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These rules we live by

IT’S been nearly half a century since even a whiff of scandal or implication of misconduct attached itself to The Times’ editorial pages. That’s what makes the resignation of the section’s editor, Andres Martinez, and its aftermath a melancholy rather than merely curious affair.

For the record, a substantial number of my more than 35 years at The Times were spent on the paper’s editorial pages -- first as an assistant editor of the op-ed page, then as editor of Opinion and, finally, as an editorial writer. I was 24 when I first joined the section, and I vividly recall how daunting it was to be surrounded by vastly more experienced colleagues, many of them genuinely distinguished. I also remember being struck with how an attention to ethics wove itself through even the most mundane parts of our daily work and by -- what seemed at the time -- a fairly stultifying insistence on propriety.

There was a reason for that.

When Otis Chandler took over as publisher of The Times in 1960, the paper was justifiably held in low regard, and the editorial pages were, by any reasonable measure, positively disreputable. Ever since his great-grandfather, Gen. Harrison Gray Otis, had purchased the paper, its editorials had been used mainly for two things: One was to reward the proprietors’ political friends (all Republicans) and to punish political enemies (invariably Democrats). The other was to advance the financial interests of the Chandler family and their associates. Otis Chandler was determined to change that, and, working closely with the then editor of the editorial pages, Anthony Day, remade the department and instituted a system of daily checks and balances under which the editorial page editor reported simultaneously to the publisher and to the newspaper’s editor. Moreover, the paper’s senior newsroom editors -- the managing editor, the associate editor and the national, foreign and business editors, etc., were brought onto the editorial board. (The point was to create a crowd too big to fit into anybody’s back room.)

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This wasn’t done to blend news and opinion. Instead, the broadening of the editorial board was intended to make the process of arriving at editorial decisions as public as possible -- to create transparency, as we now say. If you were an editorial writer proposing a piece for the next day’s paper, you had to sit across a conference table from the editor and the publisher and the paper’s senior most news editors and defend not only the argument you intended to make but also its factual basis. It was a rigorous, often bracing experience.

The animating principle was a sense that the editorial pages were the place where The Times most directly expressed its conscience as an institution, something exercised as a public trust. Whatever readers thought of the editorials’ conclusions, it was regarded as essential that readers believed those conclusions were reached honestly and dispassionately.

Unfortunately, the system that assured this has been whittled away over the years, and recently the editorial pages were placed directly and solely under the publisher’s supervision.

If you’ve been following the rather turgid little soap opera that Martinez has created around himself, this little bit of history won’t strike you as a digression.

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To summarize: Martinez resigned in pique after The Times publisher, David D. Hiller, told him he couldn’t go forward with a Current section that was being guest-edited by Hollywood producer Brian Grazer. Hiller intervened when it was learned that Martinez has been dating a Hollywood publicist whose firm represents the producer. In fact, the agency obtained Grazer’s business after Martinez’s girlfriend’s boss facilitated the arrangement between the producer and The Times.

Hiller may have been slow to see a preposterous idea masquerading as an innovation -- there’s a lot of that going around these days -- but he had no trouble at all recognizing an ethical train wreck when he saw it coming.

The irony is that, since his abrupt resignation Thursday, Martinez has been posting a kind of serial apologia for his giddy behavior. He told the New York Times, for example, that he had been victimized by -- among many other things -- “a perception that Hiller is trying to suck up to Hollywood and advertisers.”

Funny, but it isn’t the publisher who was dating a Hollywood publicist.

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Martinez’s real villains are cabals of newsroom reporters who he alleges, in a series of rambling Internet posts, are attempting to take control of the editorial pages. Strangely enough, two of the scheming journalists Martinez singles out in a post-resignation e-mail to the LA Observed website are Times legal affairs writer Henry Weinstein ... and me.

It’s always a compliment, of course, to be linked with my old friend Henry Weinstein. That said, to the extent a point can be discerned in this latest of Martinez’s exiting tantrums, it’s that he believes the separation between The Times’ newsroom and the editorial pages is insufficient. That’s a debatable point, but I’m mystified as to what it has to do with the rather rudimentary conflict of interest that led to Martinez’s resignation.

Further -- and also for the record -- I’ve never exchanged a word with Andres Martinez nor even met him. Similarly, I don’t think I know a single editorial writer, nor could I name one. That seems fairly “separate” to me.

In fact, like his resignation, Martinez’s difficulties were entirely volitional and had nothing whatsoever to do with The Times’ structural problems -- real or imagined. What isn’t imagined is the recklessness he displayed toward basic ethic strictures and the anger he’s now displaying at The Times as an institution and toward its senior business and news executives, simply because he was caught out.

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Like most of my colleagues at The Times, I’m fundamentally uninterested in other people’s personal lives, but I’ve always subscribed to the late Abe Rosenthal’s standard for journalists: I don’t care whether my colleagues sleep with elephants, so long as they don’t cover the circus.

timothy.rutten@latimes.com


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