Correspondents for The New York Times in Los Angeles and Chicago discuss how baseball and journalism have combined to bring out a rivalry between the two cities. Contributing to this conversation were Adam Nagourney, the Los Angeles bureau chief; Monica Davey, the Chicago bureau chief; Jennifer Medina, a Los Angeles correspondent; and Mitch Smith, a Chicago correspondent.
NAGOURNEY: Forget the National League playoff between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Chicago Cubs. We awoke today to an even fiercer battle between these two cities, with a storm of insults — about corruption, crime, smog and cocaine — that suggests the birth of a new great urban rivalry.
As with most great city feuds, this one started with sports. And it was played out (at least until Twitter inevitably took over) in the columns of two newspapers. Except in this case, the two newspapers — The Los Angeles Times and The Chicago Tribune — are owned by the same company.
“It’s Cubs vs. LA, city of smog and failure,” said the opening-shot headline in a Tribune column by Rex Huppke. Huppke went on to talk about, among other things, the “the urine-soaked streets of the Dodgers’ home city.”
It wasn’t long before Steve Lopez, a star columnist at The Times, weighed in. “My guess is that on the day the LA put-down was written, there were fewer than a half-dozen public officials indicted and no blizzards in Chicago, so it was a slow news day,” he wrote.
It got even fiercer when The Times promoted his column in a tweet. “Hey, @chicagotribune: Fewer than 15 murders that day — slow news day?” Yikes. After Twitter backlash from Chicagoans who find no humor in the more than 530 murders that have rocked the city this year, The Times apologized and deleted the initial tweet.
OK, a few thoughts here. First, big-city feuds carried by newspaper columnists are hardly new. But what struck me — as a veteran of the great tabloid newspapers wars in New York City — was that the attacks on both sides seemed a little obvious. I mean, smog in Los Angeles? Corruption in Chicago? Stop the presses, or whatever it is we say these days.
DAVEY: No doubt of that, Adam. These weren’t the newest barbs. In fact, any of them might have been tossed around a few decades ago on both sides. Chicago has a few other food items these days beyond deep dish. (Which is really good, by the way.) Maybe there’s a reason these dated insults work, though. It’s easier, safer, to focus on old, washed-up stereotypes in these sorts of supposed feuds. Poking fun at Chicago’s painful violence didn’t go over well because it’s all too real and raw and current. We’ve lost more than 530 people here just this year, and no one in Chicago is ready to laugh about it. Or compare it to smog or espresso makers. Is there something comparable in LA?
NAGOURNEY: Poking fun at the murders in Chicago to me is one of those things that I suppose in theory is defensible — but really isn’t. I would never do it. I’ll point out that Lopez seems to have steered away from the murder issue. The Times did it in a tweet — which it deleted and apologized for. Rightly so.
We have made a point in covering Los Angeles, as I know you have in Chicago, not to sort of resort to the kind of facile cliché stereotypes of Southern California that are so easy to do (celebrity, empty-headedness, smog). The Trib column indulged a bit of that. I should point out two things: One is that smog, while still a problem, is much less of a problem than it was 20 years ago, when I first started coming here. The other is that this line struck me as just odd: that Los Angeles is “known widely today as ‘The Birthplace of Cocaine.'” I bet there are a bunch of people in New York City who would dispute that.
DAVEY: Actually, the way I understand it from an update on The Times’ website, the original column — not just the tweet — did refer to the violence. To the paper’s credit, they changed it. The backlash was quick and furious. This is from the top Chicago police spokesman:
“Let’s face it: It was just plainly insensitive to all the Chicago families who have lost people. It is hard to fathom anyone chuckling about it.”
That said, in the same way you talk about the smog and the drugs, I’d argue that some of the other stereotypes about Chicago felt ancient and off-base too. Who is still laughing about the ‘Saturday Night Live’ cheeseburger thing? I don’t think my kids — good Chicagoans — have ever heard of that. And, sad to say, I’m not sure they know who Phil Jackson is either.
‘You know, it’s tough to pick on Chicago and leave any marks. We get picked on a lot. We’re used to it. The whole ‘Second City’ thing is just in the water. I guess I’d hope for more creativity from such a creative place as LA.’
NAGOURNEY: I’m going to avoid too much commenting on the work of our colleagues — keep in mind, I came of newspaper age in the era of Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill, who set a pretty high bar — but let me take a quick detour here to applaud one thing: a fight between newspaper columnists! How great is that!
I have spent many years here enduring arguments of Los Angeles versus New York, and Los Angeles versus San Francisco. I get civic pride. I applaud civic pride; I think it’s great. I think Los Angeles is a great city. And I think Chicago is a great city. (Well, at least for four months a year). And few things can inspire civic pride the way a sports championship can. You can sense the excitement here in Los Angeles now, and I bet you can feel it in Chicago as well.
Oh, and one other point I’d make about Jimmy Breslin and the New York tabloid columnist culture: They wouldn’t have hesitated a second in calling out the Chicago murder rate, and no way they would have walked away from it.
MEDINA: Angelenos have an almost allergic reaction to stereotypes and can be thin-skinned. Perhaps it’s true in any city, but they despise being mocked with old saws. The city is not nearly as choked with smog as it was a generation ago, though the drought has undoubtedly exacerbated it. And LA has really enjoyed a kind of revitalization in recent years and has a kind of renewed civic pride. The Dodgers are part of that, as you could see with the nonstop celebration of Vin Scully, the beloved broadcaster who retired this year. LA sport fans have a deserved reputation for leaving sporting events early to avoid traffic, but mock them at your own peril.
SMITH: This has been a difficult year in Chicago, and the Cubs have given people a chance to set some of those issues aside and just celebrate their city. Chicagoans know their problems better than anyone else, and they would be perfectly happy to endure some good-natured California ribbing about harsh winters or hot dogs. But a joke about murder just doesn’t play well, especially not now. As this was all happening, The Tribune reported that 18 people were shot here, including one person who died. And that’s not an outlier: It’s an every-single-day sort of thing that has rattled people here for generations. That’s where the outrage comes from. It’s not contrived. It’s real pain.
MEDINA: Mitch, your point about Chicago hurting gets to one of the essential differences between the two places right now. Los Angeles does have crime and heroin, no doubt, but not at anywhere near the level of hard times Chicago is in right now.
The city had had its fair share of challenges with riots and murders, but now feels decidedly optimistic in many corners. It’s still known for car culture, but I’m currently walking through the streets of downtown as a part of CicLAvia, a near quarterly event that shuts down city streets for people to experience the roads on bicycles (and roller skates, skateboards and strollers.) This weekend the event snakes through several cultural centers: Chinatown, Little Tokyo, the Arts District and Boyle Heights. The festival-like atmosphere directly confronts the notion that the city doesn’t have civically engaged residents. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the place, not far from the pueblo where LA was first christened. The Dodgers are just another way of celebrating that pride right now.
Much more fun than artisanal smoothies.
SMITH: If nothing else, the columnist battle is definitely more interesting than the two mayors wagering local food products. (By the way, San Francisco owes Mayor Rahm Emanuel two bottles of whiskey for the Chicago Cubs’ win over the San Francisco Giants.)
DAVEY: No doubt, the excitement in Chicago is brimming over here, too — talk of curses aside.
This is a city that has waited a long time. Not just for the Cubs but also for respect from the coasts. Chicago is overdue its deserved recognition for its remarkable architecture, its generosity of spirit, its amazing lakefront, its live theater, its love of politics (which may even transcend its love of sports).
And I’m totally with you on feeling some broad joy in the dueling columnists. That alone also feels like a call back to some earlier time — a time when a city’s newspaper columnist spoke for a city. I, for one, love that. For Chicago and also for newspapers. Perhaps it wasn’t strange then that I found Rex Huppke’s piece lighthearted and funny.
NAGOURNEY: I felt the same way about Lopez’s column (at least the changed version of it).
May I suggest that we steal Lopez’s kicker to conclude our conversation, since it seems to capture a lot of what we are talking about?
“In conclusion, please refrain from criticizing Los Angeles, its people and everything it stands for.
“It’s what I do for a living, and I don’t need the competition.
DAVEY: Well, as nice an ending as I’m sure that is, Adam, another way to finish this conversation would be to point out that the Cubs won (Saturday). But I’m from Chicago, so I know better than to gloat.