Former Los Angeles Times editor Michael Parks has died

Michael Parks, who received a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the fight against apartheid in South Africa and later ran the Los Angeles Times during a turbulent period that ended when the Chandler family sold the newspaper after a century of control, died on Saturday. He was 78.

In his 25 years as a foreign correspondent, first for the Baltimore Sun and then The Times, Parks covered some of the most significant events in modern history, including the Vietnam War and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

After nearly three years as a senior editor at The Times, he taught at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism for 20 years and served as director of the school of journalism there twice.

Parks died of kidney failure and a heart attack late Saturday at Huntington Hospital in Pasadena after falling ill suddenly at home before dawn, according to his son Christopher Parks.

From 1980 to 1995, Parks served as Times bureau chief in Beijing, Johannesburg, Moscow and Jerusalem. Scholarly, with a strong work ethic, he was known as a prolific writer. After brief stints as deputy foreign editor and editor-in-chief, he was appointed editor-in-chief of The Times in 1997.

His appointment came at a difficult time in the newspaper’s history. Once known for massive profits, The Times – like other newspapers – has faced financial problems that have led to budget cuts and changes in corporate governance. The editorial team faced increasing pressure from executives to generate more sales.

Parks’ tenure ended dramatically after a newsroom uproar over the Times’ profit-sharing agreement with the Staples Center over advertising revenue in an October 1999 issue of the Los Angeles Times Magazine devoted to the opening of the downtown arena.

Times writers and editors were furious to learn that top Times executives had closed the ad deal, saying it undermined the integrity and independence of their journalism by giving the magazine’s subject a share of its profits.

Although Parks said he only knew about the profit sharing after the magazine was written and published, he found out about it in time to stop publication, which he didn’t. He later expressed “deep regret” and said he underestimated the impact on the Times’ credibility.

A few months after the outcry, the Chicago-based Tribune Co. bought control of the newspaper from the Chandler family and replaced Parks with John Carroll, then editor of the Baltimore Sun.

Despite this, Parks was remembered Sunday as a hardened reporter with a sharp intellect and a mentor and advisor to many younger journalists.

“He was always asking for the really tough assignments, and he got them because I knew he would do so well at the job,” said Alvin Shuster, a former foreign editor at The Times.

Parks won his 1987 Pulitzer for international reporting. The jury praised him for “balanced and comprehensive reporting on South Africa”.

Parks was based in Johannesburg from 1984 to 1988, at a time when South Africa’s brutal white minority regime was fighting a black majority revolt against the apartheid system of strict racial segregation.

Scott Kraft, who succeeded Park as Times bureau chief in Johannesburg, described him as “a student of liberation struggles around the world.” Parks made frequent trips to Zambia to meet exiled South African African National Congress leaders, including future President Thabo Mbeki, but also had sources in the white regime, which was rare for reporters at the time, said Kraft, now the Times editor.

“Michael was an extraordinarily gifted foreign correspondentone of the best of his generation,” said Kraft.

South Africa threatened Parks with expulsion in 1986 when he covered growing anti-apartheid protests and violence, but Times editors persuaded the government to let him stay.

Parks was born and raised in Detroit in 1943 and worked as a reporter for the Detroit News while earning his bachelor’s degree in Classics and English Literature from the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada, across the Detroit River.

He got a job as a state politics reporter for the Baltimore Sun in 1968 and began his career as a foreign correspondent two years later as the Sun’s Saigon correspondent, covering the Vietnam War. There he met Shuster, then a reporter for the New York Times, who was staying at the same hotel.

“Parks was one of those hard-working correspondents who never slept, and the typewriter could be heard from his room all night,” Shuster recalled.

The Sun appointed Parks Moscow to head the bureau in 1972, as Cold War tensions between the US and the Soviet Union eased. He moved to Cairo in 1975 and covered the entire Middle East for The Sun for three years, then worked as head of the Hong Kong office in the late 1970s and then in Beijing.

The Times hired Parks as its Beijing bureau chief in 1980. Over the next 15 years, he followed the far-reaching social and political changes in China and South Africa, the breakup of the Soviet Union, and the Oslo peace talks between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

As he moved to Los Angeles in 1995 and began his rapid rise through the editorial ranks, colleagues recalled, he made a point of challenging the white male culture that dominated the newsroom, a challenge that continued into the 2020s.

“It wasn’t just an old boys’ club, it was an old, white, older boys’ club,” said Carol J. Williams, a former foreign correspondent for the Times, who credited Parks with adding to the Times’ thin corps of women on foreign operations.

Clarence Williams III, right, is congratulated by Michael Parks April 14, 1998 after winning a Pulitzer Prize.

Michael Parks, left, who was appointed editor of The Times in 1997, congratulates Clarence Williams III on winning the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Film Photography.

(Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

After the editorial department was engulfed in the Staples fiasco, Parks struggled to survive. Kathryn M. Downing, then editor of The Times, had agreed to the profit-sharing deal without notifying Parks. Mark H. Willes, chairman and chief executive officer of parent company Times Mirror Co., said he learned about it after the deal closed and did nothing to stop it.

Downing said she didn’t tell Parks because she later admitted it was a misguided attempt to respect the separation of editorial and business concerns. Neither Downing nor Willes had any news business experience when they took control of The Times.

Parks “paid a price for their mistakes,” said Roxane Arnold, a former senior editor at The Times.

At USC, Parks taught reporting and writing for graduate students from 2000 until his retirement in May 2020. From 2002 to 2008 he was also director of the journalism school, then again temporarily in 2013 and 2014.

“Unlike so many of his peers who believed journalism’s glory days were in the rearview mirror, Michael firmly believed that journalism had a bright future and he saw it every day through the experience of his students,” Willow Bay said , Dean of the Annenberg School.

“He’s really engaged with the changes brought about by the internet and the development of digital media.”

Parks is survived by his wife, Linda Parks; his sons Christopher Parks of Bloomington, Indiana and Matthew Parks of Cape Town, South Africa; two sisters; two brothers; and four grandchildren. His daughter Danielle Parks died in 2007. Former Los Angeles Times editor Michael Parks has died

Caroline Bleakley

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