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Times struggles to cover company town

THE LOS ANGELES TIMES was recently embarrassed by the public-relations fallout from a misguided relationship — the hometown paper’s longstanding love-hate association with Hollywood.

On its face, the latest dust-up involved Times editorial page editor Andres Martinez, who resigned after a special edition of the opinion section was abruptly scuttled by his bosses. Times brass feared a perceived conflict of interest because Martinez is dating a member of the PR team representing the guest editor, Imagine Entertainment co-founder Brian Grazer. (A too-late-to-be-pulled ad Sunday for the nonexistent section misleadingly identified Grazer as a “writer-producer,” providing a fitting coda to the whole sorry, if entertaining, spectacle.)

Yet whatever the issues surrounding Martinez’s romantic life — and as someone who was once married to a network PR exec, I’ll testify that acknowledgement and recusal are the only ways to handle such matters — his greater sin was the naivete behind an obvious stunt like the now-canceled guest editor program, along with enlisting a showbiz figure as its first participant.

AS FOR THE TIMES’ problem vis-a-vis Hollywood — and in the name of full disclosure, I worked there for seven years until 2003 — those roots run considerably deeper. At its core is a fundamental schizophrenia prompting the paper to cover a backyard industry as if it were a far-away foreign land — one of those exotic, hard-to-fathom places with strange customs, normally relegated to human-interest pieces at the close of a TV newscast.

Rather than emanating from the rank-and-file staff, this mentality has been fostered by a churning of editors through the newsroom from places like Dallas, Baltimore, New York, Chicago and even the wilds of Orange County, to whom the practices of those inhabiting the 310 and 818 area codes are so confounding that the locals might as well be speaking Swahili.

With each new permutation of management, then, the town’s peculiar habits are magically rediscovered, causing old stories about how things operate in “Tinseltown” to immediately become minty fresh. And while the new arrivals are invariably a trifle star-struck, because they are immersed in hard-news values, they have understandable difficulty processing entertainment’s economic and cultural significance juxtaposed against wars, floods and fires, frequently yielding coverage that manages to simultaneously suck up and condescend — a combination that’s harder than it looks.

A PRIME EXAMPLE of this disconnect, regularly found in the editorial pages over which Martinez until recently presided, is the work of Joel Stein, a wannabe sitcom writer and humorist whose column seeks out Hollywood oddities. Stein can be funny, but his court jester shtick — planted right next to editorials and op-ed pieces on Iraq and U.S. attorney firings — is hopelessly incongruous, reinforcing how out of touch the Times hierarchy has historically been in its tendency to view Hollywood as a fairy land, worth taking seriously only when there are movie ads to sell.

To be fair, as with any hometown industry, the Times faces a challenging and delicate balancing act. Perhaps a tenth of the area’s population derives its livelihood from media, meaning stories must address those in the thick of wheeling and dealing without talking over the majority of potential readers’ heads — offering something to both studio chiefs and my 83-year-old mother, who, unfortunately, does not have an overall deal anywhere.

Ideally, entertainment coverage would straddle this line, enlightening the casual outsider while still delivering insights to the lunchtime crowd at the Grill. That represents an elusive middle ground, and given that newspaper editors generally work late and some haven’t seen a movie since “E.T.,” the scales consistently tip toward deciphering this “wacky” world for those who know (and probably care) nothing about it.

Grazer was inadvertently drawn into this “Sybil”-like personality crisis, exploited as part of a harebrained attempt to appear hip — the hope being that a Hollywood mogul’s official sanction might infuse the normally sedate opinion pages with a grander measure of street cred.

So while pundits have tittered over this story’s salacious elements, in journalism as in tennis, love ultimately means nothing. Before Hollywood hops into bed with the Times again, though, it’s worth considering whether the powers that be respect you now, much less whether they will in the morning.

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