The Los Angeles Times’ rise as, first, the engine of Southern California’s profound economic boom and, second, a world-class newspaper, is recounted by filmmaker Peter Jones as an unfolding tragedy in “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers & Their Times.” Jones has made this definitive look at the paper and the Chandler family with the encyclopedic gravitas of Ken Burns’ docs, directing slow-boiling anger at the notoriously private Chandler family, whose decisions drove a great newspaper into the ground. This uniquely American saga should stir the interest of specialized distribs and worldwide fests prior to Stateside PBS tube dates.
A considerable strength of this exceptionally resonant docu, made in association with Los Angeles’ PBS outlet KCET, is its broad appeal to a variety of viewers, from history buffs and journalism mavens to watchers of all things Los Angeles, and perhaps most of all to longtime SoCal residents who can recall when the Times mattered. Perhaps no major newspaper in American history has experienced such dramatic swings in reputation and quality, all due to the whims of the rather bizarre clan that owned it.
The Burns influence on Jones and co-director Mark Catalena (who also lensed and edited) is most evident in the early sections, which lay out the rough-and-tumble life and times of the paper’s founder, Harrison Gray Otis (whose choice quotes are voiced by Hal Holbrook), a Civil War vet who grabbed the chance to run a minor paper in sleepy Los Angeles and turn it into a tool for real estate boosterism. As historian Mike Davis observes, with the bullheaded Otis in charge and determined to form a city in his own image, Los Angeles “was unique as a monolithically planned and controlled” American city. Otis’ war with unions is told here with hair-raising detail and archival materials.
The central point is that the newspaper owner was in fact a visionary urban developer and epic capitalist, for whom the paper was a mere device for greater ends. Lacking a male heir, Otis groomed Harry Chandler, who sometimes colluded with wealthy downtown business interests. Some plans, such as expanding the transportation grid, were above-board; others, such as the infamous plot to con Owens Valley farmers out of their water (told here with Jerry Goldsmith’s “Chinatown” score on the soundtrack), were not.
So rich, complex and contentious is the Times saga that Jones and Catalena could have devoted an hour alone to the paper’s titanic political battle in 1934 against left-wing gubernatorial candidate and great American novelist Upton Sinclair. But that campaign is skimmed over in favor of a more general overview of the Chandler family as a bulwark of extreme right-wing politics, the sort that supported the anticommunist John Birch Society while also helping forge the career of Richard Nixon.
In a supreme irony, once Otis Chandler took charge in 1960 and directed the paper to drop its jingoistic, frankly dreadful writing in favor of classically mainstream American journalism, the Times’ investigative series on the Birchers — plus critical coverage of Nixon’s failed 1962 governor run — started a familial rift that was never healed.
Widening the rift was the family’s general dislike of publisher Norman Chandler’s wife, Dorothy (or “Buffy”), whom they deemed an outsider. The pic rightly credits Dorothy with forging the city’s first multiethnic coalition, in which she wed old Anglo money Downtown and in Pasadena with the Westside Jewish community to help fund the Music Center.
The film is especially good at getting Chandler family members on the record about these and other subjects for the first time, including both of Otis’ wives and Tad Williamson, allied with the Chandlers’ right wing. Former L.A. Weekly writer and longtime Los Angeles watcher Ruben Martinez is one of the film’s several smart talking heads, tracing the Times’ history of openly racist commentaries and its editorial policies of ignoring minority groups.
Despite the presence onscreen of key Times figures such as former publisher Tom Johnson, editor Bill Thomas and Times Mirror exec Peter Fernald (as well as former Times reporter, author and Times chronicler Dennis McDougal), nobody can get to the bottom of what led Otis Chandler to his inexplicable retreat and surrender of control of the paper in the 1980s.
The dread that an era was ending is something “Inventing L.A.” grasps at its core. But some explanation of the family’s poor business decisions — such as overthrowing management that had turned Times Mirror Corp. into a money machine and made the paper among the country’s best, and finally selling Times Mirror to Tribune Corp. — would have buttressed the film’s themes. The effect onscreen is like that of watching a slow-motion train wreck without ever understanding what was going through the engineer’s mind.
Closing, bitter minutes ask how a family that virtually created the city could allow the paper that defined that city to crumble — a question that seems even weightier given American journalism’s current crisis. Interview segments and archival selections are absolutely aces, as is Liev Schreiber’s narration.
(Robert Koehler contributed to the Los Angeles Times’ arts coverage in the 1980s and 1990s.)