Los Angeles Times Publisher David D. Hiller's decision Thursday to scrap a special opinion section to avoid the appearance of an ethical breach triggered the resignation of Editorial Page Editor Andres Martinez, who accused the paper's editor and publisher of overreacting.
Hiller announced early in the day that he would not publish a special Current section -- featuring Hollywood producer Brian Grazer as guest editor -- because it might appear to some readers that Grazer had an unfair advantage when he was selected.
Grazer has been represented by the publicity firm 42 West and executive Kelly Mullens, who is Martinez's girlfriend. Martinez and Mullens denied that their relationship influenced the decision to pick Grazer as the first in a planned series of prominent guest editors for the Current section.
In an interview Thursday night, Martinez said that halting publication of the special section "was an overreaction. It was not necessary. I think the damage to the institution was significant."
Martinez blamed Hiller and Times Editor James E. O'Shea, who both came from Chicago last fall after their predecessors left the paper under pressure from The Times' parent, Tribune Co.
"I do think there is a larger dynamic here of an editor and publisher who have been sent out here and who have a very tenuous grip on the provinces," he said. "They did something that placated a few people in the newsroom, the vocal ones that made them look foolish to the outside world."
Responding Thursday night, O'Shea -- who oversees the news and features sections but not the opinion pages -- said: "As editor of the paper I'm the custodian of a public trust, and I felt there was a bad situation that could harm the integrity of the paper. Above all, it's my responsibility to protect the paper's reputation. This was not an overreaction."
Many reporters and editors in the Times newsroom supported the publisher and editor.
"O'Shea stepped up to the plate when the paper's credibility was in question," veteran reporter Henry Weinstein said. "He did the right thing and he did it with alacrity, which was a good thing for this newspaper. And I'm glad Hiller made the right decision."
Hiller said in an interview that he began to ask questions after he learned about the possible impropriety last week. He decided that Grazer, producer of "A Beautiful Mind," "The Da Vinci Code" and other hit films, was chosen for the assignment on his merits.
In a regularly scheduled meeting Thursday with the paper's top managers, the publisher was applauded when he announced that he would not print the Grazer-edited section because "it might appear that something might not be quite right."
"I think it's fair to say that we got ourselves into a predicament and we should not have let it happen," Hiller said.
In a statement issued later, the publisher said, "The trust our readers place in us, built over 125 years, is of the highest importance and we try never to do anything that would call that into question."
Martin Kaplan, associate dean of the USC Annenberg School for Communication, said the furor was an unneeded blow for a paper that had been suffering from shrinking news space and numerous personnel changes.
"More than anything right now," Kaplan said, "The Times needs stability, and an obvious commitment to excellence."
While Hiller announced the scrapping of the section in The Times' Harry Chandler Auditorium at a 10 a.m. meeting, Martinez was in his corner office three floors below, preparing to post a final installment on his editorial blog.
"The person in this job needs to have an unimpeachable integrity, and Hiller's decision amounts to a vote of no confidence in my continued leadership," Martinez wrote.
Martinez said he regretted his "failure to anticipate and adequately address the perception of a conflict." He struck a conciliatory note toward Hiller, "whom I like and respect a great deal." He signed off, saying, "I am sorry I let you down."
Shortly after posting the announcement on the Web, Martinez called together his staff of 30 and said he was leaving. Nick Goldberg, who oversees the paper's bylined opinion columns, told the gathering that he had mixed feelings. He agreed that the Current section should not be printed. But Goldberg told Martinez that he should stay. Unswayed, the 40-year-old Martinez left the building.
Deputy Editorial Page Editor Michael Newman will oversee the editorial pages, Hiller said. But the publisher will soon have to find a replacement because Newman has accepted a job overseeing the Washington Post's online opinion pages.
O'Shea had gone to Hiller on Wednesday evening and urged him not to print the special Current section because it could create an impression of favoritism.
The editor, who joined The Times less than five months ago, said the paper's news reporters would review recent events in the editorial pages to determine whether there had been any instances of improper influence over opinion pieces.
"We will cover the story just as aggressively as if we were not involved," O'Shea said.
Martinez denied that he or his staff made any decisions based on his romantic relationship with Mullens, whose firm represents a variety of big-name Hollywood actors and directors. Any suggestions that she improperly meddled in editorial matters during her relationship with Martinez would be "completely false," Mullens, 36, said Thursday. She declined to comment further.
Martinez said he conceived of the idea of guest editors for Current in an attempt to bring new voices and ideas to the section. Grazer had planned contributions by Paul Ekman on lie detection, Andre Leon Talley on fashion and status, Eric Kandel on the brain and psychotherapy, Dalton Conley on political polling and bias, Marty Singer on the increasingly brazen tabloids and paparazzi, and Sam Hall Kaplan on Los Angeles.
Martinez had hoped that former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and retired Lakers star Earvin "Magic" Johnson, among others, would edit future sections.
Several journalists in the newsroom objected to The Times' forming partnerships with people whom the paper would later have to cover in its news pages.
Hiller said Thursday that he would review the use of guest editors for Current.
"I want to underscore that nothing in this situation is, in any way, a reflection on Brian Grazer, who has been honorable and generous throughout," Hiller said in his statement.
On Thursday, Grazer praised the writers he assembled for the Sunday section and added: "My hope now is that we can find another way to present the results of our efforts to the audience it deserves."
The 125-year-old newspaper has navigated through rough waters during the last year, including anxiety over the prolonged auction that could lead to its Chicago-based parent, Tribune Co., being sold. The previous publisher and then the editor of The Times left the paper late last fall after they fought a plan by their corporate overseers to cut dozens of jobs.
Much of the paper's staff focused on Martinez's actions and worried about the paper's reputation. But Martinez said others were not beyond reproach.
In his parting blog, Martinez protested against "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."
He said that editors from the newspaper's California section had attempted to interest him in writing editorials about subjects that their reporters had covered. Martinez, who previously worked for the New York Times editorial pages, called that a shocking transgression that would not have happened at other major newspapers.
The news editors said they were simply trying to direct the editorial pages to subjects of interest to readers. They said they understood that the actual content of the pieces would have been left to the opinion writers.