Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Making of Los Angeles, Part Two: "The LA Times and the legacy of Harrison G. Otis"

Besides the need for a dependable water supply to maintain farmers (cited in part one of this blog), Los Angeles needed a unifying entity to promote herself to America as a place to move to and raise a family or a business. At the turn of the 20th century, a community leadership emerged to bring Los Angeles in the direction of a pro-business, anti-progressive community where union organizers and reform-minded "muckrakers" would not be made to feel the least bit welcome. That leadership was head by Harrison Grey Otis (1837--1917), the publisher of "The Los Angeles Times".

Otis was a classic reactionary business tycoon, a man who excelled as an officer in the American Civil War as a young man. He took what he learned from his military service--absolute loyalty without question, a rigid hierarchy, and a love of weapons and a hostile attitude to all dissent and took off for the West Coast to build a new empire for himself in the 1870's.

(to right--a statue of H.G. Otis as it stands today in MacArthur Park in Los Angeles. Otis donated the land for the park to the city after his death.  Note the statue of a newsboy in the background.)

Los Angeles then was an isolated farm and retirement area, lacking even a major seaport when Otis arrived. He soon bought out "The Los Angeles Times" from his joint owners. He immediately set about destroying the small printers union that represented the workers in that department and then declared war on all other unions in the city. When he took control of the newspaper he began sending out special editions of the paper back to the middle west and eastern United States, advertising Los Angeles as a suitable place to relocate. The emphasis was on encouraging middle-class and conservative Republican settlers from areas such as Otis's native Ohio.  Color was also an issue with "the General".   He wanted his city free from "colored" emigrants and advertised LA as the "white spot" of California (as opposed to more diverse and worse, the heavily unionized city of San Francisco 370 miles to the north.)

Otis was also part of the San Fernando Syndicate, the group that bamboozled city residents into incorporating the San Fernando  Valley into Los Angeles proper in order to get the water the "public" Syndicate had brought desperately-needed water  down from the Owens Valley.     

Thanks to the greater dissemination of publicity about the fair climate and the improvements in automobile roads and train travel to the West Coast, southern California boomed at the turn of the century from a city of about  50,000 in the 1880's to close to 400,000 thousand by 1920, surpassing San Francisco as the largest metropolis on the West Coast.  Until his death three years before this milestone, Harrison Grey Otis was the prime mover who held  sway over America's newest city.

Not all went entirely Otis's way, however.  William Randolph Hearst, a major newspaper publisher and one of the founders of the "Yellow Journalism" school of hyperbolic headlines and militaristic propaganda in American media, decided to start his own newspaper in Los Angeles in 1908.  But Hearst, despite an effort to woo pro-union voters to his publication, eventually abandoned the efforts to create a serious rival to "The Times". According the Walton Bean in his book "California: An Interpretive History", part of Hearst's problems was that ordinary workers saw through his efforts to woo them as little more than a cynical effort by "The Chief" to catapult him into some high office where he could use demagoguery to reach his real goal--the Presidency.

This from a recent PBS documentary, "Inventing LA." 


And then there was the galvanizing incident of the bombing of "The Times" in 1910.  This event, and the subsequent trail of two pro-unionists who were apparently acting of their own volition, further decimated the hopes that Los Angeles would embrace the budding American union movements  that strengthened progressive causes in San Francisco and Chicago. 

for more about the 1910, bombing--this from The University of Southern California website:

On October 1, 1910, in the middle of a strike called to unionize the metal trades of the city, the Times building was dynamited. The south wall facing Broadway Street collapsed, causing the second floor to also collapse underthe weight of its machines onto the first floor. The first floor then collapsed into the basement, destroying the heating plant and gas mains. The building, with many of its workers trapped inside, was soon an inferno. There was a loss of life of at least 20, and about the same number were injured, some of them permanently.

In an unusual move the mayor hired a private investigator who was able to implicate a number of men in the bombing. These included Ortie McManigal, James B. McNamara, and his brother John J. McNamara (secretary-treasurer of the International Union of Bridge and Structural Iron Workers). McManigal agreed to testify against the McNamara brothers.

Organized labor, in turn, saw this as an all-out attack on the unions and labor in general. Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor, hired Clarence Darrow to defend the brothers. Darrow called them "pawns in a vast industrial war."

By the time the trial began, however, Darrow had come to the conclusion that the brothers were guilty. Rather than fighting a hopeless battle, he persuaded the brothers to plead guilty.That decision stunned the city and inferiorated the Gompers.

James McNamara got a life sentence, while his brother received a sentence of 15 years. Two others, David Caplan and Matt A. Schmidt, were later implicated and received life sentences. The damage from the trial was to plague Clarence Darrow for the rest of his life.

Even today, thanks to the aftermath of the McNamara trials and the mania Otis had before and after against organized labor, Los Angeles remains a tougher city for unions than any metropolis outside the Deep South. 

 For many years after General Otis' death, no pro-union or Democratic Party candidates for office were even mentioned in this, the  major newspaper of the largest city in California. By the 1950s, The Los Angeles Times was considered a joke as far as its editorial policy.   "Time" magazine named it one of the two worst newspapers in the nation. It was only reformed in the early 1960's when a new scion of the Otis-Chandler family, Otis Chandler, broke with reactionary tradition and made the main family business a serious publication at last.  

Today "The Los Angeles Times" is no longer owned by the Chandlers.  It is up for sale by Sam Zells' multi-billion dollar Tribune media empire. Today the paper suffers not from political turmoil, but from the loss of high profitability in the wake of computer technology.  But in a vast city like Los Angeles, where all other major region-wide competitors are gone, "The Times" is the last of a breed of entity that began southern California as a empire within an empire.                


  1. More from the PBS special on HG Otis and the Chandler Dynasty:

  2. Doug Just popped in. I`ll need to come back to read the whole thing.

  3. Look forward to any comments, questions or complaints, Jeff :-)

  4. I need to come back and read this Doug as this is interesting as always...

  5. Another fascinating chapter in the municipal history of Los Angeles Doug, very interesting. The Times bombing sounds a bit suspect to me. The importance of media ownership to syndicated corporatism cannot be overstated it seems.

    The differing political climates between San Francisco and Los Angeles are also very interesting, it makes SF seem like old America and LA like new America to me....the difference between an 'organic' community and an artificially transplanted one. Thanks for the latest episode in this series Doug, I wasn't previously aware of many of the issues you have covered in these blogs.

  6. The Times bombing was a disaster for union activity in Los Angeles and other parts of America, AA. If the McNamara brothers did indeed commit the deed on behalf of some labor cause--and I'm not as up on the case as I could be--it couldn't have suited Harrison Otis better.

    You hit on a important contrast between the cities---San Francisco was a metropolitan area long before Los Angeles--around 1860 it was a major city when Los Angeles was still a town. This is important because labor activity for shorter hours and better rights for sailors and longshoremen were well developed before banking and other corporate interest became nationwide. By 1915, San Francisco's Union political party had started to overcome civic corruption and establish it as a "closed shop" city for most labor trades in the city. It was a hard-fought and never won battle, of course, and the 1933 Labor Strike on the San Francisco Waterfront was one of the bloodiest episodes in West Coast Labor history.

    But compared to L.A., "Frisco"--the former gold rush boom town-- was indeed an 'organic community' of urban development where a small clique of corrupt bosses like Otis and his co-horts would have faced a mature union power structure that had been growing and winning rights by strikes and political activity since the American Civil War.

  7. This is all new to me and yet very interesting Doug I would have never known this as I literally have never heard of them before but it's truly very interesting...

  8. It's remarkable to me, Jack, how much the social history of Los Angeles--which I find fascinating in how media and big money manipulates the face of the modern world--is so obscure even in this country. This anti-union strong-arming, racism and the political and police corruption in Los Angeles was all covered with a veneer of respectability by "The Times". One of the great cities of America was ill-served by its "free press" for over half a century.

    It wasn't until the 1960's--with the ugly 1965 Watts Riots and other acts of civil unrest--that the ugly side of the power structure began to change for the better.