L.A. Times May Have Dumped Grazer, But It Could Have Been Rummy
One evening in November of last year, Andrés Martinez, the editorial-page editor of the Los Angeles Times, found himself sitting on Dean Baquet’s back porch, smoking a cigar and contemplating his future.
Mr. Baquet’s 16-month tenure as editor of the newspaper had just been cut short; battles with the paper’s ownership in Chicago over newsroom cuts prompted his resignation, as well as a rousing farewell address delivered from atop a newsroom desk.
“He was worried about the cuts [and] the future of the paper,” Mr. Baquet remembered, speaking of the back-porch bull session. Mr. Baquet said that he encouraged Mr. Martinez “not to do anything rash.”
“I should have followed Dean out the door,” said Mr. Martinez on March 24, two days after he did follow Mr. Baquet out the door with his resignation from the editorial-page job. “I was nine-tenths of the way there.”
To summarize: Mr. Martinez sought a guest editor to commission opinion pieces for the March 25 “Current” section and acted on a suggestion by L.A. powerbroker Allan Mayer to ask producer Brian Grazer. Selected after a Beverly Hills meeting with Mr. Grazer’s representatives and members of the editorial board, the producer commissioned five pieces before the section was killed by the publisher, following revelations that Mr. Mayer had subsequently been hired by Mr. Grazer’s Imagine Entertainment. And it was revealed that Kelly Mullens, who had a personal relationship with Mr. Martinez, worked for Mr. Mayer and played a minor role in editing a related press release and pitching the story to the A.P.
Although Mr. Hiller said that the “relationship did not influence” the guest-editor selection, according to a statement, killing it was necessary to “avoid even the appearance of conflict.”
On March 22, he posted lengthy screed on the newspaper’s Opinion blog, entitled “Grazergate, the epilogue,” in which he wrote:
“I accept responsibility for creating this appearance problem, though I also maintain that the newspaper is overreacting today.”
While Mr. Baquet’s criticisms of the Tribune Company, the parent company of the Los Angeles Times, on his way out the door seemed to be cheered by the newspaper’s beleaguered staff, Mr. Martinez’s comments have received a more complex reaction from the newsroom.
“We cover this guy,” said a Times staffer about the invitation to Mr. Grazer to guest-edit. “Whether there is a wall of separation or not, it just struck a lot of people as unsavory.”
“It’s very easy to be seduced by the glamour of Hollywood,” added the staffer.
“One of my frustrations in all this is, they are leaving me out as the guy that sucks up to Hollywood,” said Mr. Martinez. “It’s not like I had an opportunity as editorial-page editor to dive into Hollywood. I was busy with learning about local politics.”
Granted, when you live in Hollywood, the local politics can get weighed down with some pretty heavy names.
During Mr. Martinez’s tenure, two of those were names were actor Warren Beatty and entertainment mogul (and prospective Times buyer) David Geffen.
“[Mr. Geffen] spent half the lunch talking about how the Clintons were fascists,” said Mr. Martinez, of the August 2005 meeting. He had a few other gripes, according to Mr. Martinez: cuts to the sports section, coverage of his Malibu beach-house controversy, and an editorial critical of DreamWorks.
But more than 95 percent of the time, by his account, editorial-board lunch guests were more on the order of police chief William Bratton, Delta C.E.O. Gerald Grinstein and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. (Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff was slated for the afternoon that Mr. Martinez resigned.)
Among Mr. Martinez’s post-resignation boosters has been Jacob Weisberg, the editor of Slate, with whom Mr. Martinez discussed publishing the entire Grazer-edited section the day after he quit.
“When people are talking about them, it’s important to put it out there,” said Mr. Weisberg, who expected to have the pieces on March 23.
But Mr. Grazer, according to Mr. Martinez, nixed the idea.
Slate would perhaps have been an ironic place for the section to appear. The founding editor of the site, Michael Kinsley, had been brought on by the Los Angeles Times to revive its opinion section in 2004, and when he found himself looking for a bright No. 2 man, Mr. Weisberg sent him Mr. Martinez.
“Kinsley and I definitely thought you can’t just continue publishing ponderous articles from university professors that nobody reads,” said Mr. Martinez. “You want to generate some buzz and interest. We were trying to do interesting, fun things that had merit.”
It was in May 2006, by his account, that Mr. Martinez came up with the guest-editor idea, but some of their early invitees declined, including Steve Jobs, Jimmy Buffet and Steven Spielberg.
Earlier this year, Mr. Hiller was lobbying his old Tribune pal and squash buddy Donald Rumsfeld, according to Mr. Martinez, while he worked on securing Mr. Grazer.
Mr. Martinez said he liked the idea that the curated section would contain “pieces that tell you about that one person’s sensibility.” He added: “What if one of Rumsfeld’s is about his favorite flower? Or four about how great the Iraq War was?”
If Mr. Martinez and Mr. Baquet’s departures provide a basis for comparison, so did their arrivals. Both had left The New York Times for No. 2 jobs out west, working on the editorial and news sides, respectively.
Now, Mr. Baquet is back at The New York Times, as the newspaper’s Washington bureau chief. For how much longer will the two men’s paths converge?
Mr. Martinez himself wouldn’t comment on the prospect of following Mr. Baquet back to The New York Times, and there was no word from the paper about a conversation.
Of course, the love relationship between Mr. Martinez and his former employer was never as sweet as Mr. Baquet’s.
Mr. Martinez said that he had maintained a good relationship with former Times colleagues—at least until an October 2005 editorial that criticized the paper over the Judy Miller debacle.
“Gail Collins sent me a note that she would never speak to me again,” said Mr. Martinez.
…And It All Began With Roseanne
Back in 2001, when the architect Rem Koolhaas was doing some consulting work for Condé Nast, he asked Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired magazine, a highly technical question about the mechanics of journalism: Why so many headline puns?
“It’s questions like that which are hardly ever raised within the media world,” Mr. Anderson said in a recent interview.
Mr. Anderson related the story to explain why he likes to invite the occasional non-journalist to guest-edit his magazine. (In a separate conversation, when Mr. Koolhaas suggested that Wired should consider bringing in guest editors, Mr. Anderson promptly signed him up for the job.)
“The point is to have an interdisciplinary collaboration, where the guest editor brings a sensibility and a perspective and a breadth of topics that they are interested in,” said Mr. Anderson. “And we bring the magazine-making skills.”
The only downside, according to Mr. Anderson, is that you have to factor in certain inefficiencies that arise from working with non-journalists.
“You end up having to over-commission by about a factor of two,” said Mr. Anderson. “So there are transaction costs that come along with it.”
Just ask the Los Angeles Times, where the fracas over a plan to hire Hollywood producer Brian Grazer as guest editor for the editorial pages of the newspaper ultimately resulted in the resignation of Andrés Martinez, editor of the section.
Though less common than the celebrity column, the celebrity guest editorship remains a staple of magazine journalism from the fresh (Hilary Duff at the helm of Seventeen) to the forgotten (Craig Kilborn as the editor of Gear) to the classic (Salvador Dali’s 1971 issue of French Vogue) to the often-lamented (Roseanne Barr’s 1995 guest-edited issue of The New Yorker).
And as newspapers and magazines struggle with a difficult market, it’s just the kind of gimmick that starts to appeal to editors desperate to reach their readers.
Tina Brown, who was the editor of The New Yorker from 1992 to 1998, remembers all of the publicity surrounding her announcement that Ms. Barr would guest-edit the magazine.
In the end, she said, Ms. Barr had essentially no role in editing the issue.
“Frankly, the ideas, I didn’t like them,” said Ms. Brown.
In part, she said, it’s because celebrities often have unrealistic ideas about what makes a decent assignment.
“They don’t know how to get it right, any more than I would know how to commission a bunch of songs,” said Ms. Brown. “As an editing idea, it’s fraught with road kill.”
“You end with a bunch of hurt feelings, and the celebrity themselves put out and miffed,” Ms. Brown continued. “I don’t know how these guest editorships end up in terms of the relationship between the magazine and the celebrity. I would bet you anything that, nine times out of 10, they end up with sour relations.”
Evan Smith, editor of Texas Monthly, declared celebrity guest editors “an unbelievably stupid idea.”
A few years ago, Mr. Smith said, the author Sandra Cisneros was telling him that his magazine wasn’t writing well about Latinos in Texas. At one point in the conversation, Ms. Cisneros offered to guest-edit an issue.
Mr. Smith rejected her offer.
“Why put an amateur at the wheel of a big machine that can do damage?” Mr. Smith said.
But Mr. Koolhaas is apparently only just getting started.
“[W]e initially, long before the Wired, had the plan to have a … ‘parasite’ magazine, that would regularly take over magazines in the role of guest editor,” Mr. Koolhaas’ spokesman, Jan Knikker, explained via e-mail. “We then did the Wired, which was a very important and pleasant event. A guest editorship of The Economist or Der Spiegel would be an intellectual challenge that we would like to tackle one day.”
In the meantime, fans of guest editorships can look forward to veteran celebrity guest editor Bono, who will be editing Vanity Fair’s July issue on Africa. And what of the future of celebrity editors at daily papers in the wake of Grazergate?
In recent years, Phil Bronstein, editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, has published a series of dispatches by Sean Penn filed from Iran and Iraq.
But for the time being, Mr. Bronstein said, he plans to restrict celebrities to writing jobs rather than editing jobs.
“In this day and age, I don’t think it’s a bad thing to have a lot of contributors,” said Mr. Bronstein. “But our responsibility is to edit the damn thing. And frankly, these days, we don’t have a lot of extra people to be holding hands.”