Dangerous Liaisons 

More hanky-panky than a whorehouse in LAT opinion section

Tuesday, Mar 27 2007

The labyrinthine nature of the Los Angeles Times’ Grazergate, Rumsfeldgate and even a possible Gatesgate scandal would be laughable if only it weren’t so lamentable. But behind all the drama and theatrics, behind all the other actors involved (a Hollywood producer, a Bush administration war criminal, the do-gooder wife of the Microsoft chairman, an editorial page editor brought down because he had the hots for a pretty-faced show-biz flack, a newsroom of sanctimonious newsroom reporters and editors acting all holier than thou about journalism ethics) is the leading man, L.A. Times publisher/CEO David Hiller. That’s because he’s solely responsible for the “Current” mess in the Sunday opinion section: He’s the moron who thought having a guest-editor program there was a brilliant way to get buzz for pages fast spiraling into irrelevancy, and he’s the dirtbag who misused his own personal and professional relationships to impugn the integrity of the supposedly independent editorial pages side of the paper he supervised. Talk about leading by example — Hiller is the archetype of a bad newspaper publisher.

I say throw the bum out.

Just look at the place now. The L.A. Times’ opinion section is embarrassed, the paper’s news side is horrified, Hollywood mogul Brian Grazer is humiliated. Meanwhile media critics hysterically beat up on the already embattled Tribune Co.–controlled Times. And Hiller’s most recent lame moves are to deep-six the quarterly guest-editor program and then send the paper’s so-called “readers’ representative” on a hypersensitive probe into whether personal or professional connections improperly influenced previous content in the editorial pages. Duh, of course everyone there massaged every connection, because the section was being run like the journalistic equivalent of a whorehouse.

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I’m sure ousted editor Dean Baquet is enjoying this from his new job as Washington bureau chief and assistant managing editor of The New York Times. After all, Hiller, the Tribune Co.’s toadie sent to the L.A. Times to quell a colonists’ revolt, fired him. But Baquet’s “Dean of Arc” act pitting the LAT newsroom against its Chicago bosses helped set up this fiasco as well. And, in irony of ironies considering Grazer’s involvement sparked the scandal in the first place, this saga would make a far better movie than the desultory 1994 The Paper he and his Imagine Entertainment partner, director Ron Howard, made about mixed-up journalism ethics at a big-city daily.

But Grazer guest-editing Current was just the foreplay for this orgy of influence. Melinda Gates was another insider choice for editorial pages editor Andrés Martinez. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been a friend of the section since the short-lived tenure of Martinez’s former boss there, Michael Kinsley, whose wife is the foundation’s CEO. (The L.A. Times editorial page even took up one of the foundation’s big causes, malaria in Africa.) Also offered a guest-editing gig was Donald Rumsfeld, despite the fact that he’s a longtime personal and professional friend of Hiller and also sat on Tribune Co.’s board of directors for years. I broke this story Sunday on DeadlineHollywoodDaily.com after sources told me that Rumsfeld’s selection was suggested and approved by Hiller.

The former Pentagon chief was expected to follow Grazer as the second Current guest editor. A lot of eyebrows were raised when the powerful entertainment mogul was tapped in the first place. More were when it came out that there was a romantic relationship between Andrés Martinez, the paper’s editorial page editor, who assigned the gig to Grazer, and Kelly Mullens, an exec for the Hollywood PR firm 42West, which just happens to represent Grazer’s production company. I’m told that Hiller knew all about the relationship because he got together with them on social occasions and still didn’t pull the plug — even though the girlfriend’s boss, 42West partner Allan Mayer, was the person who flacked Grazer to Martinez in the first place. Granted, it’s not news that a pushy Hollywood PR firm had considerable influence with the local paper. But was this improper influence?

The answer is yes. And Hiller should have known it.

Grazergate began when Steven Spielberg was Martinez’s first choice to guest-edit. So the Times man contacted Mayer, who had repped Munich. “He knew I had a professional relationship with Spielberg,” Mayer told me. “When Andrés told me about this guest-editor program he wanted to start, I told him Brian would be perfect for it.” Martinez, unfamiliar with show biz, didn’t know anything about Grazer. He went to his underling Nick Goldberg, who thought Grazer was a swell idea. Then, Mayer told me, Martinez called to say Hiller “loved the idea.” On January 22, Martinez, his deputy editor Michael Newman, and op-ed/Current editor Goldberg went to talk to Grazer in person to seal the deal.

Hiller knew Martinez was dating Mayer’s longtime number two, Kelly Mullens. “Because Hiller met her when Andrés brought her to social functions. Andrés never made a secret of it,” Mayer told me. Hiller also knew about the girlfriend’s PR connections to Grazer (something the publisher is waffling about now almost to the point of lying). “In fact, when it was decided that they were going to do this with Brian, Andrés made a big point of reminding Hiller. I thought that was kind of silly,” said Mayer. I’m told Martinez again reminded the L.A. Times of his girlfriend’s PR connection with Grazer just before the public announcement was made of the new guest-editor program.

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