Patterico's Pontifications

3/23/2007

What’s Really Going on With the Grazergate Deal?

Filed under: Dog Trainer,General — Patterico @ 7:53 pm

Speaking at Cathy Seipp’s funeral today, Allan Mayer said that Cathy would have enjoyed the current L.A. Times scandal. I think that’s right. After all, Cathy did open one of her columns with this great line: “Every once in a while, I wake up to a media buffoonery story so delicious it feels like it’s Christmas in July and Santa’s just left me a big plate of bonbons for breakfast.”

And there is no doubt: it’s great entertainment to see a top Times editor resign, excoriate the newsroom for its “agenda,” and say things about the paper like: “The wheels of this bus have come off.” This is a plate of bonbons so plentiful, there’s enough there for lunch and dinner.

But it would behoove the skeptical Times reader to look past the surface, and probe what’s really going on here.

By treating it as a major scandal, the paper is setting up an impossible standard for its staffers. For example, as this blog post shows, Times managing editor Jim O’Shea “was married to a manager of media relations for Chicago’s Field Museum” during his tenure as managing editor of the Chicago Tribune. And the paper covered the museum quite extensively:

The museum turned up in the Tribune‘s pages more than 1,200 times during O’Shea’s tenure, sometimes raising eyebrows in the newsroom. . . . In April 2004, for instance, the paper ran two back-to-back Page One stories lauding the museum’s efforts to establish a nature preserve in rural Peru. The feel-good nature of the stories, their lack of news hook, their unusual length for a newspaper (more than 8,000 words total), and their prominent placement all had staffers wondering if they were an anniversary present to O’Shea’s wife. As one Tribune staffer puts it today, “Why put this meaningless Field Museum story on Page One?” (Adding to the intrigue over the Peru series was the fact that Jack Fuller, then the president of Tribune Publishing, was dating a Field Museum scientist featured prominently—and favorably—in the stories.)

My point here is not to pick on O’Shea. I’d bet that, if you looked hard enough, you could find similar examples throughout the L.A. Times building, of people whose romantic relationships could cause ethical concerns every bit as meaty as Martinez’s . . . or O’Shea’s. And that is my point, which is put rather succinctly by a commenter to Martinez’s online resignation:

First, count up the people in the Times newsroom have had or are having sex with someone who has tried, is trying or might someday try to influence news coverage or opinion. Fire them. Then try to put out the next day’s newspaper.

And good luck.

My point is simple: while there might have been a minor issue of an appearance of impropriety in the eyes of some, this was really a big nothing of a “scandal.” Kevin Drum puts it this way:

I gotta be honest: even in the worst case — namely that Mullens suggested one of her firm’s clients to Martinez and he followed up on it — this seems remarkably….piddling. People know people. Ideas come from all over the place. Friends recommend things.

That’s about how I feel.

Which should lead you to ask: what’s really going on here?

Well, there are two data points to look at.

First, we have Martinez’s public statements. If you believe what Martinez has said publicly since he resigned, newsroom staffers were pressuring him to serve the newsroom’s “agenda” on the editorial page. Some “ostensibly objective news reporters and editors” lobbied for “editorials to be written on certain subjects” or “suggested that our editorial page coordinate more closely with the newsroom’s agenda.” In an especially telling comment, Martinez said in an e-mail to Kevin Roderick: “Some of the resentment of the opinion page’s newfound independence is ideological . . .” (My emphasis.)

Second, we have the New York Times article that says publisher David Hiller changed his mind after the paper’s editor was approached by several staffers claiming to be concerned about a conflict of interest:

The publisher, David Hiller, initially said he did not see a conflict, only the appearance of a conflict that could be handled with an editor’s note disclosing the relationship, said James O’Shea, the paper’s editor. But Mr. Hiller changed his mind yesterday after several staff members expressed their concern to Mr. O’Shea, and Mr. O’Shea spoke with Mr. Hiller. Yesterday, Mr. Hiller canceled the special edition.

From news reports, we know that this group included leftist Henry Weinstein, who uses the news pages to push his personal agenda, something I have documented many times (links collected here). In his e-mail to Roderick, Martinez implied that the group also included leftist Tim Rutten:

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 . . .

If you want examples of Rutten’s leftist tendencies, see here, as well the links collected here.

Let’s recap.

A cabal of staffers in the newsroom tries to influence the direction of the opinion page, some for “ideological” reasons. Martinez resists this attempt at interference.

Then, a cabal of staffers, including at least two well-known left-leaning ideologues, lean on the editor to take an extreme action on a non-scandal — knowing that such drastic action would be an effective way to humiliate Martinez.

Do you think there is any overlap or coordination between the first cabal of staffers and the second? I do.

Do you think this was a legitimate scandal that merited the extreme actions taken by the paper? I don’t.

I think there’s something else going on here. Tim Cavanaugh describes me as sniffing out a “left-wing coup,” and that’s about what I think has happened here.

Andres Martinez Names Names

Filed under: Dog Trainer,General — Patterico @ 6:30 am

Regarding his accusations that the newsroom has tried to influence the opinion section at the L.A. Times, Andres Martinez has written Kevin Roderick — and has named names:

[W]ith 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.

Martinez makes it clear that some of the attempted interference (but not all) was ideologically based:

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.

(All emphasis in this post is mine.)

Martinez describes the newsroom’s attempt to influence the opinion section as a much greater scandal than any appearance problems caused by his relationship with a flack for a producer getting a one-time guest editor spot. In making this point, he names more names — including one I had mentioned to you earlier this morning: Henry Weinstein.

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.

. . . .

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.

In mentioning “the desire to blend opinion with news,” Martinez obviously means the newsroom’s efforts to interfere with the opinion side of the paper, which he describes as a “far bigger breach” than his own. But there is a bigger problem there, which I rail about on this site regularly: the newsroom’s efforts to inject opinion into the news side of the paper. That is the biggest breach of all — and the one that the editor and publisher should be most concerned with ending.

L.A. Times Staffers Prompted the Cancellation of the Grazer-Edited “Current” Section

Filed under: Dog Trainer — Patterico @ 12:06 am

As I told you yesterday, L.A. Times publisher David Hiller yesterday decided to kill the upcoming Brian Grazer-edited Sunday Current section. This decision prompted the resignation of editorial page editor Andres Martinez, whose romantic relationship with an executive at a public relations firm representing Grazer had raised (in my view relatively spurious) concerns about a conflict of interest. But while the decision to cancel the Grazer edition of Current was made by Hiller, an article in this morning’s New York Times suggests that Hiller’s decision was heavily influenced by the intervention of staffers claiming to be concerned about the appearance of impropriety:

The publisher, David Hiller, initially said he did not see a conflict, only the appearance of a conflict that could be handled with an editor’s note disclosing the relationship, said James O’Shea, the paper’s editor. But Mr. Hiller changed his mind yesterday after several staff members expressed their concern to Mr. O’Shea, and Mr. O’Shea spoke with Mr. Hiller. Yesterday, Mr. Hiller canceled the special edition.

The only staffer named in the story is leftist legal affairs reporter Henry Weinstein:

Henry Weinstein, a veteran reporter at the paper, said he and others had told Mr. O’Shea that they were concerned about even the appearance of a conflict of interest.

“The newsroom’s credibility is the coin of the realm, and the paper shouldn’t do anything to erode its credibility or give the appearance that it has eroded its credibility,” Mr. Weinstein said.

I’m sorry — there are so many punchlines to choose from, I can’t select just one!

I will note, however, that in my view Henry Weinstein has done more to erode the credibility of the L.A. Times than ten “Grazergates” could ever do. Just to take one example, Weinstein has, on multiple occasions, described a notorious death penalty opponent as nothing more than an “an expert on methods of punishment.” Weinstein thus lent artificial credibility to the anti-death penalty findings of this “expert” — findings that would be viewed as having less force if Weinstein had done his job and told readers about the “expert’s” abolitionist proclivities.

I have more examples of Weinstein’s bias here, here, here, and here.

I highlighted yesterday a very interesting and revealing passage from Martinez’s eye-popping online resignation:

. . . 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 . . .

At the time, I wondered whom Martinez was talking about. I think you can add the name Henry Weinstein to the list of suspects.

UPDATE: Weinstein’s name also pops up in this morning’s L.A. Times piece about the controversy:

“O’Shea stepped up to the plate when the paper’s credibility was in question,” veteran reporter Henry Weinstein said. “He did the right thing and he did it with alacrity, which was a good thing for this newspaper. And I’m glad Hiller made the right decision.”

Surprisingly, the piece actually quotes Martinez’s accusation that newsroom staffers had tried to meddle in the opinion side:

In his parting blog, Martinez protested against “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.”

He said that editors from the newspaper’s California section had attempted to interest him in writing editorials about subjects that their reporters had covered. Martinez, who previously worked for the New York Times editorial pages, called that a shocking transgression that would not have happened at other major newspapers.

The news editors said they were simply trying to direct the editorial pages to subjects of interest to readers. They said they understood that the actual content of the pieces would have been left to the opinion writers.

Oh, of course! We would never suspect the L.A. Times newsroom of trying to influence people’s opinions!

UPDATE x2: After reading the Washington Post‘s article, I suggest adding Jim Newton to the list of suspects as well. Newton is described by the WaPo as a “reporter,” but the Editorial Staff Directory lists him as a City-County Bureau Chief.

UPDATE x3: Mickey Kaus’s headline is just too funny: Salivating lynch mob of LAT twits wins!

UPDATE x4: Martinez is naming names. Details here.

Ed Whelan on the U.S. Attorney Firings and the Politicization of DoJ

Filed under: General — Patterico @ 12:05 am

Ed Whelan has been doing excellent work on the issue of the U.S. Attorney firings, and a couple of his posts are worth extensive quotation.

First, we have some useful input on the story I mentioned yesterday about the alleged political interference in the tobacco case. Ed reprints an e-mail from a DoJ official who worked on the case, and adds his emphasis with italics:

AA June 10 editorial said that the Justice Department’s decision to reduce from $130 billion to $10 billion the amount it sought from the major tobacco companies in its fraud case “appears to be the result of political pressure.” It also came to the offensive and unfounded conclusion that the change was not based on the “legal merits” of the case as assessed by “career lawyers.”

I am a senior member of the Justice Department section involved with enforcement of racketeering laws. In 1998 the office of Attorney General Janet Reno asked whether it would be appropriate to bring civil racketeering claims against the tobacco industry for defrauding the public. I recommended that such a lawsuit be brought, and I have been a member of the case’s trial team ever since.

At the trial, Michael C. Fiore testified that a smoking-cessation program that would enable smokers who wished to quit to do so would cost $130 billion and take 25 years. However, the legal requirements that the appeals court established for the case said specifically that any remedy must be limited to addressing future violations of the law by the tobacco companies and may not seek to address the injuries caused by their past fraudulent conduct.

I was concerned that a reviewing court might conclude that Dr. Fiore’s proposal would not satisfy that standard, so I recommended that the department present to the court a modified program designed to comply with the appeals court’s decision. My recommendation was adopted.

With respect to the editorial’s allegation that witnesses were asked to soften their testimony, I was concerned that some witnesses were seeking to propose remedies that would violate the Constitution and laws and that the Justice Department could not endorse such proposals. As a result, the department determined that the witnesses it put on the stand had to include in their testimony a statement that they spoke only for themselves and not for the department — as they then did.

Both my parents died of smoking-related illnesses, and I yield to no one in my desire to devise remedies to help addicted people stop smoking. However, as a public official and an officer of the court, my actions must comport with the rule of law. My actions and those of other career prosecutors involved in this case have done just that.

Whelan has more on this here.

And Whelan responds to David Iglesias’s op-ed “Why I Was Fired” with a post titled “Why Iglesias Was Fired.”

Whelan says: “Iglesias offers not an iota of evidence for his charge that the Bush administration fired him (or any of the other U.S. attorneys) for improper political reasons.” He notes that the only clear case of misconduct was committed by Iglesias:

Iglesias does provide one clear account of improper behavior—his own. In the same paragraph in which he states that “[p]rosecutors may not legally talk about indictments,” he relates that he nonetheless informed Domenici that he didn’t think he would file corruption charges before November. Separately, he has admitted that he failed to comply with DOJ directives requiring him to report Domenici’s and Wilson’s improper contacts.

Finally, Whelan echoes recent comments from our resident Assistant U.S. Attorney WLS, regarding the importance of home state senators. Whelan says:

Understood in a very broad sense, “politics” probably played the same role in Iglesias’s ouster that it had played in his initial selection. For better or worse, same-party senators have extraordinary influence in the selection of U.S. attorneys for their home districts. Domenici was largely responsible for Iglesias’s appointment. Once he made the fact of his dissatisfaction with Iglesias clear to the Administration, it would hardly be surprising that the Administration would look to replace him at an appropriate time. (It is highly doubtful that it would matter to the Administration whether Domenici offered any reasons, though it’s worth noting that he has stated that he had growing frustration with Iglesias’s alleged failure to move expeditiously on immigration and drug cases.) Giving a home-state senator so much clout may not be the best practice (though there are around 100 senators who like that clout), and it’s understandable that Iglesias would feel aggrieved by it, but it would not be improper, much less scandalous.

I especially like Whelan’s clear way of distinguishing between “politics” understood broadly, which probably was an issue, and politics in the sense of influencing (or trying to influence) political prosecutions — a far more serious issue that there is scant evidence to support.


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