Sunday, March 25, 2007

Grazergate at The Los Angeles Times

There was a huge flap at the Los Angeles Times this past week that culminated in the resignation of the editorial editor. Andres Martinez resigned on Thursday by way of a self-righteous blog on the website.

The LA Times is the fourth largest newspaper in the U.S. by circulation, behind USA Today, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. In June, 2000, the Times was acquired by The Tribune Company of Chicago in "the largest acquisition in newspaper industry history" (Tribune website).

There has been some tension between The Times and its new parent. Last fall, a feud broke out between the two sides when Publisher Jeffery M. Johnson and Editor Dean Baquet both protested reductions in the newspaper dictated by the corporate parent. The Tribune responded in October, 2006, by moving David D. Hiller, formerly publisher, president and CEO of the Chicago Tribune Company, to assume the same role at The LA Times. A month later, in November, 2006, James E. O'Shea became editor of The Times, replacing Baquet.

For the past 18 months (since September, 2005), Andres Martinez has been The Times' OpEd chief. Martinez was in charge of "Current," a redesign of the traditional Sunday Opinion section "offering readers an energetic mix of thought-provoking essays, columns and bold graphic journalism." (Tribune website)

Recently The Times proposed having guest editors host the Sunday "Current" section, and Hollywood producer Brian Grazer was selected as the first host.

This week it was reported that Mr. Martinez is romantically involved with "Kelly Mullens, a senior executive at the public relations firm that represents Mr. Grazer’s production company," raising questions of conflict of interest (New York Times).

When the story broke, the new publisher killed the special section, which was due to appear in today's edition.

Martinez was so outraged that he resigned with a lengthy posting in the newspaper's blog in which he said:

David Hiller's decision to kill the Brian Grazer section this Sunday makes my continued tenure as Los Angeles Times editorial page editor untenable. The person in this job needs to have an unimpeachable integrity, and Hiller's decision amounts to a vote of no confidence in my continued leadership.

Martinez goes on to say that Grazer, Mullens and his colleagues had done nothing wrong. He accepts responsibility for "creating this appearance problem" and says that "the newspaper is overreacting."

The Times' reaction can be better understood if it is taken in context with the newspaper's history and an earlier scandal that seriously hurt its credibility.

That previous incident occurred in late 1999 during the opening of the Staples Center, the sports arena in downtown L.A. The Times had prepared a special 168-page magazine edition to celebrate the opening of the new Center. Without informing the editors and writers who worked on the edition, The Times shared profits from that magazine with the management of Staples Center. This was a conflict of interest and a huge breach of the "Chinese wall" that traditionally separates the functions of journalism and advertising in the newspaper industry. The Times' reputation for integrity suffered a black eye as a result.

The new contretemps began this week when The Los Angeles Times' media reporter, Jim Rainey, learned of the Martinez/Mullens relationship and began asking questions with an eye to writing a story. According to the New York Times:

Mr. Martinez said in an interview yesterday that when he learned of the pending article, he wrote a long e-mail message to Douglas Frantz, one of the paper’s managing editors, and that Mr. Frantz, who was on vacation, had written back saying he did not see a problem. Mr. Martinez also said that Mr. Frantz had told him he did not want Mr. Rainey to pursue the article and that everyone could discuss what to do next week.

Mr. Frantz said in an interview yesterday that he was “trying to buy some time and digest the thing.” But he said he later spoke with Mr. Rainey and realized that there was a problem, especially in light of the Staples Center episode.

Reading that section of The New York Times story, the hairs on the back of my neck went up. If there was no problem, why didn't Martinez simply acknowledge the relationship and contribute a comment to Rainey's story instead of trying to stop the story from running, which was clearly the intent of his call to the managing editor?

On top of that, Martinez' blog posting bothered me. IMHO, he was spreading red herrings all over his trail. Try this little tidbit from his resignation:

We're a long ways removed from the fall of 2004 when Michael Kinsley and John Carroll lured me out to the West Coast, with promises of investing more resources on the LAT opinion pages and web site. Some of the retrenchment is understandable given the business fundamentals, but I have been alarmed recently by the company's failure to acknowledge that our opinion journalism, central to the paper's role as a virtual town square for community debate and dialogue, should not be crudely scaled back as part of across-the-board cuts. Decisions being made now to cut the one part of the paper that is predominantly about ideas and community voices go too far in my view, and are shortsighted.

He also takes potshots at the newsroom staff who uncovered the story:

I will not be lectured on ethics by some ostensibly objective news reporters and editors who lobby for editorials to be written on certain subjects, or who have suggested that our editorial page coordinate more closely with the newsroom's agenda . . .

You can read Martinez' entire resignation here. You can also read The New York Times' take on the story here.

See how you feel about this "appearance problem." For me, it's a case of "Caesar's wife must be above suspicion."

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