will agree with Rainey there is a surfeit of nutwings out there, and their unfounded prejudices are fueled by ill-informed and undereducated celebrities such as Jenny McCarthy. But that is not the entire story.

The fear of vaccines stem not only from ignorance but ever-present suspicions about the drug industry. These are the same people who ply doctors with free lunches, speaking gigs and other honorariums to get them to recommend their products, which are then sold to patients at grossly inflated prices. Wallace does admit that the physician she focuses on in the article, pediatrician Paul Offit, made at least several million dollars from sales of a vaccine he invented that is sold at a 17-fold markup. Offit says it was an unforeseen consequence of his research, but he didn’t exactly turn it down.

And while Wallace’s article is a fine piece of journalism and Offit may be passionate about defending the scientific method, most people never receive such passion for their well-being from doctors. They get cursory visits and a hastily scribbled prescription – and often sticker shock at filling it.

Wallace also failed to mention that the debate on autism occurs in a push-me-pull-you flurry of scientific data. One study is published claiming a link to cancer, and another is published the following year rebuts it. Half a century ago, the common treatment for heart attack victims was bed rest – something the medical community now concludes puts patients at risk for developing fatal blood clots. There may indeed be a dozen current studies debunking a link between vaccines and autism. They may hold up over time. Or they may not.

Lump all that in with the extraordinary difficulty of caring for an autistic child – another burden often met by the medical profession with indifference – and that is among the reasons there is so much anger out there.

Wallace is onto something when she notes that pseudo-science offers comfort, which is why it has attractions. Being told you’re wrong only geometrically amplifies the anger.

Of course, you can leave that part to Rainey. He quotes Andrew Keen, an author who has claimed the Internet has left us culturally bereft, even as he helped propagate it by being a part of various Web startups.

“Keen makes abundant sense when he argues that people who have worked hard to gain expertise can’t so easily, and passively, cave in to ‘the wisdom of the crowd,’” Rainey writes. “He believes experts — in the media, science, law – need to drop their ‘false, almost suicidal, humility.’”

Right. Because a bunch of elite members of society arrogantly getting into the faces of people who are already uneasy or suspicious of them will persuade them to change their minds.

I can only predict one thing with certitude: fewer people will be reading the L.A. Times a year from now than they are today. Perhaps Rainey can discuss that cause-and-effect  in a future column.

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Horton Hears A Boo

As I inch toward earning my masters degree in English, the most instructive portion has not been the critical readings, the research papers or the lectures. It’s been teaching freshman composition.

The classwork has prompted both myself and my students to craft steadier theses, create logical arguments and occasionally concede the other side has a point. That hallmark, known as concession, makes you more credible as I writer, I tell my students. Occasionally, they even listen to me.

But when I glance at the riches of embarrassment that comprised the L.A. Times op-ed page last Sunday, I begin to wonder if I’m misleading all those impressionable 18-year-olds.

How else do you explain the success in landing the anchor article position by Charlotte Allen, a right-wing screedatrix best known for claiming in the Washington Post last year that she doesn’t  understand “why more women don’t relax, enjoy the innate abilities most of us possess (as well as the ones fewer of us possess) and revel in the things most important to life at which nearly all of us excel: tenderness toward children and men and the weak and the ability to make a house a home.”

Instead of bashing women, Allen instead focused on Shepard Fairey, the L. A. artist best known for the multi-hued “Hope” portrait of Barack Obama that became the symbolic centerpiece of his campaign.

Allen makes all the usual points against Fairey: his artwork was based on a photo taken by an Associated Press photographer of Obama in 2006, and he’s been arrested 15 times for creating graffiti, including last year in Boston, where he pled guilty to several charges. True on both counts.

But then Allen goes on a tangent that would have earned demands for a major revision in my class: a claim he’s been protected by leftists. “You have to remember that armchair Marxist intellectuals and others of Fairey’s ilk still look back with longing to the grimy 1970s and 1980s in New York, when graffiti blanketed every car in the subway system. They were appalled by the successful efforts of mayors Ed Koch and Rudolph Giuliani to crack down on the taggers in order to make the city livable for the philistines who had to take the trains to work.”

Indeed, there were a handful of kooks who argued against graffiti abatement, but they lost that argument absolutely and then promptly vanished. And given I haven’t heard anyone stepping up to vigorously defend Fairey in his vandalism cases, it’s not at all relevant.

Moreover, whatever you think of Fairey, you cannot drive a block in L.A. without seeing his work on someone’s car bumper. His reworking of that photo will still be featured in U.S. political histories a century from now, much as the work of cartoonist Thomas Nast is prominent in any book about 19th century politics. This is not the typical fate of taggers who deface apartment buildings and overpasses.

Nowhere did Allen note that it’s troubling a non-profit cooperative like the AP would become copyright money-grubbers. Without Fairey, the photo of Obama is another obscure image among hundreds of thousands typically taken of a prominent politician.

Whatever you might think of Shepard Fairey's conduct, his reworking of the original AP photo will be published in political histories a century from now, much as the cartoons of Thomas Nast regularly appear in histories of 19th century politics.

Whatever you might think of Shepard Fairey's conduct, his reworking of the original AP photo will be published in political histories a century from now, much as the cartoons of Thomas Nast regularly appear in histories of 19th century politics.

Yet photojournalism of soldiers raising the flag at Iwo Jima and a South Vietnamese soldier shooting a suspected Viet Cong in the head have been appropriated for artistic purposes countless times without similar repercussions. And since Allen is an out-of-towner, she is no doubt unaware that the L.A. County Museum of Art permanentely displays Andy Warhol’s depictions of Cornflakes boxes and Campbell’s soup’s cans. Yet the graphic artists who designed those products never insisted there was a copyright infringement of their work.

Get thee to an MRI: L.A. Times Sunday Op-Ed Editor Sue Horton should have her head examined for approving what ran in the Oct. 25 op-ed section.

Get thee to an MRI: L.A. Times Sunday Op-Ed Editor Sue Horton should have her head examined for approving what ran in the Oct. 25 op-ed section.

Allen’s article was also particularly offensive to read in my local newspaper given the flagrant behavior of Southern California advertising companies, who have erected hundreds of billboards and supergraphics on buildings in ways that have flouted local zoning laws far more grievously than Fairey, then bought their way out of trouble with huge campaign contributions to local politicians. No doubt a reliable right-winger like Allen would defend their right to do so, given as big businesses they have no ideology beyond making money.

In sum, the appearance of Allen in this instance – indeed, the entire Oct. 25 opinion section – is a blot on whatever remains of the news judgment of Sunday op-ed editor Sue Horton. This is a woman who made her rep editing the L.A. Weekly, the most progressive and locally-focused news publication in town. And now, she’s publishing the retrograde dreck of someone condemning a prominent local artist, and she doesn’t even live here? Perhaps Horton should have an MRI.

But local issues – or writers – were not something to be seen on last weekend’s Times’ op-ed pages, even though the paper’s management has been vowing to cover more local issues – the consolation prize for relentlessly shrinking the staff. Just below Allen’s piece was a completely unfunny satire mocking a Denver alternative weekly’s decision to hire a writer to critique the local marijuana dispensaries. Pot dispensaries are another big issue in L.A., one that’s been covered superficially by virtually all the local media. When a print publication is actually hiring a writer to cover a burgeoning new sector a few days after the Times laid off another bunch of scribes, it makes me wonder what Horton and her staff smoked to take this particularly clueless angle.

Both Allen and John Kenney, the writer of the pot piece, are based in New York. Ditto for Paul Lieberman, who wrote about cancer. Doyle McManus, who penned a remembrance of his former colleague Jack Nelson, is based in Washington. Only Linsay Rousseau Burnett, who discussed the travails of getting the G.I. bill to pay her grad school tuition, lives in California. Perhaps the fact that she served in the military was enough to mollify Horton et al. about her residing in Berkeley – a seven-hour drive and light-years away from L.A.

So, there you have it: five op-ed articles, two written by current and former Times staffers, only one who lives within 500 miles of town. Among the reasons I vent here is that every op-ed piece I’ve ever submitted to the Spayed Lady has been rejected. Meanwhile they continue to publish diatribes like Allen’s that might get a C+ in my class. Even more troubling, the op-ed page regularly published monologues from Bill Maher’s HBO show “Real Time” before they’re aired later in the week – making it appear they’re shilling for the show. The ethical questions raised by this practice alone should be enough to force the entire op-ed staff to resign.

Yet if even that miraculously happened, I’d still be one of hundreds of people who submit op-eds to the L.A. Times editors daily. But I can write with far more logic and sensitivity than a conservative darling like Allen (perhaps she’s more tender to her male editors than myself). I can also write with helluva lot more humor than Kenney. Yet it makes no difference. They are set in their ways, even as their readership continues to melt away around them.

The one thing that I found amusing and illuminating on Sunday’s op-ed page was a correction: “A cartoon that ran…on Oct. 23 referred to Carmen Trutanich as the Los Angeles District Attorney. Trutanich is the city attorney.”

I don’t have to spend years going through the motions on the Times op-ed desk to misidentify Trutanich, the city’s newest – and biggest – headline-grabbing gasbag. And I can guarantee by each semester’s end there isn’t a single one of my fresh-faced students who would make an error like that, either.

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