A Business Deal Done --a Controversy Born

Ten weeks ago, The Times devoted its entire Sunday magazine to coverage of Staples Center, a sports arena and entertainment venue that opened a week later in downtown Los Angeles. Subsequently, when it became widely known that The Times had agreed beforehand to split the advertising profits from that issue with Staples Center, the paper--and the entire journalism community--was rocked by controversy. Times editors and reporters, including those who worked on that issue, said they had not previously known of the profit-sharing arrangement, and they and their colleagues in the editorial department complained angrily that the arrangement had threatened their integrity and severely undermined The Times’ credibility.

More than 300 Times journalists signed a petition demanding an apology from their publisher. Angry confrontations and talk of high-level resignations and firings ensued, often pitting the news department of the paper against the business department and even engendering suspicions and divisions within the news department. Time and Newsweek covered the controversy and the issues it raised for journalists everywhere. So did the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and dozens of other newspapers, large and small. Public Broadcasting’s “The News Hour With Jim Lehrer” devoted a 15-minute segment to the controversy last Thursday night. “60 Minutes” has been planning a similar report.

Now, in a 14-page special section “V,” appearing immediately behind this main news section of today’s paper, The Times presents the results of a six-week investigation of this controversy, the circumstances that made it possible and the impact it is continuing to have, both at The Times and throughout the newspaper industry. This in-depth report was reported and written by David Shaw, who has often provided critical coverage of The Times and other news organizations in these pages during his 25 years as the paper’s media critic. In 1991, Shaw was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for “his critiques of the way in which the media, including his own paper, reported the McMartin Pre-School child molestation case.” Shaw’s story on the Staples Center controversy--which involved interviews with more than 125 people, several of them four or five times each--was edited by George Cotliar, who retired from The Times in 1997 after 40 years with the paper, 18 as managing editor, the No. 2 job in the news department. To preserve the independence of the story, no one else at the paper was permitted to see it before it was published except for the three editors who handled production of the section--an executive news editor, a copy chief and a copy editor. All three were selected by Cotliar and Shaw. None of the principals in the story--not even the editor of the paper, the publisher or the CEO of the paper’s parent company--read it or had any say in its content, scope or presentation.