Attack of the Philistines

Come back, Mike Kinsley. You can even cart back your wacky Wiki-torials and unsigned, format-breaking and often irrelevant rants. All is forgiven.

Much of the shiny gimmickry deployed by the L.A. Times’ recently departed editorial director to reinvent his section of the paper during his brief, one-year tenure didn’t quite cut the mustard. But at least Kinsley’s bag of tricks included more than a solitary sling blade.

That’s more than can be said for his replacement, Andrés Martinez. Martinez has got a great pedigree and sure seems like a smart guy. Anyone who writes a book on how he blew his entire advance in Las Vegas can’t be all that bad. Yet the single distinguishing characteristic of his reign so far — at least as seen from outside the paper — has been to chop and slash.

First, he killed off the paper’s long-standing stars of the Left and Right — liberal icon Robert Scheer and Pulitzer-winning cartoonist Michael Ramirez. To fill the bloodied op-ed page, Martinez then installed a rotation of minor-league freelancers that one veteran editor disdainfully dismissed as “the seven dwarves” — a lineup that includes dunderheaded screenwriter Joel Stein and squeaking cable-show performer Jonah Goldberg.

Now, in a second round of purges, there are echoes of Corleone-like maneuvers. Pulitzer-winning editor Bob Sipchen — who was Martinez’s rival for his new job — has been exiled from the Sunday opinion pages. Then, Martinez reportedly flew to Sacramento to personally tell another Pulitzer winner, Bill Stall, that his position had also been eliminated. When Martinez was still with The New York Times, he was a mere runner-up when Stall won a 2004 Pulitzer. Stall? You won’t see him no more, Sonny.

The re-shuffle of the editorial board also saw Pulitzer winner Alex Raksin get dealt out. And former editor of La Opinión and long-standing member of the editorial team Sergio Munoz has also been bought out. No editorial member has yet reported waking up with a severed horse head under the covers — but there’s always time.

The blood purge at the Times — 85 editorial employees during Thanksgiving week — goes far beyond the editorial pages. Picking on Martinez might be unfair. Who knows what pressures he’s under and what plans he has? But as a journalist, a smart journalist no less, he should know it’s all about perceptions. And the perception of what Martinez is doing just plain sucks. Nor did he help his case much when he was recently given ample opportunity on Warren Olney’s radio show to explain himself and his evasive answers made him sound like a slightly sharper Scott McClellan.

Giving Martinez the benefit of the doubt, the real culprits here are the suits from the Chicago-based Tribune Co. who are demanding the staff slashes. Yes, their newspaper is in crisis — but it’s hardly unprofitable. The Times’ own business columnist, Michael Hiltzik, recently reported that the paper raked in $200 million in profits last year, about a 20 percent return. But, you know, nothing is ever quite enough. The Tribune board wants a 25 percent or even higher rate of profitability. In a piece on Bob Scheer’s new Web site, former L.A. Times Book Review editor Steve Wasserman quotes another former “high official” of the Times saying of the Tribune management: “You’ve no idea how fast these folks are strip-mining the place . . . They’re Midwestern white men obsessed with only two things: the Chicago Cubs and accounting. They care nothing for journalism. They are Philistines.”

The Philistine tribal leader is Jeff Johnson, publisher, president and chief executive officer of the L.A. Times (he modestly shunned the added title of Intergalactic Commander). It’s Johnson who’s directly overseeing the staff massacres as well as micromanaging some of the dumber editorial moves. In his mind, he’s modernizing the paper, making it not only leaner, but also more responsive to a shifting and restive readership. Much like George W. Bush building democracy in Iraq. Says one disgusted senior Times editor: “Johnson goes to lunch with the Newport Beach Kiwanis Club and gets an earful from these golfers how the Times is out of touch with its readership. That’s the sort of reader he’s listening to.” It’s the management, however, that can’t fathom its own city. Says Wasserman: “There is a strong feeling within the newsroom at the Los Angeles Times that its Chicago masters regard Los Angeles as an alien planet whose denizens are made of different DNA.”

Before his media-management career, Johnson was a trained bean counter at KPMG Peat Marwick — the perfect stereotype of the new breed of newspaper bosses. Guys who, indeed, never demonstrated any passion for the underlying business. They might as well be, yes, cereal salesmen. Let Johnson continue on his current course and we won’t be only wishing for a return of Kinsley but also yearning for the good old days when former publisher Mark “Captain Crunch” Willes sold the paper out to the Staples Center.


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