Paper pulls opinion section; Martinez resigns

The editorial page editor of the Los Angeles Times resigned Thursday after the publisher killed an opinion section guest edited by Brian Grazer to avoid any appearance of conflict of interest.

Andres Martinez helped select the Imagine Entertainment partner, whose company is repped by Martinez’s girlfriend, 42 West praiser Kelly Mullens.

Although Martinez insists the selection was not influenced by his relationship, and publisher David Hiller said he also believed that to be true, the publisher decided the appearance of conflict of interest was too dicey for the Current section to be published as planned in Sunday’s paper.

The Times then scrambled to pull together an alternative opinion section for Sunday’s paper. Grazer’s Current section was skedded to go to press on Thursday.

“I think it’s fair to say we got ourselves into a predicament, and we should not have let it happen,” Hiller said in a story posted on LATimes.com on Thursday.

Martinez posted a long blog entry about the episode on the site after he resigned, accusing the paper of overreacting to the very forum he was using.

“In trying to keep up with the blogosphere, and boasting about their ability to go after their own, navel-gazing newsrooms run the risk of becoming parodies of themselves,” he wrote.

He said the publisher’s decision to kill the section made his position untenable at the paper and then defended at length his role in Grazer’s selection.

As Mullens’ boss, 42 West principal Allan Mayer, a man to whom showbizzers turn for crisis intervention expertise, found himself in the middle of Grazergate, as the controversy quickly became known. He suggested that killing the section would amount to moral bankruptcy on the part of the newspaper, then sighed about the implications after the deed was done.

“This whole dustup is not really about Brian Grazer or 42 West,” Mayer said late Thursday. “This is about an extremely toxic relationship between the newsroom and the editorial page. It’s a shame to see this once great news organization stinging itself to death like a scorpion.”

Within the paper, there was a split between those who believed the section should be spiked and those who felt Martinez was unfairly targeted by his enemies on the news side. The opinion pages used to be under control of the news side, but that changed when John Carroll left the paper in 2005; now that section answers to the publisher.

The row is the latest blow for a paper reeling from high-profile firings and pressure from parent Tribune Co. to cut costs as it shops for a buyer. Some likened the flap to the 1999 Staples profit-sharing advertising fiasco.

Hiller said the paper ultimately decided to spike the section as the best course of action to avoid even the appearance of conflict. He praised Grazer as “honorable and generous throughout” and expressed regret that he and the section’s contributors had been put through the ordeal.

The section was to carry a Paul Ekman article on lie detection, Andre Leon Talley essay on fashion and status and attorney Marty Singer’s take on brazen tabloids and paparazzi.

Grazer, for his part, expressed hope that the articles would soon see the light of day elsewhere.

“My hope now is that we can find another way to present the results of our efforts to the audience it deserves,” Grazer said in a statement.

The Times had approached Steven Spielberg, Steve Jobs and Warren Buffett about guest editing. Mayer, who has done PR work for Spielberg and Grazer, suggested Grazer when Spielberg could not fit the gig in his sked.

It’s not clear whether the paper will continue with its guest editor program.

Meanwhile, critics called for a further investigation of the Current section for other possible signs of influence by Mullens on the coverage.

Martinez, who took control of the editorial pages 18 months ago, when Michael Kinsley was pushed out, is separated from his wife. He has said that he started dating Mullens during his separation.

While eager to defend his role, Martinez did express regret for those caught in the crossfire. He blogged: “I regret that my failure to anticipate and adequately address the perception of a conflict in this matter has placed Hiller — whom I like and respect a great deal, incidentally — and my colleagues on the editorial board in such an awkward position, not to mention Brian Grazer and Kelly Mullens, who did nothing wrong here but have been caught up in all this.”

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