Kinsley Leaves The Times

Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles Times editorial page editor Michael Kinsley is leaving the newspaper after a little more than a year, saying his attempts to alter the nature of opinion journalism and buff up its profile on the Internet mostly failed.

Times Publisher Jeffrey M. Johnson announced Kinsley’s departure Tuesday and said the onetime host of television’s “Crossfire” has been replaced by Andres Martinez, his top assistant. Martinez, a former finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, is the first Latino to head the paper’s editorial and opinion pages.

The press release announcing the change said Kinsley was “resigning,” but the outgoing editor painted a less-than-amicable parting in an e-mail to his staff Tuesday morning.

“For whatever reason,” Kinsley wrote, “Jeff isn’t merely uninterested in any future contribution I might make, but actively wants me gone.”

Johnson was traveling to Chicago and his secretary said he did not want to expand on the company’s official announcement, in which he said he had “concluded that it was best to make a clean break” with Kinsley.

Kinsley spent 14 tumultuous months at The Times, during which he proposed eliminating non-byline staff editorials, forced out some of the newspaper’s most veteran editorial writers and tried to enhance the Times’ opinion offerings in alternative media, including the Internet.

He also became a magnet for criticism from conservative commentators such as Bill O’Reilly, who routinely charged that Kinsley epitomized liberal bias in the mainstream media.

The 54-year-old editor’s reputation within the paper was mixed. He won praise for sharpening the focus of editorials and eschewing a single orthodoxy. But he alienated much of his own staff through his personnel moves and an apparent preoccupation with international and national affairs at the expense of local issues.

Kinsley’s innovations included full-page color cartoon strips on the cover of the Sunday Opinion section, recently redesigned and renamed Current. An attempt to let readers rewrite an editorial on the Internet, a so-called “Wikitorial,” had to be killed when online vandals posted expletives on The Times website.

“He was trying to remake the editorial pages and the Sunday section, to make them more engaging. I think he was trying for a younger demographic,” said Bill Boyarsky, a lecturer at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and former city editor of The Times. “The idea of trying to change things was good. But what he did and the way it turned out was bad.”

Kinsley once edited both Harper’s and the New Republic and was the left-leaning co-host of CNN’s political talk show “Crossfire,” opposite conservative Pat Buchanan.

He helped found the online magazine Slate before being hired in April 2004 by then-Editor John Carroll to run The Times’ daily and Sunday opinion and editorial pages. The paper saw the hiring as such important news that it put the story on the front page.

Times journalists and readers were alternately dazzled and infuriated by the tone Kinsley set. The newspaper’s editorials -- the pieces that run without a byline at the back of the California section and express the newspaper’s positions -- had been more moderate in tone before.

But pieces under Kinsley tended to be more sharply opinionated, such as one editorial after last year’s first presidential debate. It accused President Bush of intellectual laziness, under the headline: “Is He a Dope?”

Fox’s O’Reilly may have routinely slammed him as the ultimate soft-headed lefty, but Kinsley’s positions sometimes alienated liberals too.

He rejected the notion that the British government’s “Downing Street” memo proved that Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair had trumped up reasons to go to war in Iraq. And Kinsley argued for cutting off Democratic filibusters that held up votes on Bush’s judicial nominees. He also took a view contrary to that of most journalists, including Carroll, in arguing that reporters should not enjoy a blanket exemption from disclosing confidential sources, particularly in matters of national security.

“He is one of the very best commentators in using wit and surprise,” said Martin Kaplan, associate dean of the Annenberg School and a frequent contributor to The Times op-ed pages. “Sometimes that runs counter to political or moral imperatives that the audience feels.”

It became clear last July that Kinsley’s role at the paper would be diminished. Under an arrangement approved by Carroll, he had been splitting time between his home in Seattle and an apartment in downtown Los Angeles.

The split residency took its toll, though. Local leaders charged that The Times editorial pages had decreased their focus on public policy in Southern California. And Kinsley, who has Parkinson’s disease, said he found the commuting “was not working for me or for the paper.”

Carroll resigned from the paper in July and was replaced by Dean Baquet at the same time oversight of the editorial pages passed from the editor to the publisher, Johnson.

Kinsley spent the summer in Seattle and agreed to discuss a new arrangement with Johnson -- who became publisher in March -- after Labor Day. But Kinsley said that when he met with the publisher last Thursday, it became clear that he was no longer welcome at the paper.

“I thought he might reject some of my ideas, or maybe even say, ‘None of these make sense,’ ” Kinsley said in an interview Tuesday from Washington, where he had presented a journalism award. “I didn’t think he would say let’s cut the cord and then seem so basically uninterested in my column.”

The newspaper had not yet determined whether it would continue running Kinsley’s weekly columns.