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.
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.
“Martinez, in what I took to be an excess of ethical zeal, told the paper’s spokesperson, Nancy Sullivan, that he was dating Kelly,” Mayer said. Yet not only did 42West help write the L.A. Times’ news release announcing Grazer’s guest-editor stint (which quoted Martinez extensively), but the release also listed Mayer’s and Mullens’ names and numbers as contacts.
“She was my backup,” Mayer maintained.
Hiller wasn’t supposed to drink the L.A. Times newsroom Kool-Aid. (His predecessor, Jeff Johnson, had gotten himself fired for backing Baquet’s refusal to make Tribune Co. budget and personnel cuts.) Yet Hiller did just that over Grazergate. After the paper’s media reporter was tipped to the potential scandal and started nosing around Martinez’s personal life, the editorial page editor took the unusual step of contacting the newsroom’s leader, managing editor Doug Frantz, and explaining every twist and turn. Frantz at first agreed with Martinez that there was no story for Rainey to pursue. But instead of quelling the internal controversy, that move created more newsroom consternation over whether the paper’s management was engaging in a cover-up. To make sure that didn’t happen, details about Grazergate were leaked onto the Internet via LAObserved.com (where L.A. Times newsroom staffers had also gone to complain about the Tribune Co. versus Baquet drama). Suddenly, Rainey’s story was going forward with Frantz on board.
Top newsroom editor Jim O’Shea, like Hiller a transplant from the Chicago Tribune, also became deeply involved. Not only did the defiant newsroom voice its ethical concerns to him — he took the arguments about a perception of conflict of interest to Hiller. (The “S” word was even raised: that 1999 Staples Center revenue-sharing scandal that brought down the L.A. Times’ management at the time and paved the way for the Chandler family’s sale of the paper to the Tribune Co.)
It was only this internal and external pressure that pushed Hiller to kill Grazer’s Sunday section rather than print it with a mortifying editor’s note detailing the Martinez-Mullen relationship. That’s when Martinez decided to take a hike. But he didn’t slink away quietly or surrender to accusations of ethical violations. Instead, in a fascinating instance of Old Media exploiting New Media, he went to the Internet to attack not only the decisions and actions of Hiller and O’Shea, but also those of individual newsroom editors and reporters who are still smarting from the ouster of their hero, Baquet. Martinez’s main charge is that the newsroom has been trying to dictate to the supposedly independent editorial pages.
“I think it’s fair to say that we got ourselves into a predicament and we should not have let it happen,” Hiller said about Grazergate. “The trust our readers place in us, built over 125 years, is of the highest importance, and we try never to do anything that would call that into question.”
Oh, puh-leeze. For the editorial page to even talk to Rumsfeld about the gig, much less offer it to him, is a far, far worse example of cronyism than Martinez’s connection to 42West.
Curiously, the righteous LAT newsroom didn’t make a peep about protesting Rumsfeld’s selection after so bitterly opposing Grazer’s. I think they were scared to take on the publisher himself. After all, the paper’s own media reporter had written the most superficial of profiles on Hiller when he was appointed L.A. Times publisher in October 2006. It fell to me back then to describe Hiller’s extensive ties to terrible Reagan administration policies — including the disgusting idea of “concentration camps” for the waves of Cuban and Haitian refugees coming to the U.S. illegally at the time — as a Justice Department special assistant to then attorney general William French Smith. I also cited a 2001 Chicago Tribune story noting that, when Rumsfeld was a director at Tribune Co., he was a “friend” of Hiller, then president of Tribune Interactive. The paper quoted Hiller gushing about Rumsfeld’s squash game. Then, in November, Hiller used the news peg of Rumsfeld’s resignation to personally pen a worshipful op-ed piece.
While the circumstances of Grazer’s selection prompted an almost absurd level of concern about the integrity of the paper’s Hollywood coverage, the Iraq war is a staple — yet another reason to stear clear of Rummy. But it was Hiller’s job to ensure that the LAT editorial page made the “right” connections. Because ever since the 2003 California gubernatorial-recall campaign, when the paper published its election-eve Schwarzenegger-groping allegations, right-wing media and bloggers have ganged up to savage the paper’s perceived lefty politics. The flight of the right obsessed Tribune Co. management.
Ergo Hiller. However, when he arrived here, the Republican Party–donating publisher was stuck with Martinez, an editorial page editor who’d been handpicked by his predecessor, neo-liberal Michael Kinsley. When I interviewed Martinez back in 2005, he candidly spilled how he’s “definitely liberal on social issues” but was considered “on the conservative end” at his previous employer, The New York Times, where he was the only editorial-board member who supported the Iraq war. But in charge at the LAT’s editorial pages, Martinez quickly got with Hiller’s program. Some left-wing columnists were dropped and right-wing columnists added. Soon the section was publishing bizarre takes on events or issues mostly written or assigned or edited by a small clique of fringe (neo-con, libertarian, thuggish right-wing, self-loathing liberal, feminist-hating female) ideologues all palsy-walsy with each other. Literally. This demimonde of a few successful but mostly barely employed TV producers, screenwriters, freelancers, bloggers and journalists meet on the first Friday night of the month at Yamashiro restaurant in Hollywood. Not only did Martinez frequent, but his underling Nick Goldberg is a regular.
All this L.A. Times infighting occurs, of course, against the backdrop of Tribune Co. putting itself up for sale; the uncertainty over who will ultimately control the parent corporation has been making the atmosphere inside that much more poisonous. Financial reports say Tribune could accept real estate tycoon Sam Zell’s $8 billion offer for the entire company before March 31. Since the Chicago bosses won’t fire Hiller, that should be a new owner’s first act.
For more Nikki Finke check out Deadline Hollywood Daily at www.deadlinehollywooddaily.com/
Email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.