A Chat About Frank del Olmo With Former LAT's Reporter Ken Reich

I call Ken at 11pm Wednesday, June 22, 2005. He was just falling asleep at the Days Inn in Burns, Oregon. He's on an 84-day driving trip to Alaska and the Canadian Arctic.

Luke: "What do you think was Frank's main contribution to journalism?"

Ken: "Getting the Associate Editorship and having a column at The Times. That was his biggest success?"

Luke: "What was he best at? Was he a great journalist? A great editor? A great columnist?"

Ken: "He was not a great journalist but he had determination. He made himself important at The Times because he was the only Latino in his position. He attended a great many meetings. He was a plodder more than a brilliant polemicist. Because he was first in things and because there was a great deal of feelings among Hispanics that he was perhaps more important than he was at the paper, he was able to accomplish some things.

"The best thing Frank ever did as a journalist was opposing the [LAT's 1994] endorsement of [Governor Pete] Wilson. Are you acquainted with that?"

Luke: "I'm acquainted with that, but it's something outside of journalism, isn't it?"

Ken: "No. It was done at the paper. He staged a rebellion. He threatened to quit. They finally did something for him that they had never done for anybody else -- give him the right to write an editorial disagreeing with the editorial that they had written. And they gave him the Associate Editorship besides. This is not Michael Kinsley who's willing to run all sorts of contradictory editorials time after time and give outsiders a chance to write. [What Frank did] had never been done before.

"At the time of the endorsement of Nixon over McGovern [in 1972], they had run a letter from some staffers disagreeing.

"Frank disagreed eloquently. I think this was definitely a journalistic endeavor."

Luke: "You just don't think of journalism being political partisan?"

Frank: "I heard [USC professor Dr. Felix] Gutierrez speak the other night. He said that the First Amendment looks forward to impartial journalism. The First Amendment was nothing of the kind. The First Amendment looks forward to advocacy journalism. That's the reason there is a First Amendment. I think Frank was certainly within First Amendment traditions when he took a position. This is bunk when you say that journalists are not supposed to take sides. [When the First Amendment was created], it was always expected that journalists would express their opinion. That's why there was a First Amendment, so people could freely express their opinion."

Luke: "You say Frank was not a brilliant columnist, yet you criticize [members of The Los Angeles Times] for not showing up to his book."

Frank: "I was criticizing the indifference of the white reporters and editors about Hispanics and other minorities at The Times. The whole battle for diversity at The Times has been waged by very few people in the Hispanic community and the Black community. Even when The Times had a diversity committee, which I was a member of, it was noted by its failure to take a solid position in favor of diversity. It's a tradition around there that its largely white staff does not care much what happens to the minorities. The same could be said of women at The Times, though women have now achieved a great deal.

"When I first went to work downtown, there was only one woman in the City room (Dorothy Townsend). The women got their positions by rebelling, not by anybody giving them anything. There's a long tradition around the paper about not caring."

Luke: "When did this change? Shelby Coffee was famous for his commitment to diversity."

Frank: "Yes, it changed more under Shelby than it did under Bill Thomas, though Thomas did hire the first Black staffers. I don't think it's an entirely satisfactory situation today. The Times is not filled with black and brown reporters."

Luke: "How important is it that The Times be filled with black and brown reporters and what proportion should they be?"

Frank: "I'm not an advocate of a quota system. I think The Times should have a more substantial contingent of minority reporters and more promotions. Even though Dean Baquet is managing editor and a black man is almost a coincidence due to his talents. It's not that there's any great movement afoot to promote blacks. You have Janet Clayton [former Op/Ed editor] head of Metro but the City room is not filled with blacks. The blacks like Tyla Rivera and Jocelyn Stewart aren't given good assignments.

"Often, the most outstanding reporters to come out of the Metpro (Minority Editorial Training Program) program, have gone on elsewhere. Some have succeeded within the paper -- Hector Tobar, Henry Chu."

Luke: "Is there a hostile work environment to minorities at The LA Times?"

Frank: "It's more a sin of omission. This is not a Southern jury that decides to get together and not convict a killer of civil rights advocates. It's more that they don't really care."

Luke: "What's more important? Racial diversity or ideological diversity?"

Frank says racial balance. "I don't think there's a great deal of ideological diversity [at The LAT] either. At the end, I was one of the few conservatives on the staff.

"When I went downtown [to the Times headquarters on Spring Street] in 1967, I was the only person interested in covering the anti-war movement. That's why I got the Eugene McCarthy campaign post. I was the only one interested in police brutality stories.

"There's a lot of pack journalism. Reporters who say newspapermen are not liberals are protesting too much.

"[It's not enough] to simply have people who happen to be black or brown in skin color, because The Times had a whole succession of black reporters who never uttered a peep about racial issues. They were accepted as black reporters because they weren't strong in pursuing black ideals."

Luke: "What are black ideals?"

Frank: "By that I mean identification with the black community. When the black community was more concentrated in South-East LA, we had black reporters (Bill Drummond, Richardson), and Baquet now in Santa Monica... I wouldn't say Baquet is interested in the Black community. Sometimes Baquet takes what would be identified as a Black position. But he didn't get ahead that way. You could say at The New York Times that Howell Raines was more interested in the Black community than any of the black reporters (except for Earl Caldwell)."

Luke: "Frank seemed to be the Latino that The LA Times trotted out to all sorts of events."

Frank: "Yes. Not only was he personable and a good representative, but he wanted to do it.

"The same thing is true of Jewish reporters. A lot of Jews at The LA Times don't like to be thought of as Jewish. There's almost a self-hating Jew. Take Op/Ed page Editor Nick Goldberg. He's anxious to be right in the middle of the Arab-Israeli conflict. There are a lot of minority reporters who feel they've gotten ahead by not being strong advocates of their minority.

"I come from a situation like that in my family. My father [Herman Reich] was only the third Jew to make Admiral rank in the U.S. Navy. Rickover was the second. All three graduated from the [Annapolis] academy. My father was not a strong advocate of Judaism within the Navy. My son is in the Navy now.

"The Times had a lot of Jewish reporters. Mrs. Chandler was responsible for opening up links between the Protestant and Jewish communities in raising Westside money for downtown goals. When Otis Chandler became publisher, one of the ways it changed is that it opened up to the Jewish community. It was no coincidence that The Times had as political writers me, Bill Boyarsky, Carl Brainberg, Bob Shogun. We were all Jews.

"The Chandlers had a good attitude towards the Jewish community. Now, because of Israel, there are strains between the Jewish community and the downtown Times establishment.

"I'm not religious. The first congregation I joined was when my mother died last year. I liked the rabbi who presided over my mother's service. I've always been more politically Jewish than religiously Jewish."

Luke: "I go to a lot of journalist gatherings and one of the things often brought up about Frank del Olmo was that he wasn't any great shakes as a journalist?"

Frank won't comment about that on the record.

Frank: "I do believe that a good journalist can express opinions. I followed as a political writer a much different policy than my colleagues who would never discuss their political views. I'd respond to anybody who asked who I had voted for for president."

Frank's been a registered Republican for about the last 30 years (with the exception of three years when his daughter Cathy worked for Democratic senator Diane Feinstein).

"My father, grandfather and great-grandfather were always Republicans. In fact, my great-grandfather who came here from Romania in 1888, said within the family that Republicanism was synonymous with Americanism."

Luke: "What would be your guess about the percentage of Republicans among reporters and editors at The LA Times?"

Frank: "I'd guess it would be small.

"I don't think it would be a bad thing for the Republicans to exert a little control over public radio and television."

Luke: "Tony Castro writes on your blog that Frank del Olmo's significance lay not in breaking stories but in 'pressing Affirmative Action and diversity at the Times'."

Frank: "I don't disagree. A lot of the progress that The Times made on Latino questions was as much Frank Sotomayor's doing as Frank del Olmo's.

"Many of the more successful Latino writers do not work for The LA Times.

"Jack White worked for Time magazine on black affairs. I wanted to hire Jack White but Jack was entirely too outspoken for Bill Thomas's taste. That was not the type of minority reporter The LA Times wanted to hire. They wanted to hire people who seemed like carbon copies of the white reporters they had. You used the term, 'Wore good clothes.'

"Black columnist Sandy Banks was interested in everything but the black community. But she just looked good, which was one reason she advanced at The Times."

Our conversation wanders.

Frank: "To the extent that I admired Frank, it was because he did let people know where he stood, and as a result, he accomplished certain things. Was he a distinguished journalist? Well, I wasn't either. I empathized with him."

Luke: "Many of us feel uneasy about celebrating an ethnic activist at a general interest newspaper?"

Frank: "Remember that The Times for many years had over 1,000 editorial staff members. Having a few activists in that group is a good thing. It would've been good to have Jack White around the paper. He would've brought to the paper some empathy with the black community, which, for a long time, our black reporters didn't have."