On March 24, Los Angeles Times media critic Tim Rutten expounded on the controversy surrounding the cancellation of an opinion section guest-edited by Hollywood produce Brian Grazer. The section had been commissioned by the paper's editorial page editor, Andres Martinez, who resigned when it was cancelled. Martinez then named Rutten as one of the "disgruntled newsroom" staffers who'd objected to the section on ethical grounds (because Martinez has dated a publicist who works for a firm that does work for Grazer). Rutten responded with a high-minded column entitled "These Rules We Live By," which is distilled and decoded below for non-Angelenos, especially those (you, Zell!) who might accidentally purchase the paper without knowing what they're getting into:
Full-Figured Rutten: ... [A] substantial number of my more than 35 years at The Times were spent on the paper's editorial pages — first as an assistant editor of the op-ed page, then as editor of Opinion and, finally, as an editorial writer. I was 24 when I first joined the section, and I vividly recall how daunting it was to be surrounded by vastly more experienced colleagues, many of them genuinely distinguished. I also remember being struck with how an attention to ethics wove itself through even the most mundane parts of our daily work and by — what seemed at the time — a fairly stultifying insistence on propriety.
There was a reason for that.
When Otis Chandler took over as publisher of The Times in 1960, the paper was justifiably held in low regard, and the editorial pages were, by any reasonable measure, positively disreputable. Ever since his great-grandfather, Gen. Harrison Gray Otis, had purchased the paper, its editorials had been used mainly for two things: One was to reward the proprietors' political friends (all Republicans) and to punish political enemies (invariably Democrats). The other was to advance the financial interests of the Chandler family and their associates.
Slimmer Rutten: I'm a dead-ender in the Cult of Otis Chandler. He took a horrible GOP rag and created something that looked like a great paper and was properly liberal like a great paper. It didn't really perform the function of a great paper (i.e., stirring up public debate) but we didn't know better. Some say Cult members are living as if the last two decades never happened. That's unfair. We are living as if the last four decades never happened--still fighting Otis' battles of 1960.
Full-Figured Rutten: ... Otis Chandler was determined to change that, and, working closely with the then editor of the editorial pages, Anthony Day, remade the department and instituted a system of daily checks and balances under which the editorial page editor reported simultaneously to the publisher and to the newspaper's editor. Moreover, the paper's senior newsroom editors — the managing editor, the associate editor and the national, foreign and business editors, etc., were brought onto the editorial board. (The point was to create a crowd too big to fit into anybody's back room.)
Slimmer Rutten: Most MSM writers probably think packing the ed board with news editors and creating elaborate checks and balances is a good way to produce timid, deadly dull editorials. It is! As Charles Trueheart said of Anthony Day's editorial page: "At the Los Angeles Times, everything remains to be seen." But for us, stuffy was classy!
F.F.R:The animating principle was a sense that the editorial pages were the place where The Times most directly expressed its conscience as an institution, something exercised as a public trust. Whatever readers thought of the editorials' conclusions, it was regarded as essential that readers believed those conclusions were reached honestly and dispassionately.
S.R.: The idea of a "dispassionate" ed page might seem silly to you. These are opinions, you say--readers can decide. But this is L.A. We aren't just a bunch of guys making arguments. Oh, no. Our opinions are going straight into gullible Angeleno brains, so they must be free of corrupting biases! We're like judges--another "public trust."
F.F.R.:Unfortunately, the system that assured this has been whittled away over the years, and recently the editorial pages were placed directly and solely under the publisher's supervision.
S.R.:Most big MSM papers (NYT, WSJ) separate news pages from ed pages, with publisher running the latter--as Martinez wanted. In the Cult of Otis, we believe in the merger of news and editorial. It gives us more power to fight the evil Chandler GOPs! But just because my position is idiosyncratic and doesn't mean I can't get all righteous about it.
F.F.R.: If you've been following the rather turgid little soap opera that Martinez has created around himself, this little bit of history won't strike you as a digression.
To summarize: Martinez resigned in pique after The Times publisher, David D. Hiller, told him he couldn't go forward with a Current section that was being guest-edited by Hollywood producer Brian Grazer. Hiller intervened when it was learned that Martinez has been dating a Hollywood publicist whose firm represents the producer. In fact, the agency obtained Grazer's business after Martinez's girlfriend's boss facilitated the arrangement between the producer and The Times. ... Hiller may have been slow to see a preposterous idea masquerading as an innovation — there's a lot of that going around these days — but he had no trouble at all recognizing an ethical train wreck when he saw it coming.
S.R.: At most MSM institutions, the key value is factual accuracy. I boast about the "rigorous" factual grillings during the Golden Age of Otis. True, there are at least two highly suspect factual assertions in the above paragraph: It's not clear that Hiller "had no trouble at all" recognizing an "ethical" problem. He seems to have hesitated until the last minute, saying there was only the appearance of a conflict. And Kevin Roderick questions the part about obtaining Grazer's business. But I'm sucking up to Hiller here! Maybe I can convince him this is what really happened.
F.F.R.:Like most of my colleagues at The Times, I'm fundamentally uninterested in other people's personal lives .. .
S.R.: I am a pompous ass.
F.F.R.:... but I've always subscribed to the late Abe Rosenthal's standard for journalists: I don't care whether my colleagues sleep with elephants, so long as they don't cover the circus.
S.R.Martinez wasn't "covering" anything. He was asking someone to ask other people to publish their opinions. Next week there will be more opinions. Most MSM papers think it makes no sense to stamp out "conflicts of interest" in the opinion section--it's where all sorts of conflicted players (pols, union officials, CEOs) make their case. But inside the Cult of Otis it makes sense.