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Columnist

L.A. Times turmoil exposes how news editors try to influence opinion pages


March 23, 2007 8:29 AM

The Los Angeles Times editorial page editor quit in a huff Thursday after the publisher axed a "special edition" of the Sunday opinion section edited by a Hollywood producer. It's turning out to be a sordid tale of a possible conflict of interest because the producer was a client of the publicist girlfriend of editorial page editor Andres Martinez.

Is it right for a publisher to step in and kill newspaper content over concerns about conflicts of interest, bias and just plain incompetence?

The answer: Yes, except in Santa Barbara where the owner and publisher apparently isn't supposed to have anything to do with content, even though the owner is ultimately responsible for the news and advertising product.

I can't wait to see if the newspaper industry treats Times Publisher David D. Hiller to a different standard than it has owner Wendy McCaw's efforts to rid the News-Press pages of conflicts of interest and bias by editors and reporters. An independent survey found a vast majority of News-Press readers in the past thought reporters interjected personal views into stories.

Mr. Hiller was well within his rights.

But I do credit Mr. Martinez for bringing to light a common problem in American newspapers.

He wrote on a blog: "Among the biggest possible conflicts of interest a newspaper can enter into is to have the same people involved in news coverage running opinion pages. I am proud of the fact that (former publisher) Jeff Johnson, (former editor) Dean Baquet and I fully separated the opinion pages from the newsroom at the Times. I accept my share of the responsibility for placing the Times in this predicament, but I will not be lectured on ethics by some ostensibly objective news reporters and editors who lobby for editorials to be written on certain subjects, or who have suggested that our editorial page coordinate more closely with the newsroom's agenda."

The Times only relatively recently switched to a structure -- such as at the News-Press -- where the newsroom editor and opinion editor each report directly to the publisher.

As I've noted before, Mrs. McCaw's steadfast commitment to maintain this division has over the last six years riled certain former newsroom editors or reporters who've coveted input in or outright control over the opinion pages. Some of these "journalists" tried to exert veto power over the publishing of letters critical of coverage or about claims of reporter bias in stories. They've lobbied for editorials, suggested political endorsements and tried to get commentaries from friends or others published.

These are some of the hypocrites who've been out in the plaza or elsewhere protesting the News-Press on journalistic grounds. (In further betraying their former craft, they've teamed with local politicians who want to shut down the News-Press because they don't like our editorial opinions.)

In all the coverage of the changes at the News-Press, the local and national reporters have uniformly ignored the fact that the supposed "wall" between news and opinion is murky at best at most U.S. dailies because the opinion editor often works directly for the newsroom editor.

I recall being interviewed by New York Times reporter Sharon Waxman last summer while I served as acting News-Press publisher. She seemed completely unaware that such situations are common. I suggested she just look at the nearest dailies up and down the coast.

Ms. Waxman would have found at the Ventura County Star that Editor Joe Howry and Managing Editor John Moore are on the Star's editorial board. Star opinion editor Marianne Ratcliff told me last year that if every single member of the Star's editorial board opposed a certain stance, Mr. Howry could veto them. He basically oversees news coverage at the same time as serving as ultimate editorial page director.

The Santa Maria Times also has this ethically challenged setup. Its editorial board includes the executive editor and managing editor. In reaction to a column of mine, the Santa Maria editor Tom Bolton even wrote a column defending the arrangement and printed it on "his" editorial pages.

But as Mr. Martinez writes: "Among the biggest possible conflicts of interest a newspaper can enter into is to have the same people involved in news coverage running opinion pages."

Why are these local papers and the newspaper industry in general afraid to address this head-on and make changes?

Travis Armstrong is the News-Press editorial page editor and host of a Wednesday talk show on AM 1290.