LA Times' Nick Goldberg talks Times, New York, LA, and Civic Leadership in the Age of Trump

Our founder, Donna Bojarsky, sat down with Nick Goldberg of the LA Times, to discuss the incredibly popular and controversial editorial series “Our Dishonest President”, the role of a large city newspaper in shaping civic leadership, and why the East Coast may finally be warming up to California leadership in the age of Trump. 


What was the trigger for the series and why? How did it evolve?

Well, like every other newspaper editorial page in the country we’ve been writing about Trump non-stop. We started writing about him at the beginning of the campaign and we wrote a very negative piece about him early on saying he was unfit to be President and we were scathing about him when we endorsed Hillary.  

After the election, we were still writing day in and day out about him, but we were writing mostly one-offs, in which we would respond to an executive order, or to a cabinet appointment or to a particular tweet. At some point we just said, we have to pull this together, we have to write a big coherent overview, connecting the dots, about what we think about this bizarre new president, because people out there seem to want to hear it. And they did.


Did you want the whole to be bigger than the sum of the parts?

Yes, exactly. Well, you know, we wanted to pull it together and sort of explain to ourselves and to our readers, what it was we were seeing in Trump, and why it was that we were so upset and disturbed and frightened by this guy. What was it about him that was different from other Republican presidents, and from other people with whom we disagreed on policy issues.


Did you set out to make this a national statement that was going to pierce? Or did you just know that this was something that you needed to do? Did you have a sense, and were you surprised by the reaction that you got?

It certainly struck a chord. It went completely viral. I think it is fair to say that we were surprised by how far it went. I mean it went all across the country, it went all across the world. We usually consider it very good if an editorial gets 50,000 or 100,000 clicks. But the first piece in this six-part piece got 4.5 million page views. So that was enormous. And that means it went to all sorts of places geographically, it went to red states, it went to blue states, it was read by people who agreed with us, and by people who didn’t agree with us, and it started a big national conversation.


What was your favorite comment or reaction both negative and positive?

I don’t have anything specific – I mean, the positive comments were mostly in the vein of, thank you so much for doing this; it was so bold, and brave, and courageous -- which I thought was kind of funny, because this is what we do, and it didn’t strike me as courageous, but I was pleased that people felt that way.

And the negative comments which stuck with me were the ones that said, this is unfair, you’re not giving this guy a chance. He’s only been president for 70-some days and you’re already ripping him down and saying that he can’t possibly succeed.  We had a lot of negative comments and a lot of the negative comments were just nasty or silly. But that particular comment -- that we were rushing to judgement -- had some effect on me.


Do you see doing this more? Or other sort of out of formula editorial presentations?

Well, it certainly whetted our appetite to do more big projects. This series got far more attention than anything we’ve ever done, so sure, we’d be happy to repeat that -- as long as we can do it without having to sacrifice the quality of what we do. We’ve always know that when we focus our resources and take on a subject in a big way and really do a lot of reporting and present it in a multi-part series, that we can have a large impact.


Do you feel like you have a responsibility to be a bigger voice because you are at one of the best newspapers in the country with one of the largest constituencies in one of the largest cities?

I think all of us who are writing for newspapers about national affairs and state affairs and local affairs have a responsibility to do a good job and to participate and lead the discussions that are going on, and to try to help readers understand the complex public policy issues that face them.

But of course, I feel pleased and proud to be working for a great city paper in a big city with millions and millions of people of all races and ages and incomes and ethnicities, all with strong political opinions. Los Angeles is a fabulous city to be based in as a journalist.

And even though the LA Times has suffered as other papers have during the downturn in the newspaper industry, we still have a lot of resources, we still have a big editorial board, we still are capable of commenting on national issues and on foreign issues, as well as on local issues. And we do feel a responsibility to be a part of that discussion as much as we possibly can. 


We come from a very blue city, and it would have been a bigger surprise if the LA Times came out with a six-part story heralding Donald Trump’s actions. Is it the job of an editorial to reflect public opinion, to be neutral, or to lead it?

That’s a really interesting question. I don’t think it is our job to reflect public opinion in the city – I don’t think we see ourselves as the voice of Los Angeles speaking out to the rest of the world. And often we take positions that are unpopular with our readers and with people in Los Angeles. That said, this is a blue city in a blue state, and we are a liberal editorial page.

I think it would be odd to have a very conservative newspaper editorial page in a city that was very liberal. We would be constantly at odds with our readers and that would be awkward and uncomfortable and likely would not be good for business. But that’s not why we take the positions we do. We take the positions that we do because that’s what our editorial board believes and we try to call them as we see them.


Editorials have always been a bizarre sort of thing – they are very important, but mostly because of who reads them and not because of the numbers. Do you think they will last or do you think they might be in jeopardy because people don’t realize the importance that they do have?

I think there are a lot of questions around editorial boards, especially among readers. What is an editorial board? Who writes these editorials? Why aren’t they signed? Whose opinion do they reflect? Is this supposed to be the opinion of the publisher of the paper, or the owner of the paper, or the reporters who work at the paper, or the people who sit on the editorial board or the editorial page editor, or of the city? A lot of people don’t really know the answers to those questions – and there have been media critics over the years who have said oh, it’s time to get rid of editorial pages, they are anachronistic, they come from the past, they don’t reflect anything meaningful.

I personally do think they serve a purpose and I think this particular series on Donald Trump, which broke out and in the end reached more than 6 million people, really proves that. Many readers have been coming up to me to say, thank you so much for publishing

that, it was so helpful and so useful. I think that’s a great reminder of the value of an editorial page. I think what we wrote had a power because it was backed by the institution of the Los Angeles Times, and that it wouldn’t have had that power if it were written as an Op-Ed or one person’s opinion. 


What is most important about editorials? Why can’t we lose them?

The vast portion of what appears in the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and the Washington Post is news reporting. And news reporting is supposed to be objective. Reporters are expected to put their biases to the side and interview people on all sides of an issue and present their points of view as fairly and as objectively as possible so that readers can draw their own conclusions. The editorial page is different. It’s one of the only places in the paper where we express opinions. In effect, we say to the readers, ok, so you’ve read our news stories and you can draw your own conclusions, but here are the conclusions that we draw.

I think that it’s great to give people the facts. But it is also valuable to help them figure out who is right or wrong and what moral judgement or what opinions they should have on those facts. Now, where do we have the most impact, a paper like the LA times? Well, we can write about Donald Trump, but we are one of hundreds and hundreds of papers that are doing so. And although this particular series got through and was read in the White House and elsewhere, the reality is that the strongest impact that we, or any editorial page, can have is much closer to home.

The LA Times puts a tremendous amount of time and effort and serious consideration into our local election endorsements. We’ve always put a lot of time and effort into our endorsements. When we endorse in a judicial race, in a city council race, or in a school board race, we’re putting the time in that frankly, most voters don’t have to put in themselves.  

When I go vote, I always see people I know at the polling place and I am always curious whether they have looked at the LA Times, whether they brought the LA Times with them, and if so, whether they have it on their phone or ripped out from the paper.

Huge numbers of people in local races rely on us to sift through to talk to all the candidates. We recently had a congressional race in the 34th district that had more than 20 candidates. We brought them all in and talked to all of them.

And another thing about an editorial page is that people may or may not agree with our politics, but I think they understand that we don’t come to this with a special interest or with a stake in the game or with something to gain or lose from either side – we are doing our best to sift through the facts and come to rational conclusions.

I wasn’t here [during the time that the Chandler family owned the paper], but I would argue that things have changed a lot. The Chandler family had a lot of business in the city of LA and in the early days they saw their editorial pages and even their news pages, as I understand it, as a way to push those interests forward. That is certainly not the case these days.


Do you feel an obligation to the city that you represent? How much does a city paper and editorial page owe to its own city?

I’m not sure it’s the obligation of a city’s paper to be a booster for the city or to swoon over the city or to pretend that things are great when they’re not. I don’t think it is the job of a newspaper to be a thoughtless booster. But I do think it is the job of an editorial page and of the paper generally to help people who live in a city to understand their city, understand what the issues are that face residents, what the problems are that some citizens might see and others don’t see, to explain what is going on at City Hall and in the state capital.

There are complicated issues that face Los Angeles day in and day out, and people don’t have many ways of finding out about them, except through the local newspaper. So, it’s our job to explain it to them, to make sure they understand the facts, and -- on the editorial page -- to help them reach conclusions about how to think about those things.


There is a way of being lively about engaging people, of working to get people engaged and to care, is there an obligation to encourage people to care about where they live?

I think that in everything we do, we encourage people to care about the city that they live in. To care about Los Angeles, to care about California, to feel a part of it, to participate in it, to be civically active, to vote, to do all the things that well informed and moral citizens do. 

Again, I don’t think it is our job to be urging people on or to be rah-rah, but I think that by being participants in the city and by bringing the issues that affect the people in the city to the attention of people who live in the city, that I hope is the effect that we have. 


We have a notoriously weak civic culture in Los Angeles. How does that affect a paper one way or another?

Well, of course it’s better for a newspaper and its better for the residents of a city if people are engaged with their city and actively working to solve its problems. If there is a wide-ranging discussion of the city and its needs -- and if rich people are donating money to make the city better -- those are obviously good things.

But I should also say this: I may live in a rarefied world, but because of what I do, I spend a tremendous amount of time with people who care very much about Los Angeles. And who are very engaged in the city, and when I go to dinner, they want to talk about Measure M and they want to talk about Measure S, and they want to know why did we rescind this endorsement, or why did we take that position. So, I work with and come across a lot of people who care very much about the city and work very hard to make Los Angeles a better place. And some of them are people who are professionally engaged and make their living by doing stuff in the city, but others are just people who care.


Why is LA still snubbed by eastern elites?

Well, I think the East Coast has a love-hate relationship with California. When I moved out here, I heard all the usual rumors: That I would never meet another smart person or have another interesting conversation for the rest of my existence. I heard that LA was a soulless city, a city with no center, where no one ever got out of his car, where there was no civic engagement because there was no civic connection because people didn’t talk to each other -- all they did was look at each other through their car windows. I heard all those things. But that’s utterly untrue and I haven’t found it to be the case at all. I have a huge collection of very interesting smart, fun and funny friends and acquaintances.

And besides, I also think that on another level, that the East Coast respects California and understands that in the age of Trump, California is a leader. I think New York looks to California as a place that will lead the fight against those Trumpian values that are anathema to us here. California will fight back on climate change issues, on pollution issues and civil rights issues and immigration issues and I think there is great respect for California in that sense on the East Coast.


Without a strong civic culture, when times get tough for anyone, who will rally around?

These have been difficult days for newspapers generally, and the LA Times has gone through a number of different owners and a number of different publishers and a number of different editors. It has been a difficult 15 years for the paper.

I have been struck however, that while there are plenty of people who love the LA Times and who are distraught when they see the LA Times going through a difficult period, it’s not like it was in New York when newspapers there were in trouble. I remember when the New York Post was on the verge of going out of business, and the governor stepped forward and said he was going to help find a buyer for the Post. And that wasn’t even the NY Times – it was the NY Post, which had been criticizing Governor Cuomo constantly. And despite that, he wanted to save it. So yeah, I guess there is less of that spirit in LA. It’s hard for me to fully know, since I’m not on the inside of some of the discussions about who is going to buy the LA Times or whether there are philanthropists who will swoop in and save the paper. That’s not really my concern. My concern is to put out the best possible editorial page.


What other examples of cultural differences do you see between the two cities?

I think that the East Coast has a love-hate relationship with us, but I also think that Angelenos have a love-hate relationship with themselves. When you’re in New York, people who live in New York think they live in the greatest city in the world. Everything about their city is the greatest, in their view. Their opera is the greatest opera in the world, their newspaper is the greatest newspaper in the world, the Met is the greatest museum in the world, Central Park is the greatest park in the world.

In Los Angeles, people are much more insecure about such things. They are proud of their city, they love their city, but they’re not sure how to defend it to others or to themselves. I think that is unfortunate, because this is a great city, a wonderful city to live in, a beautiful city in many ways.


Do you think the LA River will ever be that way for LA?

I hope so. I ride my bike up and down the bike path along the river, which I love, and I always think how the river could be so great and could be such a fabulous, central part of the city. I feel the same way when I walk around the empty reservoir in Silverlake, and I feel the same way in Griffith Park. It could all be even better than it is. But we also have a terrible homelessness problem at the moment, we have an affordable housing crisis, we have schools that are underperforming -- and you can’t spend all your money fixing the Silverlake Reservoir. You need private funding for that as well.

That was one of the big debates that we had on the editorial pages a few years ago. Michael Goven, the director of LACMA, came to us and said I need to rebuild two buildings on the museum campus and I want $150 million from the county. And the LA Times really had to wrestle with whether it made sense for the county to give $150 million to fix up the county museum when we also had a homelessness crisis of the magnitude we have, and many other issues. We ultimately editorialized that the county should give that money, but we recognize that there are a lot of competing needs in this city.


Is there a role for the paper to help people understand where the stumbling blocks are to projects like the LA River, projects that could help Los Angeles become a world class city?

Yes, and we do write about projects like that all the time. LA is a very dispersed community; there are 88 cities in the county, and covering LA City Hall is only a small tiny piece of what you have to do to cover the area. It’s also a very complicated place for people to understand it. So yes, I think that bringing the disparate parts of the city and the county together is a very important part of what we do. Explaining to people who live in one part of LA what it means to live in another part of LA – we try to do all of those things.

In the newspaper business, it is supposedly a big deal to be a reporter covering City Hall. But truthfully, many papers don’t put enough focus on local issues. I grew up in New York, and the NY Times – the hometown paper -- was entirely focused on national and foreign news and offered little local coverage. No one knew who their Assemblyman or State Senator was any more than they do here in Los Angeles. When I was growing up in New York, the NY Times didn’t do great local coverage, and although it got better for a while, they’ve now thinned it down again. They now have very few reporters in Albany and other papers have very few reporters there, as is the case in Sacramento. Yes, there is a civic culture in New York of philanthropists who want to give to the Metropolitan museum and to Lincoln Center. But it’s not fair to suggest that New Yorkers care more about local politics more or care more than we do in Los Angeles.