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.
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.
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.