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Days of Our Times

The latest self-inflicted embarrassment at the Los Angeles Times has been dominating posts at LA Observed for the past few days. Here is some of the email reaction from readers, many of them journalists.

 I spent nearly a decade writing hundreds of editorials for two radio stations and a daily newspaper here in Los Angeles, along with several dozen signed op-eds, as well as researching, writing and producing two dozen radio documentaries. I've served on the Board of the Greater LA Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists for almost 20 years, chaired the Ethics and Freedom of Information sections, and organized dozens of dinner programs and panel discussions. Since 1999, I've also taught an opinion-writing class through UCLA Extension in which you've been kind enough to participate - and have appeared as a guest speaker many times in other journalism classes. I earned my undergraduate and graduate degrees in the field.

I mention all this by way of preamble to say that in almost 30 years of experience, I have never encountered the kind of mawkish, embittered and frankly delusional tirade mounted by Andres Martinez since his unceremonious exit from the LA Times editorial pages.

Beyond question, he flagrantly violated one of the most fundamental and self-evident tenets of the profession as laid out in the SPJ Ethics code, "Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public's right to know; [they] should avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived; [and] remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility." In this light, it's not putting it too strongly to call his performance professional malpractice, which ultimately disgraced both his section and his publication.

Yet to hear him tell it, the real victims are himself, his publicist girlfriend and her boss, and their movie-producer client. And the villains? His former colleagues and employers: ideological enemies and jealous backbiters in the newsroom, their gutless lackeys in management, and­ of course­ the suits in Chicago.

Maybe Martinez is just besotted or he's seen The Paper once too often and cast himself in the lead of some Tinseltown fantasy. But it's beyond disingenuous for him to posture as some kind of standard-bearer upholding the integrity of his page against undue influence from management and newsroom ranks. Over the years, I heard dozens of pitches and suggestions from all quarters, inside and out, including those to reinforce or button up news articles or investigative series with a supportive editorial. Part of your job as an editorialist is to sift through and exercise your best judgment whether and how to write something or not. Never once did I ever find myself in an ethical bind over it. In one case, I even questioned one of our news article's key findings.

As I always instruct my students, the journalists' obligation is to identify personal bias and keep it out of their news stories; editorials are an artful blend of personal sentiment and institutional viewpoint, and I thought nothing improper of reporters directing their opinions my way. Martinez is vain and foolish indeed if he claims a categorical editorial ­page exemption from any form of organizational accountability; that's a blog, not a major metropolitan newspaper.

If there are any heroes here, they include publisher David Hiller, ostensibly one of those Midwestern barbarians who fail to sufficiently appreciate our charming West Coast customs, yet who had the courage to admit the mistake and kill the tainted section before it was too late; reporters like Charles Ornstein and Henry Weinstein who saw the issue clearly and spoke up forcefully; and most especially Jim Rainey, exemplifying the celebrated New York Times credo "without fear or favor," who was impertinent enough to do his job and ask the tough questions, and accurately report the mortifying truth in the Times' own news pages.

May I also add a note of praise for editor James O'Shea, who played a pivotal role in persuading Hiller to do the right thing? In striking contrast to his predecessor Michael Parks, who meekly acquiesced in the publication of the Staples Center magazine edition, O'Shea actually did what most editors in the real world can only dream about - like Michael Keaton's character in Grazer's own film, O'Shea literally stopped his presses to avoid publishing a terrible mistake.

You would have thought one Staples-type debacle -- where desperate scrounging for ad dollars fatally compromised the editorial product -- would have been enough for the LA Times, and to the credit of many fine reporters there, it was. But since Andres Martinez has so clearly failed to learn his lessons of history, better for all concerned that he be condemned to repeat it as far as possible from the page of the Los Angeles Times.

Joel Bellman
Bellman wrote editorials for the late Los Angeles Herald Examiner

 As much time and space as Tim Rutten has spent in recent months on the Tribune/Times dilemma, and now on Grazergate (I can't imagine this will be the last we read from him on this topic), perhaps he should be named The Times' ombudsman and have his column run in Current. Either that, or give him a blog. Or move his column to the employee newsletter. I know these topics are important to my former colleagues at The Times, and to the journalism community in general, but his media criticism in Calendar has become a little too insular for most readers' taste.

Oscar Garza
Tu Ciudad Los Angeles
Garza is a former Times editor

 I worked for Andres Martinez for more than a year before taking a buyout in January 2006. He treated me well and we mostly got along fine. But his comments after the Current section was scrapped -- rightly -- indicate his lack of understanding not just of the perception of conflict of interest but of the Los Angeles Times. No, this isn't the Staples Center disaster, but unless you were at The Times when that occurred, you don't understand what it did to us. The tiny silver lining from that debacle was a reminder why we got into the job in the first place. The anger across the newsroom and opinion section (I was an editorial writer in the Orange County edition then and had been since 1993) was visceral. It reminded us we didn't just sit in cubicles and edit or cover this or that governmental meeting. It reminded us we cared about what we did and knew why it was important.

Whether an editorial page editor should report to just the publisher or to a newspaper's editor as well is a valid question. Much depends on the owner and/or publisher. Given the choice between reporting directly to Wendy McCaw in Santa Barbara or to both a Times publisher and an editor (Bill Thomas or Shelby Coffee or Michael Parks or John Carroll), I'll pick the two-headed version.

A conflict when a reporter or news editor lobbies for an editorial? You want a reporter to care what she writes about and an editor to care what she shepherds. You want them to be professional enough to keep the opinion out of the story. Martinez' comment about no need for an editorial because a story contained enough opinion is off base. Sure, opinion should be kept out of a news story. But despite what some perceive, that story, even on page one, even as a lead, does not reflect the institution's belief that what's described is right or wrong. One value of editorials stems from institutional voice and institutional memory.

As for "embittered former editorial board members" whose dispatch Martinez now blames on former editor John Carroll and walking disaster Michael Kinsley, I've been struck by the equanimity they have shown. And I've been struck by the stories they've produced for the front page. The stories reflect the talent of the writers and the major loss the editorial page suffered in that fiasco.

And then there's the slam at Carroll for editing the editorial about King Drew. Somebody needed to edit it. Kinsley and Martinez might have glanced at it, but they certainly didn't edit it. Maybe because they were recently arrived and didn't understand the depth and breadth of the brilliant series. Maybe because they didn't realize the writer of the editorial (a friend of mine) had done her own reporting on the topic for years, interviewed in the community, understood the passion. Maybe because they didn't understand the importance of King Drew to the community and thus to the newspaper. Let's remember that the Pulitzer-winning package for public service included the editorial as well as the stories.

In the days when Janet Clayton edited the page and her writers won Pulitzers in 2002 and 2004, I have no doubt all kinds of people lobbied her for editorials. The editorial page editor's many roles include determining which suggestions are valid and which deserve a "no." Alas, Clayton was succeeded by Kinsley on another of his peripatetic visits to media from coast to coast (though not to other newspapers, as best I recall). He said he wanted to bring "buzz" to the pages. He gave no indication of understanding their value, their role, but he certainly brought buzz to himself. And now there's more "buzz" about a gimmick that should never have gotten off the ground, even had there been no conflict.

Martinez is wrong to blame the newsroom, wrong to blame Chicago. The fault is his.

John Needham
Retired L.A. Times editorial writer

  “Grazergate” could not be funnier (and sadder) if it had broken just a few days from now on April 1. But perhaps there’s a silver lining – if the whole mess leads the Times to back away from “The Envelope” and other puffy entertainment coverage that’s better left to the trades.

Robert Sax
SAX PR/Marketing

 I was astounded to learn in the NY Times that the LA Times has been "hypersensitive" regarding conflicts since the Staples Center debacle. You could have fooled me.

Since July 2004, when the Times crucified Fleishman-Hillard in a front page article based almost entirely on anonymous sources and triggered a federal investigation that ended my career and has me headed to federal prison, I've contended the six (!) unidentified "former employees" quoted were seriously conflicted because of their professional positions as competitors, or their past employment and relationships at the LAT -- in some cases both -- and should have never been granted anonymity. In fact, the only named source in the article was the daughter of a former senior editor at the LA Times who worked at Fleishman-Hillard directly for another former Times senior editor. She was never mentioned in the article.

If I had a dime for every journalist who has told me they agree the sourcing on that story was atrocious, I'd have enough money to pay my attorneys.

One of the anonymous sources was forced out of the shadows during my trial. Fred Muir, a Times reporter and editor for nearly 20 years and a personal friend and former colleague of the reporters who wrote the story, testified under oath that he was indeed one of the unidentified former employees who helped destroy Fleishman-Hillard's excellent reputation in Los Angeles. Not only should he never have been granted anonymity because of his past association with the Times, he had opened a business and was in direct competition with Fleishman-Hillard. The Times covered every day of the trial -- but decided not to report on Muir's testimony regarding the LA Times.

It might seem ironic, but I have great sympathy for Martinez. An editor and former colleague recently reminded me, "Every story has to have a good guy and a bad guy." When the LA Times decides you're the bad guy, you're pretty much screwed. But don't be discouraged, Andres. I got two scripts out of my ordeal: "Anonymous Sources" and "Conflict of Interest." Think maybe you can get them to Grazer for me?

Doug Dowie
Dowie, Fleishman Hillard's former top executive in Los Angeles, was convicted last year of wire fraud

 As a Public Relations professional for more than 30 years, I am shocked and saddened that not one person at 42West Public Relations saw an "ethical" problem with the Brian Grazer/LA TIMES incident. The fact that Mr. Martinez is "dating" Kelly Mullins is cause enough for the firm she works for to stay far away from anything to do with the LA TIMES especially when it comes to her clients. They apparently saw no conflict of interest. Nor did the LA TIMES until it was too late.

Mr. Grazer was a controversial choice but he does have an active curiosity as witnessed by his essay for the "This I Believe" series on NPR which makes it clear that he has an interest in people and their opinions that goes far beyond the Times' description of him as a man with "eclectic taste."

None of the principals in this situation comes out a winner. Everyone loses. One more sign that a word is gradually disappearing from the journalistic vocabulary--ethics.

Daniel A. Doran

 Call me an L.A. loyalist, but I'll take the LAT's scandals -- the Staples special and Martinez -- any day over the NYT's scandals -- faked news stories and features, suckered reporters lapping up leaks and getting us into wars, etc. Same goes for the Washington Post. The journalistic judgments of LAT staff are sound, even if occasionally one wonder what happened to their common sense.

Frank Gruber
The Lookout

 I cannot really evaluate the issues at hand from my perspective, but I do have one observation about the whole thing in general. Having been trained as one (though I don’t practice the craft), I know journalists are really into truth, all the facts and transparency.

But talk about unnecessarily airing your dirty laundry in public, this goes beyond anything I’ve ever seen, and it’s astonishing. I’ve been involved in my share of corporate/organizational intrigue and controversy (having been canned once or twice in the experience during my 30-plus year career), but my former colleagues and I have always had the class and sobriety to keep the nasty details to ourselves for two reasons.

First, things always look different from the perspective of time passed, and you really need to let some time pass to understand the truth; second, if you really believe in the institution you just worked for, you will not compromise it, and its mission, by telling the world how f***ed-up it is. The LA Times is in enough trouble (a portion of it due to the very public hand wringing of its editorial staffers) -- it, and the community it serves, don’t really need this level of detail.

Larry Kaplan

 In all the ads in the LA Times hyping the Grazer Current issue, he's described thus: 'writer-producer Brian Grazer'. Which is a lie, or at the very least a huge inflation of his credentials.

Grazer is, of course, a producer, among the most successful in Hollywood. But trying to hype his 'creative' credentials, he wants to be seen as a writer-producer, with writer coming first.

Scouring, I can find Grazer listed as a producer on 101 productions. I can find him listed as 'writer' on just four, and then only as 'story' writer, which is basically when a producer comes up with an idea for something he's producing. And the last of those was for 'writing' the 'story' of the very memorable Housesitter, in 1992.

Otherwise, scouring Amazon I can only find Grazer listed as having written a bit of the introduction to the published script of A Beautiful Mind, which he produced, and having written part of the foreword to the illustrated screenplay to The Da Vinci Code, which he also produced.

Some writer. But good enough for the LA Times, evidently.

Christopher Goodwin

 Martinez is the guy who effectively dumped Robert Scheer for Joel Stein. He can prattle, whine and burn all the bridges he likes, but I'll never remember him for anything else.

Jim Logan

 Can the Times actually continue to make themselves look worse than they already do? I don't think there are any winners in this story. The whole idea of turning Currents over to an outside editor, and starting with one from show business, was idiotic to begin with. Don't they have professional newspeople at the Times? Of course, seeing the pathetic piece of dreck that the former Opinion section has become, maybe I'm answering my own question.

Judy Bass

March 25, 2007 6:39 PM • Native Intelligence • Email the editor

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