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 . . .
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.