The Republican and Ultra Conservative Roots of the Los Angeles Times
To Harrison Gray Otis (1837-1917), Democrats weren’t the opposition but “hags, harlots and pollutants.” Members of organized labor were “skunks, pinheads, gas-pipe ruffians, rowdies, anarchists and deadbeats.” Elections weren’t routine political events in a democracy but apocalyptic choices between the forces of good and evil. He saw his growing list of enemies as more ink for his poison pen, resulting in more readers of his newspaper.
Otis’ first bully pulpit, the Santa Barbara Press, was a financial failure. In 1882, he bought a one-quarter interest in the new Los Angeles Daily Times. In 1883, Otis and entrepreneur H. H. Boyce became co-owners of the Times, now grown to eight pages, and formed the Times Mirror Company. Otis set about transforming the newspaper. As John Weaver writes in Los Angeles: The Enormous Village: “He dropped ‘Daily’ from the Times masthead, ordered up livelier headlines, doubled the telegraphic news coverage, made room for letters to the editor and added a column, ‘Political Points’ which collected editorial barbs aimed at Democrats by other Republican journals.”
“When you worked for the Times in those days,” Louis Sherwin later remembered, “you were not reporting for a newspaper; you were embattled for a Cause.” Otis took pride in his growing reputation as the most aggressive and unyielding foe of organized labor in America. He founded the Merchants and Manufacturers (M&M) Association—a league of local businesses created to keep the unions out. He rallied the M&M membership with his cry: “We say to capital: Here you can invest in safety! Don’t hover between the lines or I will count you as the enemy! Decide!”
As George E. Mowry writes in The California Progressives: “It is possible that no man in all the United States hated organized labor more, and it is certain that few did more to obstruct its advance.” For years, the Page 1 banner of the Times included the phrase, “True Industrial Freedom,” while editorials and news stories reflected Otis’ uncompromising opposition to the union shop. As John Weaver notes, labor leaders called Los Angeles “Otistown” because it was “the country’s most impregnable open shop fortress.” The burgeoning circulation of William Randolph Hearst’s pro-union Los Angeles Examiner reflected the growing anti-Otis constituency and explained in part how Los Angeles could simultaneously be the national headquarters for arch-conservative capitalism and a crucible for socialist politics.
In 1907, the American Federation of Labor levied a penny-a-month assessment on its membership to create a war chest dedicated exclusively to fighting Otis. On the national level, prominent citizens were declaring that Otis was an enemy of democracy and progress. No voice was louder or drew more applause than that of Theodore Roosevelt, when he wrote on 17 June 1911 in The California Outlook magazine:
[Otis is] a consistent enemy of every movement of social and economic betterment – just as he has shown himself the consistent enemy of men in California who have dared resolutely to stand against corruption and in favor of honesty… The attitude of General Otis in his paper affords a curious instance of the anarchy of soul which comes to a man who, in conscienceless fashion, deifies property at the expense of human rights… It may be quite true that the Los Angeles Times has again and again shown itself to be as much an enemy of good citizenship, of honest and decent government, and of every effective effort to secure fair play for working men and women, as any anarchist sheet could show itself to be.