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The Andrés Martinez Mystery

The Los Angeles Times’ new editorial-and-opinion editor, Andrés Martinez, is the personification of a riddle wrapped in an enigma when it comes to the right-versus-left political maelstrom that’s sucking subscribers out of the newspaper.

He’s either guilefully ignoring it or guilelessly unaware of it.

Take, for instance, his agreeing to a wide-ranging interview with me soon after his September 13 promotion (To read Nikki Finke's full interview with Martinez, click here) to replace kicked-to-the-curb (and sent-back-to-Seattle) Michael Kinsley. Martinez, a scant one-year LAT veteran, comes off so cocksure that he candidly spills how he’s “definitely liberal on social issues” and “unapologetically supportive of gay marriage and impatient in the sense that this needs to be done now” and says “yes” to affirmative action. But he also notes that in the context of his previous employer, The New York Times, “I was on the conservative end,” and “famously” the only editorial-board member who supported the Iraq war.

“Because of that, a lot of people think I’m more right-of-center than I necessarily am,” he says. “I also may be less reflexively anti-business than a lot of earnest liberal editorial writers think they need to be.”

Yet when I reveal to Martinez that the Times’ phone subscription solicitors are telling no-way-in-hell refuseniks that the paper’s “political content” is changing to include “a lot more conservative voices and conservative columnists,” he sounds rather nonplused. “I didn’t know that,” Martinez responds quietly.

“Your reaction?” I press.

“I’m not aware of that,” he sidesteps diplomatically. But he should be.

For Martinez is now CEO of what Kinsley mockingly labeled for months as the LAT’s Opinion Manufacturing Division, and it’s his new job to determine the ideological content of the editorial, op-ed and Sunday Current pages.

Day in and day out, ever since the 2003 California gubernatorial-recall campaign, when the paper published its election-eve Schwarzenegger groping allegations, the right-wing media have ganged up to savage the paper’s politics, all the while persuading conservatives to flee the LAT subscriber base in anecdotal droves. The flight did not go unnoticed inside the paper, and it has continued to obsess management even now. No doubt it’s why Martinez now reports to the commercial, and not the editorial, side of the paper. After all, his new boss, publisher Jeff Johnson, fervently believes in a link between content and circulation, and desperately wants to bring those right-wing ex-subscribers back as paying customers. (At the same time, media watchdogs on the left are logging a lot of Bush-centric spin and deception creeping into the LAT.)

Martinez admits that his sections have been “building up” new op-ed–page commentators, which I interpret to be code for hiring more conservatives and fewer liberals. “Um, no, I wouldn’t put it like that,” Martinez stammers.

“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,” he continues. “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.”

Martinez says he spent six weeks discussing the op-ed pages with his new boss, Johnson, and they specifically batted around this question: “Do you provide a real diversity of voices to outsiders, and is there balance there?”

Until Johnson was “up to speed” on Martinez’s views and vision, the journalist says, he was no shoo-in for the job. “It was a very healthy exercise, because Jeff really spent a lot of time. We met four or five times for close to two hours each time. But I thought he needed to be very comfortable with whoever was going to assume this role. I didn’t want to be presumptuous, as if the job was necessarily mine.”

Now that it is, Martinez promises change, though “not abrupt change.” He is quick to praise Kinsley, who hired him away from The New York Times, but also careful to distance himself. “There were days when I found myself feeling like I was the fuddy-duddy 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.”

Surprisingly, Martinez simultaneously commends and condemns Kinsley as “a shameless experimenter” who had more of a magazine’s sensibility than a newspaper’s. “I think I’m a little more mindful of the restraints a metropolitan newspaper faces that a magazine might not.”

Concerning the changes about to take effect, Martinez describes how he, Johnson and op-ed–page editor Nick Goldberg all agree that “we need more of a local presence. Jeff 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 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. The argument is that you’ve got columnists writing on local subjects elsewhere in the paper, like Steve Lopez, obviously. But I don’t necessarily buy it.”

 

 

Asked about the internal and external debate over whether the L.A. Times’ ambitions of being a national player have hurt local coverage, Martinez chides it as “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.”

Born in Mexico City and reared in Chihuahua by an American mother and a Mexican father, who worked as an executive for the huge beer company Femsa, Martinez received a B.A. from Yale, an M.A. from Stanford and a J.D. from Columbia. He practiced law before plying journalism; by 1997, he was writing editorials for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. When his wife got a gig in NYC, he applied to the NYT. “But I didn’t even get a post card back,” he says.

Three years later, he was reporting for The Wall Street Journal and taking book leave to pen a personal account about blowing 50 grand in Vegas. Out of the blue, he fielded a job offer from Howell Raines’ office based on those old clips. “The idea they held on to them was very amusing to me,” Martinez says.

In 2000, he moved to the NYT’s editorial page, working first for Raines and then for Gail Collins. He admits to having “stage fright” when he first started there. “But the self-importance of the institution can be oppressive at the NYT,” he claims. “It starts hurting the honesty of an editorial page if you get too impressed with your own role in the process. And, at the NYT, there was a tendency to get too caught up with the fact that we’re a player at the table.”

When Kinsley sought him for the LAT job, Martinez wrestled with the decision to make the move or not. “I had a California hankering,” he explains. “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.” For one thing, he felt that, as an editorial writer telling people what to think, he could have more impact in Los Angeles than New York.

“The thing I had to remind myself is that the LAT is more influential in L.A. than the NYT is in N.Y. The mayor of NYC probably cares more what the Post and Daily News think about him than the NYT. It’s a more competitive environment mediawise there. Here, everything is more diffused, and you have more impact as an editorial page.”

But his career was skyrocketing at the NYT: He’d been promoted from writer to assistant editor of the editorial page, and he’d traveled the country and the globe for an editorial series about farm subsidies. (“It was a great excuse to get out of the building.”) He lost the Pulitzer to the LAT’s Bill Stall.

He was also restless. Enter NYT publisher Pinch Sulzberger, who urged Martinez to go to L.A., “but go there for us. We’ll even give you suntan lotion.” Still another NYT counteroffer was to become a foreign correspondent in New Delhi, Rio or Mexico City. At the same time, Kinsley was describing how the LAT had “a lot of momentum,” and John Carroll was offering him a foreign posting in the future.

“Everybody assumed I was wrestling with leaving the NYT, or with the NYT versus the Tribune Co. It had nothing to do with that. It just had more to do with the narrative arc in life. Did I want to recommit to doing opinion journalism for a lot longer? In the end, I decided it was too good an opportunity to pass up.”

And look what happened. He gets assurances from Kinsley and Carroll . . .

 

“. . . and they’re all gone,” Martinez concedes.

Hasn’t this given him pause?

“No. Kinsley’s departure for me is a bit bittersweet. I enjoyed working with him, and he brought me out. On the other hand,” he says smugly, “I’m getting a promotion.” Given his own liberal leanings, and the LAT’s circulation problems, Martinez may soon find out the answer to his own riddle isn’t a question of right versus left, but whether or not what goes up must come down.

Email at deadlinehollywood@gmail.com


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