Michael Parks, Reporter Who Rose to Lead The Los Angeles Times, Dies at 78

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Michael Parks, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning foreign correspondent for The Los Angeles Times who went on to become the top editor at the paper, one of the nation’s largest metropolitan dailies, died on Jan. 8 at a hospital in Pasadena, Calif. He was 78.

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

Mr. Parks reported from around the world from 1970 to 1995, first for The Baltimore Sun and then for The Los Angeles Times. In 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 unraveling of apartheid in South Africa.

While he was in Johannesburg for The Times, the white-minority government announced in late 1986 that it was expelling him after he had been documenting the brutal segregationist policy of apartheid for two years. As the country lurched violently toward historic change, Mr. Parks was the fifth correspondent that year to receive an expulsion order.

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

The ministers brought out boxes containing all 242 articles Mr. Parks had written in 1986. Every one was annotated, with each slight against the white regime duly noted. No doubt, the ministers said, Mr. Parks had 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 reversed the expulsion order and allowed Mr. Parks to stay.

His meticulous reporting was rewarded again a few months later with the 1987 Pulitzer Prize in international reporting for what the Pulitzer committee called his “balanced and comprehensive coverage of South Africa.”

“He was a student of liberation struggles,” Scott Kraft, who followed Mr. Parks as The Times’s bureau chief in Johannesburg, said in a phone interview.

Mr. Kraft, now a managing editor at The Times, said that as the scholarly Mr. Parks introduced him to his sources, he could see that many of them, particularly the exiled leaders of the African National Congress, enjoyed discussing political philosophy and strategy with him.

“He had been in other world capitals with civil conflict, and he really understood the philosophical basis of liberation movements,” Mr. Kraft said.

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

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

Michael went to the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada, where he majored in classical languages and English literature and graduated in 1965. The year before he graduated, he married Linda Katherine Durocher, a classmate, who became a librarian. She survives him.

In addition to 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. A daughter, Danielle Parks, died of leukemia in 2007.

After college, Mr. Parks became a reporter at The Detroit News and then worked briefly for the Time-Life News Service in New York. He helped start The Suffolk Sun, a newspaper on the East End of Long Island, in 1966 and after two years landed a job at The Baltimore Sun as a government reporter in Annapolis, Md.

His first overseas assignment came in 1970 when The Sun sent him to Saigon to cover the final American combat in Vietnam.

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

The Los Angeles Times hired him from The Sun in 1980 and kept him in Beijing as bureau chief. From there, he served as bureau chief in Johannesburg, Moscow and Jerusalem. He moved to Los Angeles in 1995 to become deputy foreign editor, managing the paper’s 27 foreign correspondents.

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

During his tenure, the paper increased its circulation, expanded its coverage areas, won four Pulitzers and started to diversify its staff.

“He was a terrific foreign correspondent himself,” Dean Baquet, the executive editor of The New York Times and a former editor of The Los Angeles Times, said in an email. “And as editor, he preserved The Los Angeles Times’s role as a major voice in international coverage.”

But it was a tumultuous period. The Chandler family, which had owned the paper for a century, put it up for sale.

In addition, one of the biggest scandals in the paper’s history erupted when The Times devoted the entire issue of its Oct. 10, 1999, Sunday magazine to the opening of Staples Center. In a quiet profit-sharing deal, the paper had split the advertising revenue from the magazine with the center, the subject of its coverage — a flagrant conflict of interest that undermined the paper’s integrity and outraged the staff.

The publisher, Kathryn Downing, took the blame. Mr. Parks said he didn’t know about the profit-sharing deal until after the fact. But the debacle occurred on his watch, and some criticized him for not doing anything once he did learn about the deal, like publishing an article disclosing it to readers. In a long investigative report by The Times about the matter, published on Dec. 20, 1999, Mr. Parks said he had “failed” in his job as gatekeeper and expressed his “profound regret.”

The Tribune Company bought The Times in 2000 and installed 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 served two stints as director of the journalism school, expanding its international reporting programs and its focus on developing expertise in covering diverse communities. He retired from Annenberg in 2020.

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