Los Angeles Times columnist Robert Scheer was fired on November 11 after nearly 30 years at the paper, the last 13 as one of its most progressive political columnists.
In a published statement announcing op-ed page changes (11/10/05), the Times insisted that it is dedicated to "provid[ing] readers with a wide range of voices and perspectives," but in dumping Scheer, the paper has gotten rid of one of the few prominent progressive columnists in the country.
Scheer's forceful and independent commentary has often placed him in the middle of national debates. He has been one of the strongest critics of the White House over the Iraq War. For instance, in a pre-war column (8/6/02) that undercuts the current notion that everyone got the WMD story wrong, Scheer wrote that “a consensus of experts” told the Senate that Iraq’s chemical and biological arsenals were “almost totally destroyed during eight years of inspections.” Shortly after George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech, and well ahead of the pack, Scheer (6/3/03) called White House pretexts for war a “big lie.”
Scheer was also one of the first columnists to call for withdrawal from Iraq, in a November 4, 2003 column that presaged shifting public opinion on the issue--though his position is still hard to find among his fellow pundits. More than 1,700 U.S. soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqis have died since Scheer’s call for withdrawal was published.
In 1999, with a Democrat in the White House, Scheer used his column to expose the racism and unfairness driving the government's (and media's) case against Wen Ho Lee, a Chinese-American scientist wrongly accused of spying. And when a federal court struck the words “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance in 2002, Scheer was one of the rare media figures who bucked the Republican/Democratic consensus by strongly defending the court's decision (See Extra! Update, 8/02.)
The Times has suggested that Scheer's firing was simply part of a larger revamping of its opinion pages, but Scheer says he was fired for ideological reasons and because the Times' corporate parent, Tribune Company of Chicago, was caving in to outside pressure from conservatives. As Scheer told Democracy Now! (11/14/05), "What happened is that I had been the subject of vicious attacks by Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh.... I was a punching bag for those guys. I'm still standing, and the people who run the paper collapsed."
In the same appearance, Scheer also blamed Times publisher Jeff Johnson: "The big issue here, I think, is that the publisher took over the editorial pages, a guy named Jeff Johnson. He's an accountant from Chicago, doesn't know anything about what newspapers are supposed to be about, and he made a decision to get rid of the column."
In an email to supporters on the day he was fired, Scheer suggested that Johnson disliked his views: "The publisher Jeff Johnson, who has offered not a word of explanation to me, has privately told people that he hated every word that I wrote. I assume that mostly refers to my exposing the lies used by President Bush to justify the invasion of Iraq."
Whether or not ideology was behind Scheer’s dismissal, the timing is peculiar. The action removed one of the strongest critics of the Iraq War in a week when the White House lashed out at detractors, following months of public opinion drawing closer to the views of critics like Scheer.
It’s not as if the Los Angeles Times has a surplus of progressive columnists. Of the ten columnists in the Times’ new line-up, three are conservative movement favorites--National Review Online's Jonah Goldberg will soon join the Weekly Standard's Max Boot and the Hoover Institution's Niall Ferguson--and two are relatively less known progressives, Rosa Brooks and Erin Aubrey Kaplan. While the Times should be applauded for bringing new diversity to its op-ed page by hiring the two progressive women—Brooks, a law professor, was hired last June and Kaplan, an African-American writer formerly at LA Weekly, was added in the recent shake-up--it's puzzling that the paper would fire its most prominent progressive columnist at such a crucial time.
ACTION: If you are a reader of Robert Scheer's column and would like to comment on his dismissal, please contact Los Angeles Times Publisher Jeff Johnson.
Jeff Johnson, Publisher
Los Angeles Times