By: Joe Strupp
The resignation of Los Angeles Times Editorial Page Editor Andres Martinez, who quit today after disclosing that his girlfriend had ties to a guest section editor, is a sharp reminder than any relationship that could raise even a question of conflict needs to be disclosed, according to some industry observers.
A handful of journalism veterans and ethicists said that the incident, in which Martinez revealed he was romantically linked to a publicist for guest editor Brian Grazer, underscores the need for journalists to fully disclose any connection that may raise questions about a newspaper’s integrity.
Martinez quit earlier today, a day after it was revealed that he was dating publicist Kelly Mullens, who has worked for Grazer, a well-known Hollywood producer. Grazer was brought in as a guest editor to oversee this week’s weekend opinion section, Currents.
Publisher David Hiller chose to cancel the section upon hearing of the relationship.
In an article on Friday, the Los Angeles paper aired the entire incident, including Martinez hitting the decision to kill the section. Martinez said that halting publication “was an overreaction. It was not necessary. I think the damage to the institution was significant.”
The Times report continued: “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, O’Shea (who does not oversee the opinion pages), told the paper: “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.”
The Times said that many editors and reporters at the paper back O’Shea. Some from outside do, too, E&P found.
“It does seem that Mr. Martinez should have disclosed his relationship to his boss,” said Keven Willey, ethics committee chair of the National Conference of Editorial Writers and editorial page editor of the Dallas Morning News. “You should disclose relationships because by not disclosing them it makes it look like you are hiding something.” But she disagreed with the decision to scrap the weekend opinion section Glazer edited. “It does look to me like Mr. Hiller overreacted,” she said. “Why not just explain the criteria to readers?”
Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at The Poynter Institute, said she was unsure how far the paper should have gone. “I am trying to figure out if this is an overreaction or not,” she said. “The guy should have told his boss that he was dating someone from the publicity firm because he was going through the firm to get to Grazer. If he had done that, it would have been easy to isolate him from the invitation to Grazer.”
Christine Tatum, president of the Society of Professional Journalists and assistant business editor at The Denver Post, agreed. “I am hyper sensitive about this stuff so I would say you’ve got to be on your toes at all times,” she said. “You have got to think about every angle of possible conflict.” Tatum said, even if the relationship likely had little effect on decisions Martinez made about the section, disclosure can be the key.
“Appearance matters,” she said. “People can say it is overreaching, but there are all sorts of ways people can criticize that.”
Bill Kovach, founding chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, said disclosing even a minor conflict is often better than keeping it hidden and risking questions. “Transparency is more and more the only way to go,” he said. “We can’t be in the situation of constantly checking after the fact. We have got be as open as possible.”
Alex Jones, former New York Times media reporter and director of The Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, said some conflicts can appear to be a problem even if they are not. But he said even the appearance can be enough to cause concern. “If he resigned, then someone there must have thought it was important,” Jones said. “An appearance of conflict of interest is always questionable.”
Related story: ‘LA Times’ Edit Page Editor Resigns After ‘Currents’ Section Is Cut