Of all the stupidities committed by the new owners of the Los Angeles Times, the dumping of Al Martinez is one of worst.
A newspaper is supposed to reach out to its readers. Al has that unique gift. Even after ignorant editors exiled him far to the rear of feature sections, he retained his big and loyal following.
When he donated his papers to the Huntington, the large auditorium was packed. Afterwards, the line to meet him and get a book signed was so long that I gave up. I apologized to him for not waiting, and said I would buy one for him to autograph. He sent me a copy, signed.
It is like that at every Martinez signing, as Kevin Roderick noted. The people come because Al makes a connection with them. They feel he is their friend—and he is. He understands that simple truth about newspapers. The new owners can take all the surveys they want. They will never know as much about readers as Al does—and always did.
My wife, Nancy, and I have been friends with Al and his wife, Joanne (aka Cinelli) for about 50 years
We met at the Oakland Tribune. I was slowly transitioning from copy boy to reporter and Al was newly hired from the Richmond Independent. He quickly became a hot shot on a staff full of them. Al claimed I used to fetch him coffee, but I don’t remember that part.
We labored away under the leadership of our great city editor, Al Reck, and the tyranny of the managing editor, Stanley Norton, a fierce man whose voice had been ruined by his habit of screaming at reporters. One day, several of us were waiting outside Mr. Norton’s office for his tirade, administered to us individually. I remarked to Al that I didn’t mind getting bawled out but I hated to wait in line for it.
Such abuse brought us all close together at work and at the bar across the street, the Hollow Leg. Later Al became a columnist at the Tribune, immensely popular with the readers. The publisher, William F. Knowland, a former right wing senator, didn’t like Al’s liberal political views and took his column away. That’s when he started to look around for another place to work.
Al is not a person who backs down. When he was a Marine in combat in Korea, he ran afoul of a superior. “What are you going to do?” said Al. “Send me to Korea?”
A few of us Tribune veterans had migrated to the Times. We touted Al to Bill Thomas, then the metro editor, who hired him. Al went from general assignment reporter to star feature writer and finally to columnist.
The current buyouts were not mandated to improve the paper. Improvement has nothing to do with it. These are the actions of frightened Tribune executives trying to cut spending to look good so that Sam Zell, the next new owner, won’t fire them. They are short timers, these executives. They don’t care about the paper’s past or its future, except for the immediate bottom line.
Al is the best known of the buyout targets. Other talented people have been forced out . Some were veterans and others in mid career. Management has cut out the guts of the paper and the readers will suffer.
Spare me from the “slippery slope,” one of the trickiest phrases in politics.
I learned that the hard way at this month’s City Ethics Commission meeting when I came up with what I thought was a great way of handling the campaign contribution accusations our staff brought against Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
These were old violations dating back to his 2003 campaign for City Council before he ran for mayor. He contested one charge that he went over the $150,000 limit on contributions from corporations, unions and other organizations. He exceeded it, the staff said, by $39,000.
When someone fights one of our accusations, we can hold a hearing ourselves. But ever since a hearing on former Councilman Nate Holden went on for days, the commissioners have turned over the arduous work to an administrative judge, who is a state official. It disappears into a bureaucratic black hole, with a hearing held months later in an office building several blocks from city hall. The hearings are supposed to be public. But good luck to anybody who tries to find one.
From what I read in the paper, the mayor had a defense. Why not, I thought, give him a chance to defend himself before the full ethics commission in city hall, where there would be an audience. The mayor’s an open government guy. I thought he’d jump at the chance. And it would be great for us—public attention focused on our usually ignored task of making sure city office seekers follow campaign finance laws.
I made my pitch at our meeting. I knew I was in trouble when I saw the expression on the face of Steve Kaufman, Villaraigosa’s lawyer. He looked appalled. When he spoke to us, he warned that my plan would take us down “ a slippery slope.” I suppose Steve meant that if the commissioners followed my plan, we’d be holding hearings on every contested case. Commission President Gil Garcetti, usually my ally, warned me of that same slope.
Lawmakers invoke the slippery slope phrase when they want to kill a measure. There are other words like that in the language of politics. One of my favorites is “I love your bill but it doesn’t go far enough.” After invoking that phrase, opponents load the bill down with so many amendments that it sinks.
Only three of the five commissioners were present. Garcetti and Commissioner Helen Zukin, who I mostly agree with, were against me. If I voted no, I’d just be holding things up until the next meeting, when I would lose. So I cast a vote with my colleagues.
When I told my wife, Nancy, about it, she laughed uncontrollably. Don’t you understand? she finally said. You love publicity, news, hot stories, controversy. You want to shine a spotlight on everything and everybody. That’s not how people are supposed to act in city hall.
She’s right. I spent too many years in a newsroom. I’ll never learn.
But I still think it was a great idea.