Years ago, there was a notorious movie based on a best-selling book called The Harrad Experiment, whose plot centers on a college that conducts an avant-garde policy of encouraging students to experience sexual freedom. Tension and confrontation ensue, yet this intentionally dramatic film just appears ludicrous.
That’s how it is with The Kinsley Experiment, which officially ended this week at the Los Angeles Times not with a bang but with him whimpering to a rival newspaper. It also leaves behind a readership confused by Michael Kinsley’s yearlong fling with editorial freedom during which he flippantly recast the venerable editorial and opinion sections into a comedy of errors — describing readers as “assholes,” hyping wikitorials, inciting blog porn on the Web site, and snidely dubbing his domain “The Opinion Manufacturing Division.” Good riddance, Mikey. Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out to your new $6.2 mil Seattle mansion, purchased right before you took the LAT job. All day Monday, the offices of the LAT’s editorial, Op-Ed and newly christened Current sections swirled with water-cooler talk that boss Kinsley would be leaving now that he has to report to the commercial, and not the editorial, side of the newspaper. His staffers were already reeling from that under-the-radar bombshell: the announcement that LAT Editor John Carroll would be moving out of, and Managing Editor Dean Baquet into, the Spring Street power office, and that, “as part of the leadership transition,” Kinsley would report not to the Editor but to recently installed Publisher Jeff Johnson. LAT spokesperson Martha Goldstein did not confirm or deny that Kinsley was leaving, repeating only the mantra that “Kinsley’s role is evolving.” At first it looked like nothing would be decided right away since Johnson was vacationing this week, and Kinsley was working from his principal residence in Seattle before taking the entire month of August out of the office. Yet the buzz among his staffers Monday was that Kinsley wouldn’t be returning from vacation, and there was also word that he was giving up his downtown L.A. pied-á-terre in Bunker Hill Towers. That’s the same place he’d recently boasted afforded him only a 10-minute commute from the paper’s headquarters if he walked, but inevitably drove. That small revelation only served to underscore how little actual contact he’s had with his unadopted city.In typical Kinsley fashion, self-serving and self-righteous, he beat his own paper to the punch and on Monday gave the news of his stepping down to the LAT’s arch-rival, The New York Times. He claimed he told the editorial staff last week, “Something’s going to change in my job description, but I’m not leaving the [Los Angeles] Times and nothing will happen for months.” He also blamed his demotion on the always-ridiculous circumstances that had him commuting between Seattle and Los Angeles. (His first TV appearance in the job was on CNN with the Space Needle prominent in the background.) “It’s a very complicated arrangement I have, and not all aspects are working as well as others,” he told the NYT. “This living in Seattle and editing the editorial page is not an ideal arrangement. It’s not ideal for me and it’s not ideal for the paper. I don’t think it’s terrible. I think I’m doing a pretty good job. But that’s the one thing that is not working out, so we’re going to try to fix it.”A pretty good job? On what planet?A more accurate description of his tenure at the LAT would be a pretty horrible job that’s proved disastrous both to Kinsley’s persona and to the paper’s prestige.Take the way he administrated. Normally, any change at a newspaper happens slowly amid much careful thought and laborious planning so as not to upset subscribers. But Kinsley ascribed to the chaos theory and didn’t give a rat’s ass about readers, at least not the ones on the West Coast. Instead, he took pleasure in reinventing his sections not just annually, not just every six months, but weekly and sometimes even daily. One minute he was announcing with great fanfare a new feature of regular “wikitorials” as if he’d reinvented the Internet; the next minute he was deleting comments filled with porn and swear words. He declared this obvious failure a wild success even if in his eyes only. That’s because his primary purpose was to attract attention to himself on the East Coast among those journalism peers and political pundits he’d carefully cultivated in New York and Washington over three decades of schmoozing and sucking up.That Kinsley took the LAT job in the first place was a shock because he’s always been a moth to the flame; yet he may have been the last to discover that, despite the LAT’s reputation, it has no national heat. If anything, Kinsley held Los Angeles in contempt as a third-rate city. That’s the only explanation for his much-derided decision to devote two full pages of Sunday Opinion to cartoons about the mayor’s race when that space could have been devoted to insightful analysis leading up to the March primary. Kinsley never did learn that L.A. is far more complex than just a night at The Improv.Carroll, just as East Coast–centric as Kinsley, hired him no doubt because of his national rep. But at what cost? The LAT was hemorrhaging conservative subscribers after that Schwarzenegger sexual-harassment probe was published on the eve of the gubernatorial recall election, yet Carroll only fed that anger with red meat in the person of a legendary lefty.Carroll also overlooked that Los Angeles has long been ground zero for the progressive movement. It probably never occurred to him that he’d disappoint this constituency by hiring Kinsley. That’s because the one-time New Republic and Slate editor brought to the party an old-school liberal penchant for placing witty banter ahead of serious argument. An example is that recent Kinsley-penned LAT commentary downplaying the significance of the so-called Downing Street Memo concerning the timing of the decision to go to war with Iraq and the Bush administration’s distortion of the related WMD intelligence. He had the arrogance and audacity not just to pooh-pooh the memo’s contents but also to poke fun at the progressive movement for pumping up the volume surrounding it. “I don’t buy the fuss. Nevertheless, I am enjoying it, as an encouraging sign of the left’s revival. Developing a paranoid theory and promoting it to the very edge of national respectability takes ideological self-confidence,” Kinsley ridiculed.Rush Limbaugh couldn’t have been more dismissive..
The Kinsley Experiment got off on the wrong foot from the get-go. He spiked his first attempted LAT editorial — an ironic reflection on the decapitation murder of screenwriter Robert Lees — after his fellow editorial writers urged him to rethink the piece, and even Carroll advised him against running it. The incident showed just how ignorant of L.A. sensibilities Kinsley was since he thought everything that happened with a Hollywood angle, even a brutal slaying, was fodder for making fun. That faulty attitude was only compounded when Kinsley hired the imbecilic Time magazine columnist Joel Stein, king of the conflict of interest, to write jejune rants about showbiz. Together, Kinsley and Stein were like the Beavis and Butt-Head of the LAT editorial and opinion pages, a pair of cutups thinking up new ways to annoy so that people would notice them. That’s why Stein railed against Harry Potter, and why Kinsley took the contrarian view that Judy Miller shouldn’t protect her sources. That they’re coming off as sophomoric putzes doesn’t matter — they’ll sacrifice principle for a PR prank. (Like that electric-shock sound that played when the new Current section clicked open on the Web site. It was taken down after online readers complained en masse.)Increasingly, Kinsley’s sections were packed with pablum penned by lefty cronies and wacko neocons. One of the few significant takeouts he published, part of what was to be an ambitious monthslong campaign against malaria in Africa, proved tainted. That’s because the disease is a major philanthropic emphasis of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where Kinsley’s wife is the co-chair and president. True, the editorial disclosed the relationship, but it left unanswered the question of whether there weren’t issues closer to home that deserved equally extraordinary prominence. One of his few editorial successes, inviting the LAT’s most vocal and more articulate critics to have at the institution they love to hate, proved sadly short-lived. But he’ll be remembered less for that innovation and more for his knock-down, drag-out feud with feminist lawyer/USC academic Susan Estrich. She made the argument to him that the LAT was lacking in female opiners, and he was slow to invite her into his editorial big tent. To her discredit, and avowed regret, she fouled out with a below-the-belt comment about Kinsley’s illness (he revealed in 2002 that he’s battling Parkinson’s disease). The back-and-forthing generated not just immediate sympathy but also immense press for Kinsley, and no less than Maureen Dowd praised Kinsley at Estrich’s expense. But a lot of ink also was generated last month by Kinsley’s shakeup of the LAT’s 11-strong editorial staff. It was an avowed effort to bring in some “new blood” that turned into a major bloodletting when he transferred four of his writers, let one go, and outsourced some editorials to freelancers. Those moving on were holdovers from the editorial board that Kinsley inherited. As the NYT archly noted, many on the LAT staff knew what was coming because Kinsley accidentally left a PowerPoint document describing his plans on a Xerox machine in their office in early May. Nor was Kinsley’s job change unexpected, either. As I wrote last week (“Baquet Begins”), bets were being placed inside and outside the paper on how long Kinsley would last in his gig now that his benefactor, John Carroll, was leaving and the publisher was yanking back oversight of the editorial and opinion sections from the LAT editor. There was never any doubt that Carroll’s successor, Dean Baquet, would lead the Los Angeles Times. The only question was the timing. There is no doubt either that the paper Baquet is about to lead will be a shell of its former glory, thanks to parent Tribune Co. He inherits a once stalwart institution now beset with problems: nose-diving circulation, spotty penetration, weak advertising, unwanted budget cutbacks ordered by Tribune, increasing portents that the newspaper could be sold sooner rather than later because its business plan is hopelessly doomed. For some time now, Carroll’s friends atop the media world had been hearing his complaints about Tribune wanting to dismantle the improvements he’d made, in both editorial and morale, and tsk-tsked back about how it was a national tragedy.
Actually, the real tragedy here is local: the LAT now does an even crappier job covering Los Angeles than ever, despite Carroll’s multi-Pulitzer-winning tenure.
Now, let’s hope the Times learned from its failed Kinsley Experiment and looks for his replacement closer to home.
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