LA Times Guild Says Top Editor Norman Pearlstine Verbally Harassed Reporter, Dismissed Concerns of ‘Ethical Lapses’ (Exclusive)

In a letter to management obtained by TheWrap, the guild protested “an environment of hostility, intimidation and harassment”

Last Updated: July 24, 2020 @ 6:59 PM

The guild representing Los Angeles Times journalists has accused executive editor Norman Pearlstine of verbally harassing and retaliating against a reporter, being “hostile and dismissive” in response to “concerns about ethical lapses” and “pointedly” interrogating a guild member whom he incorrectly believed had delivered an anonymous letter detailing concerns about newsroom management to owner Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong’s office.

In a scathing letter sent to management on Monday and obtained by TheWrap, the Media Guild of the West — which represents journalists at the Times — said it was protesting “an environment of hostility, intimidation and harassment that has intensified at the Los Angeles Times during the past 18 months” and demanded that the Times transparently “rectify any ethical lapses.” The letter, signed by nine members of the guild’s executive committee, included a non-exhaustive list of four instances of “potential misconduct, mistreatment or ethical breaches” that it said members had previously reported:

  • The executive editor berated and verbally harassed a respected investigative reporter by, among other means, using graphic and vulgar language in response to questions about potential ethical breaches. The executive editor subsequently killed follow-up stories to a recent front-page investigation by that reporter, with no reasonable explanation offered.
  • Staff in our Food Department have spoken publicly and internally of a culture of fear and a “hostile and inhospitable work environment” and a pervasive reluctance to bring complaints forward.
  • A sports reporter who shared concerns about ethical lapses was met with a hostile and dismissive response by the executive editor during a meeting with other masthead editors present.
  • The executive editor pointedly interrogated a Guild member, erroneously believing the person had delivered an anonymous letter to [Soon-Shiong’s] corporate headquarters that related concerns. The executive editor refused to believe the person’s denials of involvement, and invoked the existence of security footage to support his mistaken and threatening line of inquiry.

The accusations of potential misconduct come as Pearlstine and Times leaders have faced mounting pressure from Times staffers over their management of the paper. In late June, the Black Caucus of the guild launched a social media campaign and sent a letter to Soon-Shiong, Pearlstine and Managing Editors Kimi Yoshino and Scott Kraft to speak out about pay disparities and the lack of retention and recruitment of Black journalists. Earlier this week, the Latino Caucus of the guild also created a similar social media campaign and sent a letter to those same leaders, calling for changes concerning the paper’s coverage of Latino communities and the underrepresentation of Latino journalists on staff.

In its letter, the guild also demanded a “full investigation” into a potential ethical breach involving payment for a newsroom party in a suite at the Santa Anita racetrack.

As previously reported by Vice News, the paper’s sports section hosted a lavish all-day party at the racetrack in 2018 with food, alcohol and servers. But Times staffers began raising concerns when it became unclear how much, exactly, the paper had paid to host the party. In an interview with Vice, Angel Rodriguez — the former sports editor who has since been promoted to assistant managing editor of the news desk — said he became sick and didn’t end up attending the party, which led to confusion over who was responsible to pay the bill after the party was over.

But Rodriguez said that one of his deputy editors paid $200 and an administrative assistant paid either $100 or $200 to cover the cost of the party. After hearing of the unusually low cost for a gathering involving a private suite and alcohol, Times staffers began questioning whether the party was comped or discounted by the racetrack, which would constitute a breach of ethics, given that the racetrack is the subject of continued coverage by the Times.

Rodriguez denied that this was the case, but the concerns from staff only grew after Pearlstine disclosed to Vice that there was a “contribution made to a charity that deals with employees at Santa Anita.” While Rodriguez estimated that it was a $1,000 contribution to a Santa Anita charity supporting former horse jockeys, Pearlstine declined to discuss the matter further, telling Vice, “It’s a level of day to day business that I’m not going to be discussing.”

“A suite with free food and alcohol for Times employees and their spouses would cost far more than the $200 paid on the day of an event and the $100 to $200 subsequently paid to the racetrack. The executive editor’s explanation that a charity donation was made after-the-fact does little to cure an unpaid bill,” the guild’s letter said. “Our members across multiple sections — including Metro, Photo, Sports and Opinion — have strived to cover the Santa Anita racetrack with integrity. Instead, the company has unwittingly tainted them. … Until that is rectified and given a full accounting, our members are compromised.”

The guild then asked that there be further investigations into Pearlstine’s reporting on Huawei and complaints made against former deputy managing editor Colin Crawford, who retired from the paper last year a month after an internal investigation looked into accusations dating back to the ’90s that he inappropriately touched female staffers and created an abusive, toxic work environment, as reported in that same Vice investigation. (Crawford has denied the accusations; a spokesperson for the paper declined to comment to Vice on the findings of its recent investigation but said that when the accusations were first made in the early ’90s, the paper’s HR department had investigated the accounts.)

“It has reached the point where our members — your newsroom employees — are reluctant to report potential misconduct, mistreatment or ethical breaches. The experiences of colleagues have led them to fear retaliation and dismissal of their concerns,” the letter said. “The pattern of antagonism toward those who raise allegations of ethical breaches and other internal concerns threatens the integrity of the Los Angeles Times and poses ongoing harm toward current employees.”

When reached by TheWrap, a spokesperson for the Times did not have a comment on the guild’s letter.