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A Current Affair

L.A. WEEKLY: You were hired at The New York Times by Howell Raines when he was editorial page editor, right?
ANDRÉS MARTINEZ: I was indeed. In 2000.

 

How did that come about?
It’s amusing. I was writing editorials in Pittsburgh. In 1997, my wife got a great gig in N.Y. She was leaving her boring law firm job to work for the Center for Reproductive Rights. And, despite the fact I was very happy in Pittsburgh, we decided we wanted to go back to N.Y. I sent résumés everywhere, including at the NYT, both the newsroom and the editorial board. But I didn’t even get a post card back.

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I ended up going to the Wall Street Journal on the spot news desk. It was grunt work in the sense that I was churning out earnings briefs. The idea was that I would do that for a period of time, and I would do something more glamorous. Then, I cheekily asked for a book leave seven months later, and at that time I’m working out of home, and the NYT called. Howell’s assistant was looking for me based on the file they’d had. “We have an opening, and we saw your old clips...” The idea they held onto them for three years was very amusing to me.

They’re calling me assuming I’m still sitting in Pittsburgh earnestly writing editorials. My first thought was, this’ll be funny because I’m at home writing this wacky book and they’ll think this isn’t high-brow enough for the NYT editorial board. I did this first-person account of blowing $50,000 in Vegas. The whole purpose of the book was to have the publisher front me the money. It was sort of reality TV before there was reality TV. I thought this would be a strike against me. But Howell actually got a kick out of it.

Didn’t he write a book on fly-fishing?
Exactly. I worked under Howell for a year, then he went down to take over the newsroom, and his successor was Gail Collins, who’s still there. She took over maybe the week before 9/11.

What did you learn, or not learn while at The New York Times?
That’s an interesting question. Writing editorials at the NYT, once you shook off the stage fright of the first couple, was not all that different from writing editorials for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Obviously, the readership was quite different. But the self-importance of the institution can be oppressive at The New York Times. It starts hurting the honesty of an editorial page if you get too impressed with your own role in the process. And, at The New York Times, there was a tendency to get too caught up with the fact that we’re a player at the table. But I must say that Gail has been really good about not being overly impressed with the institutional role. But I was forced to think about that.

How was it different when you got out to the LAT a year ago?
This is now my third editorial page. And I thought the core elements of the exercise in New York weren’t that different from Pittsburgh, so I thought there would be a lot of continuity coming out here. The thing I had to remind myself is that the L.A. Times is more influential in L.A. than The New York Times is in New York. The mayor of New York City probably cares more what the [New York] Post and the [New York] Daily News thinks about him than The New York Times. It’s a more competitive environment media-wise there. And here, it’s basically us, and you guys, and the Daily News, but it’s not the same. Here, everything is more diffused, and you have more impact as an editorial page.

Do you see the L.A. Times as a national paper or a local paper?
The debate out here about whether or not we’re a national paper I find sort of tiresome. It’s a semantics game. I don’t think what you cover should be dictated by where your readers are. It should be dictated by what your readers are interested in. And I think it’s insulting to people in L.A. to pretend that they’re not interested in national or foreign issues. Any paper has a sort of balancing act they have to go through in terms of covering local versus the outside world. When I first arrived, I was amazed at how all-consuming some people found this existential argument over whether we’re a national paper or not. It just seems a big distraction.

Are you talking about the argument outside the paper? Inside the paper?
I think it’s both. Plugged-in members of any community think they have a sense of ownership over the paper. And I think it’s always been an issue for the L.A. Times internally.

How did you get hired at the L.A. Times? Who started the process?
Recently, my role at The New York Times had changed. Earlier in 2004, I went from being the writer to the assistant editor of the page, so I was settling in to that gig. Initially, I could just blissfully write my own pieces, and not worry about anything else. In 2003, I spent a lot of time and energy working on one series railing against farm subsidies in the U.S. and other rich nations, pegged to the WTO talks. There was a lot of reporting involved, and it was a great excuse to get out of the building. It was making the case on how devastating our subsidies are to the developing world, and the hypocrisy of us preaching free trade when it’s convenient, but when it comes to agriculture, we don’t really believe in free trade because we don’t want them to be as competitive. I went to Vietnam, Japan, Burkina Faso, France, Texas and Florida. [The series] was called, “Harvesting Poverty.” I was a finalist for the Pulitzer and lost out to the Los Angeles Times’ Bill Stall. Then I was editing other writers, and I still was able to do some writing.

I got a call totally out of the blue from Michael Kinsley. I’d always been a big fan of Michael’s going back to reading the New Republic in college, and seeing what he’d done at Slate. I thought he was the most accomplished opinion journalist that I could point to. I was a great admirer of his column, and what he thought.

Also, I had a California hankering. I loved living in New York, but I always found the place a bit provincial. I just never bought into the notion that it’s the center of the universe. I thought California was a more important place. And I was intrigued by L.A., though I confess I had not spent that much time here. And I grew up in Mexico.

Where?
I was born in Mexico City, and I grew up in Chihuahua. My Dad is Mexican, my Mom is American. My father was in business, he worked for Coke for many years and then for a beer company called Femsa. I think that was part of the appeal of L.A. I’ve always been very fond of the Southwest and California, having grown up in Mexico, and that fact that this is such a Mexican city, along with so many other things. That definitely made it very appealing. And I was getting a little restless, and the next move would have been to go overseas. And Kinsley said the L.A. Times had a lot of momentum. The people in New York were very admiring of what Dean and John had done. When I started at The New York Times, I don’t think anybody got a copy of the national edition of the Los Angeles Times and read it. By the time I left, I think everyone considered it a must read.

Haven’t they done away with that national edition?
Yes, they’ve since done away with it. [Laughs.] Now everyone’s more conditioned to looking online. It was still a tough decision to leave a great career at The New York Times. I also had a conversation with the publisher in New York when they were trying to keep me.

Pinch [the nickname for Arthur Sulzberger Jr.]?
I said I just think L.A. is really interesting. So he said, well, go there, but go there for us. We’ll even give you sun-tan lotion. I think some people at the NYT are just shocked that anybody would deign to leave. At the same time, people recognized it was a pretty cool opportunity. My one reason I paused was that the counter offer from The New York Times was to dangle some options before me, like to go overseas as a foreign correspondent in Delhi, Rio, Mexico City. All of a sudden, anything seemed possible.

That’s the only reason why the decision was somewhat difficult. On the one hand, I was being offered an ideal gig in the world of journalism working with someone I’d always admired in a place I was interested in going. But, on the other hand, part of me was thinking it might be cool to shift gears and go into a different type of journalism and get back into reporting... And everybody assumed I was wrestling with leaving The New York Times, or with The New York Times versus the Tribune Company. It had nothing to do with that. It just had more to do with narrative arc in life. Did I want to recommit to doing opinion journalism for a lot longer? And, in the end, I decided it was too good an opportunity to pass up. And John Carroll was very reassuring on that.

When did you first sit down with your new boss, Jeff Johnson?
I forget if it was late July or early August. It was a very healthy exercise because he really spent a lot of time. We met four or five times for more than an hour, closer to two hours, each time. And he hadn’t been in on the original deal of bringing me out with the expectation that I would necessarily succeed Kinsley. So I wanted to be very respectful of that. There were two things. That was one. And the other was that we were having this reorganization where the publisher was going to take more direct control of the editorial page, which I thought was great. But I thought he needed to be very comfortable with whomever was going to assume this role. I didn’t want to be presumptuous, as if the job was necessarily mine. But I tried to get him up to speed on what we do, and how we were trying to do it, and ways in which we could continue tinkering with the thing, and my vision of what we ought to be about. So I think there was a meeting of the minds there. I mean, the process took a month and a half or so because this was all new to him. And he got up to speed.

Have you two talked about some of the major complaints about the LAT? Did he talk to you at all about what is perceived as this right-wing feeling that the paper is just wacko liberal and doesn’t take them into account at all?
We talked about the philosophy of the editorial page and what the guiding principles are. And the other is the issue of balance on the Op-Ed pages. They’re sort of two separate issues. Do you provide a real diversity of voices to outsiders, and is there balance there? And the second one is what’s the institution’s world-view. So, yeah, we talked at great length about both of those things.

And is there a feeling that the LAT wants to bring in a lot more right-wing voices?
Um, no, I wouldn’t put it like that. In the last year, we’ve been building up a roster of Op-Ed page columnists, and a lot of this is offering a column to people on an experimental basis for a given period of time, and then revisiting those offers. I think when Michael arrived at the beginning of last summer, the Op-Ed page maybe had three columnists, Bob Scheer, Max Boot and Patt Morrison. And we’ve really ramped up. Everybody agreed that was a priority. As we round out this roster of columnists, I think there should be a rough balance there. I say that, but on the other hand, I actually like columnists who are hard to pigeonhole. If you have columnists who are easy to pigeonhole, it’s nice if they roughly balance each other out.

Are you aware that phone solicitations by the L.A. Times in recent weeks to try and get subscribers — and it’s clear they’re reading from a script since I’ve had this told to me over and over and over again by friends and acquaintances — ask if you’re angry about the political content of the paper. And before you’ve even answered, they go, “I want you to know that we’re bringing in a lot more conservative voices and conservative columnists.” Which frankly shocked me.
I didn’t know that.

Your reaction?
I’m not aware of that.

From the anecdotal evidence I’ve got, the L.A. Times was very hurt by the Schwarzenegger groping investigation being published on the eve of the recall election. Conservatives saw agendas. It pissed off a lot of them, and there’s been this real attack mode by conservatives against the paper since then.

Are you aware of any of this?
Not too much in the sense that I wasn’t here.

But it’s unbelievable what conservatives think of the L.A. Times.
Does it weigh heavily on me? No. About Arnold, mainstream media journalists tend to underestimate the appeal of non-traditional politicians. I saw it in New York too where the editorial page was asleep through the whole Bloomberg phenomenon. So setting aside the whole firestorm over the coverage of the groping allegations, editorial pages of all stripes are slow to pick up on the appeal of non-traditional politicians – and Arnold being a movie star, it was going to be all the more. So when I first got here, I did think I wanted to take the Arnold phenomenon seriously to the extent I felt there was a real mandate there in this extraordinary recall, and that people did look to him to change things dramatically, and that we needed to be mindful of that.

And he’s just been a total disaster.
It’s easy to argue that he’s botched this up 10 different ways. But when I first got here, it was still the second half of his honeymoon, and I wanted to be slightly deferential to the notion that he had a real mandate. And one of my first pushes was that we needed to start writing editorials supporting this constitutional amendment to enable foreign-born Americans to run for president. I said the principle in my mind is unassailable. This goes back to my criticism of many editorial pages being too tactical. I found some hesitation because people said, well, we’d be helping Schwarzenegger. I said I don’t care. We should be about the principle, and if it helps a Democrat, or helps a Republican, we should do it anyway.

And when it came time for the presidential election, you didn’t endorse.
The L.A. Times hasn’t endorsed since, what, 1972 or something? We did want to endorse, Kinsley and I, but the decision had already been made not to.

By Chicago?
No. It was actually a weird case of the new owners erring on the side of being too deferential to the quirky traditions of the natives. Because every other Tribune paper endorses, and they go both ways. So I suspect that will change. And clearly we were not pulling any punches in the editorials we were writing about the election. The day before the election, I wrote an editorial calling this a failed presidency. It might not have had an endorsement logo, but it was pretty clear.

Are you left of center? Right of center? I think I know, but maybe I don’t know.
I would say I’m not a big fan of labels, but that sounds kind of cliché.

You’re sounding like John Roberts.
That’s a tough one. It’s all relative. I think I’m definitely liberal on social issues. You know we’ve been unapologetically supportive of gay marriage and impatient in the sense that this needs to be done now.

What about affirmative action?
Generally, yes. That’s such a broad concept. So I think I’m socially liberal. And overall I probably average out middle of the road. In New York, I was famously the only editorial board member who was supportive of the war. And I think because of that a lot of people think I’m more right of center than I necessarily am.

I did get a couple of e-mails from people inside The New York Times saying you’re more conservative than one would think. But I didn’t know why.
In the context of The New York Times editorial board, I was on the conservative end. Now, it’s all relative. I think I may be less reflexively anti-business than a lot of earnest liberal editorial writers think they need to be. Mike and I didn’t agree on everything.

What did you disagree on?
Let’s just say we didn’t agree on everything.

On the subject of Joel Stein, are you going to keep him?
(Long pause). He’s a columnist for Current and that hasn’t changed.

Is it going to change?
I don’t know.

Does he have some kind of contract where he needs to be kept for a certain amount of time?
(Long pause). Good question.

In between calling me an idiot, Kinsley said I was a fuddy-duddy because I didn’t want change. He misread what I said. I said he was chaotic in his approach, like Wile E. Coyote zigzagging through the desert. What are you going to keep, and what are you going to jettison?
Mike definitely brought a different sensibility to a major metropolitan newspaper’s opinion pages. There were days when I found myself feeling like I was the fuddy-duddy, the adult whose role was to say, “No, Michael, we can’t do that.” That was a role I wasn’t accustomed to playing because I always thought I was a pretty irreverent kind of guy. But not compared to Kinsley. It was refreshing in the sense that he had never been at a newspaper so he did challenge a lot of the conventions. And he’s a shameless experimenter. He thinks things are worth trying, and if they work, that’s great, and if they don’t you move on.

And you’re not quite like that?
I think I’m a little more mindful of the restraints a metropolitan newspaper faces that a magazine might not. And I think he had more of a magazine sensibility. I’m hoping some of that pioneering spirit will endure.

One of my main criticisms of the paper has been that, under Carroll, it cared more about Pulitzers than it cared about local coverage. I mean, they renamed the Metro section California – totally ignorant of the fact that people here in Southern California don’t give a rat’s ass about what happens in Northern California. You’re already talking about increasing local coverage, increasing local writers...
I think we’re all in agreement – [publisher] Jeff Johnson, me and Nick Goldberg – that we need more of a local presence on the Op-Ed page.

Is that something Johnson is pushing for? Or are you?
Both. He definitely wants it, and I definitely feel it’s needed, and Nick recognizes it’s an issue, too. I think the mix of subject matter of on the editorial page right now is about right. But I think the Op-Ed page mix is a bit different, and the local component needs to be ratcheted up. There are plenty of arguments as to why you don’t need to do that. But I don’t necessarily buy them. The argument is that you’ve got columnists writing on local subjects elsewhere in the paper, [Steve] Lopez obviously. But I think we do.

Why would you bring on Dennis Prager, who already has so many outlets for his opinions? It’s like you only go to the usual suspects.
It’s not something I did. Remember, up until now, my bailiwick was the Editorial Page.

So things are going to change under you?
Yeah, I think change is a constant at a paper. It’s not going to be this abrupt change, of course. But over time there’ll be some differences people will see on the Op-Ed page and Current. I’ve been devoting my last year to the Editorial page, so giving me this job, I guess, is a way of ensuring some degree of continuity there.


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