(* Update after jump: New email from Martinez reacting to Times editor Jim O'Shea.)
After my post last night on his exit blog from the Times, Andrés Martinez asked me to convey his further thoughts to LA Observed readers. He names newsroom editors who he said tried to influence editorials and criticizes the dual roles that former Editor John Carroll sometimes filled. Martinez also alleges that new Editor Jim O'Shea and Publisher David Hiller caved to newsroom demands out of fear — "they are like military governors sent off to the far reaches of the empire to put down the latest uprising" — and that ideology and resistance to innovation are behind some of the criticism aimed his way.
I just read your blog post and you have touched on something that I have been grappling with. On the one hand, I do have a lot of respect for John Carroll and his stewardship of the paper; on the other hand, there was something compromising about his oversight of both news pages and opinion section. I mean, talk about appearances: How do you defend yourself against bias on a front-page war story if you're simultaneously ordering up anti- or pro-war editorials?
I remember being appalled when I first came out to the Times that Carroll, to cite one example, edited the editorial that ran at the conclusion of the news side's King Drew series. Now John did very little of that, but how could we assure outside world of this if he had the right to do so? Dean Baquet couldn't have wanted to distance himself further from our world precisely so that he wouldn't have to answer for editorials and he and I and Jeff agreed to formally separate the opinion pages from the newsroom entirely, and I can assure you Dean had as much to do with our editorial page as he did with the editorial page of the Daily News.
So the structure now is more desirable, but the trouble is that with all the havoc at the paper, there is no strong newsroom leadership to keep order. So Sue Horton, a senior news editor, takes it upon herself to call me up to suggest greater coordination between the news report and the opinion pages, as in the old days, and Julie Marquis feels empowered to email publisher David Hiller to lobby for his editorial page to pay closer attention to the newsroom's worthy investigative series, some of which, we felt on the editorial board, already came with their own built-in editorials, so what's the point? Nobody would have dared do such a thing under John Carroll.
The point is, a proper structure is needed, but you obviously need credible leadership on both sides of the wall separating news from editorial.
Some of the resentment of the opinion page's newfound independence is ideological, some of it merely a matter of bureaucratic culture, some of it a personnel matter (there are some embittered former editorial board members that Kinsley and Carroll sent off to newsroom), but the end result is that people engage in behavior that would be deemed wildly inappropriate at newspapers like the Wall Street Journal or New York Times (I know, I have worked at both), where the proper separation of news from opinion is longstanding. Dean and I often talked about how we had to keep at it every day in terms of changing the culture.
In that regard, the arrival of editor Jim O'Shea from Chicago was a real setback. Early on he told Nikki Finke in an interview that he and Hiller had casually talked about whether to give him the editorial pages (as is the practice at the Tribune in Chicago) but Jim said no thanks, I have enough on my plate as it is. So much for our push to convince readers that this separation was a matter of principle rather than the editor's whim.
I realize this may all sound like an attempt on my part to change the subject du jour by trying to raise a competing ethics issue, but these are not unrelated subjects. One real ethics issue - the determined effort by some in the newsroom to undermine the autonomy of editorial page - helps explain the gross exaggeration of the other - an invitation from time to time by said autonomous opinion pages to have notable personalities like Brian Grazer and Donald Rumsfeld edit 5 articles, regardless of who their damned publicists are. I think the desire to blend opinion with news is the far bigger breach, but I'm guessing the Henry Weinsteins and Tim Ruttens of the world will continue to conjure up the magical words "Staples Center" to wail against any innovation at the paper, and confusing the hundreds of thousands of readers of the LAT who don't read LA Observed - sorry, Kevin - into believing that Grazergate somehow implied an improper blending of the newspaper's business side and editorial judgment, which it patently did not.
Strong leadership at the paper would have acted on its conclusion that the Grazer decision raised an appearance problem but was not an improper one by disclosing the eyebrow-raising relationship instead of panicking, killing the section, and thereby suggesting to our hundreds of thousands of readers who don't follow these things too closely that the paper has engaged in another Staples Center-like disaster.
Trouble is, O'Shea and Hiller are like military governors sent off to the far reaches of the empire to put down the latest uprising by the imperial subjects, and they have such a tenuous hold on the place, living in fear that they will get macheted down themselves, they caved to a disgruntled newsroom that is annoyed at Chicago, annoyed at them and annoyed at the autonomy of the opinion pages.
And speaking of being annoyed at Chicago, you were also correct in noting in your post that I was not sure I could live with the next round of cuts being asked of me, and the absurd exercise of cutting Current and trying to determine which day it should run on the basis of how many tens of thousands of dollars in color ads would be impacted.
But I really don't want to change the subject. Let's stick with journalistic ethics for the moment.
Comments? Email me.
Jim O'Shea is sure loving this Grazergate. That's the impression I get from reading my old paper this morning. You have the spectacle of an editor widely perceived to be in way over his head wrapping himself in sanctimony, advancing the newsroom's goal of undercutting the opinion pages' autonomy, all in an effort to gain desperately needed stature with his troops in advance of having to do what Chicago sent him to do -- cut some $7.5 million from editorial payroll in next few weeks (on top of plenty of other stuff they will have to cut). The disgruntled news staff is cheering him on as he leads the charge to storm the editorial page and bring it back into lockstep with newsroom, but pretty soon they will remember why those pictures of Dean are still up on their walls and what Jim's mission here really is. With any luck for him, the second floor witch hunt can prove so time-consuming he can get a delay on those firings.