Michael Parks, reporter who rose to run Los Angeles Times, dies at 78

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Michael Parks, a Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times who later became editor-in-chief of the newspaper, one of America’s largest daily newspapers, died January 8 at a hospital in Pasadena, California. He was 78.

The cause was a heart attack and kidney failure, said his son Christopher.

Mr. Parks reported from around the world from 1970 to 1995, first for The Baltimore Sun and then for The Los Angeles Times. During his time abroad, he chronicled some of the most significant geopolitical events in modern history, including the war in Vietnam, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of apartheid in South Africa.

In late 1986, while he was in Johannesburg for The Times, the white minority government announced it would be deporting him after two years of documenting apartheid’s brutal segregation policies. As the country violently moved toward historic change, Mr. Parks became the fifth correspondent that year to receive a deportation order.

The Times decided to appeal; The story of the black majority’s rebellion against white rule was too important not to be covered. In early 1987, Mr. Parks and editors from Los Angeles met with three government ministers in Cape Town to plead their case.

Ministers brought out boxes of 242 articles written by Mr. Parks in 1986. Each one was annotated, and any insult to the white regime duly noted. There is no doubt, the ministers said, that Mr Parks cast South Africa in a negative light.

And yet the ministers could not find a single error in any of the 242 dispatches. In a rare move, they lifted the deportation order and allowed Mr. Parks to stay.

His meticulous reporting was again recognized a few months later with the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for what the Pulitzer Committee called his “balanced and comprehensive reporting of South Africa”.

“He was a student of the liberation struggles,” said Scott Kraft, who succeeded Mr. Parks as the Times bureau chief in Johannesburg, in a telephone interview.

Mr Kraft, now editor-in-chief of the Times, said that when the learned Mr Parks introduced him to his sources, he could see that many of them, particularly the exiled leaders of the African National Congress, were keen on political philosophy and strategy discussed with him.

“He had been to other capitals around the world with civil conflicts, and he really understood the philosophical foundations of liberation movements,” said Mr. Kraft.

And one more thing: “He never dressed like a swashbuckling correspondent,” added Mr. Kraft. “He always wore khakis and a blue blazer so no one could mistake him for a competitor.”

Michael Christopher Parks was born in Detroit on November 17, 1943, the eldest of seven children of Robert J. and Mary Rosalind (Smith) Parks. His father was a Detroit public school teacher and his mother was a homemaker.

Michael went to the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada, where he studied Classics and English Literature, graduating in 1965. The year before he graduated, he married Linda Katherine Durocher, a classmate who became a librarian. She outlives him.

Besides his son Christopher, he is also survived by another son, Matthew; two brothers, Thomas and James; two sisters, Mary Elizabeth Parks and Mary Constance Parks; and four grandchildren. One daughter, Danielle Parks, died of leukemia in 2007.

After college, Mr. Parks became a reporter for The Detroit News and then worked briefly for the Time-Life News Service in New York. He helped found The Suffolk Sun, a newspaper in Long Island’s East End, in 1966 and after two years got a job with The Baltimore Sun as a government reporter in Annapolis, Maryland.

His first foreign assignment came in 1970 when The Sun sent him to Saigon to cover the last American fight in Vietnam.

He then served as head of the Moscow office; Middle East correspondent based in Cairo; and Hong Kong Office Manager. In 1979 he opened The Sun’s Beijing office. He was one of the first American reporters stationed there after China and the United States established diplomatic relations.

The Los Angeles Times hired him from The Sun in 1980 and kept him as Beijing bureau chief. From there he was office manager in Johannesburg, Moscow and Jerusalem. In 1995, he moved to Los Angeles to become assistant foreign editor and oversee the newspaper’s 27 foreign correspondents.

After a year, Mr. Parks was promoted to editor-in-chief; In 1997, at the age of 53, he was named top editor, overseeing an editorial staff of 1,350 and an annual budget of $120 million.

During his tenure, the newspaper increased circulation, expanded its coverage areas, won four Pulitzer Prizes, and began to diversify its workforce.

“He was a great foreign correspondent himself,” Dean Baquet, editor-in-chief of the New York Times and former editor of the Los Angeles Times, said in an email. “And as editor, he maintained the Los Angeles Times’ role as a major voice in international reporting.”

But it was a turbulent time. The Chandler family, who owned the newspaper for a century, put it up for sale.

Also, one of the biggest scandals in the newspaper’s history erupted when The Times devoted the entire October 10, 1999 issue of its Sunday magazine to the opening of the Staples Center. In an implicit profit-sharing deal, the newspaper had shared the magazine’s advertising revenue with the center it reported on – a glaring conflict of interest that undermined the newspaper’s integrity and outraged staff.

The publisher, Kathryn Downing, took the blame. Mr. Parks said he only knew about the profit-sharing agreement after the fact. But the debacle happened under his watch, and some criticized him for not taking action after learning about the deal, such as publishing an article sharing it with readers. In a lengthy Times investigative report into the matter, published December 20, 1999, Mr Parks said he had “failed” in his job as a gatekeeper and expressed his “deep regret.”

The Tribune Company bought The Times in 2000 and built its own team, including a new editor, John Carroll.

Mr. Parks then began a two-decade second career at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. He taught and twice served as the director of the school of journalism, expanding their international reporting programs and focusing on developing expertise in reporting on diverse communities. In 2020 he retired from Annenberg.

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