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LA Story


October 1, 2009


Nine years ago, I flew to Oxnard, Calif., to write a massive puff piece about a man I admired: Otis Chandler, the late publisher of the Los Angeles Times. Adulatory prose is good for the soul. You have to like someone, and Otis Chandler, who transformed the Times from a decent regional paper into an international powerhouse, was someone worth liking. He and his family are the subjects of a two-hour PBS documentary, “Inventing LA: The Chandlers and Their Times,’’ airing Monday night at 9 on WGBH-TV (Channel 2).

The show is catnip for Southern California groupies, the kind of people who realize that Five Guys hamburger joints are a pallid imitation of In-N-Out Burger, the legendary Baldwin Park-based California chain that prints tiny Bible citations on its paper cups and plates. You hear the voices of Carey McWilliams, probably California’s greatest 20th-century journalist/historian, and of the region’s native son, Richard Nixon, whom the Chandlers initially boomed and later soured on. Documentarian Peter Jones has a tape of Nixon instructing the attorney general of the United States to investigate Otis Chandler’s gardener (!). Naturally, Nixon uses an ethnic slur to describe the man, whom he believes to be an illegal immigrant.

This being public television, there is much clucking disapproval for the Chandler family’s real estate speculation in the San Fernando Valley, for their championing of the famous Owens Valley water grab (see: “Chinatown’’) and so on. If no one invested capital in the United States, who would underwrite Ken Burns’s center-left pieties? But that is a connection inevitably lost on the PBS viewership.

Still, “Inventing LA’’ has plenty of treats for viewers. Jones has commentary from David Halberstam, from the great California historian Kevin Starr, and from all manner of Chandlers, including both of Otis Chandler’s former wives. Jones is pretty unsparing of Chandler, who could be brusque and dismissive, most notably of his own son, whom he deemed unworthy to succeed him in the newspaper business.

Jones lays bare the fault lines that divided the Chandler family, and which eventually led to the firing of Otis Chandler and the sale of the paper to the Chicago Tribune. In a nutshell, some of Otis’s relatives were members of the far-right John Birch Society, and resented his transformation of the Times from a Republican broadsheet into “a creature of the Pulitzer committee,’’ i.e., a sounding board for “Eastern’’ values, such as the championing of civil rights and unionization.

The documentary mercifully ends before the current Time of Troubles that has affected the Times as much as any other major city daily. The paper now belongs to the mercurial Chicago real estate magnate Sam Zell. Chandler family ownership is a distant, cherished memory.