Grazer caught in a difference of opinion

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In the blogosphere, it's been dubbed Grazergate.

Although personally free from any hint of impropriety, Imagine Entertainment co-chief Brian Grazer has been ensnared in a flap at the Los Angeles Times seemingly ripped from a comedy screenplay. Not so comically, the newspaper's editorial-page editor resigned Thursday over the imbroglio.

What started as an outside-the-box proposal of having a nonjournalist edit the newspaper's Sunday opinion section ended with the Times pulling the section. The catalyst for the controversy was the news that the girlfriend of now-resigned Times opinions editor Andres Martinez works for a public-relations firm that has represented Grazer on various projects.

The movie and TV producer issued a statement indicating disappointment over the controversy.

"I was surprised and delighted when the Los Angeles Times asked me to guest edit its Current section, because it gave me a chance to work with the L.A. Times and these seven extremely talented writers -- Nobel laureate Eric Kandel, Vogue's editor-at-large Andre Leon Talley, psychologist Paul Ekman, social scientist Dalton Connelly, attorney Martin Singer, urban planner Sam Hall Kaplan and artist Shepard Fairey," Grazer said. "Working together, we came up with a collection of essays and art that I think readers would have found genuinely stimulating and would have added to our understanding of our ever-changing culture. My hope now is that we can find another way to present the results of our efforts to the audience it deserves."

Later Thursday, Times publisher David Hiller also hinted that there might be some way of getting the Grazer-edited material distributed.

"I want to thank (the contributing writers) for their willingness to participate in this novel idea and hope there will be an avenue to bring these creative, thoughtful and insightful pieces to our readers in the near future," Hiller said in a statement.

The concept of having Grazer edit the newly redesigned Sunday Current section reportedly was derided in some corners of the Times newsroom from the outset. Staffers then learned this week that Martinez's girlfriend, Kelly Mullens, worked for the 42West PR firm, whose execs have been hired by Grazer on various occasions. A Times review of how the matter would be perceived publicly climbed the paper's chain of command to Hiller.

The publisher was quoted in an article in Thursday's Times as saying he was considering pulling the Grazer-edited section from distribution this weekend. Notwithstanding that article, the Times also published an ad Thursday trumpeting the section and Grazer's involvement.

But by midday Thursday, a decision had been made to pull the Grazer-edited section and replace it with a quickly executed alternate Sunday opinion supplement. Hollywood bloggers quickly posted lengthy discussions of the controversy, and by midday even Martinez checked in on the Times' Opinion blog -- to post his resignation.

"David Hiller's decision to kill the Brian Grazer section this Sunday makes my continued tenure as Los Angeles Times editorial page editor untenable," Martinez wrote. "The person in this job needs to have an unimpeachable integrity, and Hiller's decision amounts to a no-confidence in my continued leadership."

In his statement, Hiller said he accepted Martinez's resignation and said he pulled the Grazer-edited section because "a potential conflict of interest had emerged over a personal relationship between the Times' editorial page editor (and) a public relations executive from a firm doing work for Brian."

The publisher added: "We believe that this relationship did not influence the selection of Brian as guest editor. Nonetheless, in order to avoid even the appearance of conflict, we felt the best course of action was not to publish the section. ... 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. I'm sorry that he and the wonderful group of contributors he had assembled have been put through this."

Allan Mayer, a partner in 42West, said too much has been made of Mullen's connection to Martinez.

"She's not Brian's publicist and never has been," Mayer said. "She is an executive who works for the PR firm that represents Imagine Entertainment, and Imagine has only been my client for the last two months. When Andres first came to me for help in finding a guest editor in December, I suggested Brian not because he was a client at the time -- because he wasn't -- but because I had worked with him over the years and I knew he would be a perfect candidate for this."

The timing of the negative publicity was particularly awkward for the paper's owners, with parent company Tribune pursuing buyers for the Times and the rest of its media group.

Tribune said this month that it wouldn't sell the Times or any of its remaining newspaper assets individually, but it has promised to end its long-running strategic review by the end of the month and say whether it is selling the entire company. Recent speculation has the Chicago-based public company spurning the handful of takeover offers and instead restructuring Tribune, perhaps in a privately leveraged buyout.

Still, investors appeared unrattled by the Times developments Thursday, when Tribune shares rose 40 cents to close at $29.50 amid a modestly upbeat market session. The stock has been stuck near $30 for months.
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