The Los Angeles Times might scrap Sunday's Current section to avoid the appearance that a romantic relationship between the paper's editorial page editor and a publicist for Hollywood producer Brian Grazer might have led to Grazer's selection as a guest editor.
Publisher David D. Hiller said late Wednesday that he was considering halting publication of this weekend's opinion section that was designed to feature a stable of writers assembled by Grazer. The producer of "A Beautiful Mind" and other hit movies was to be the first in a series of guest editors for Current.
But controversy emerged inside the paper this week when it was learned that public relations executive Kelly Mullens had been dating Andres Martinez, The Times' editorial page editor. Mullens has worked as a consultant and recently was listed on news releases promoting Grazer's collaboration with the paper.
Hiller said he intended to decide today whether to run an editor's note disclosing the relationship or to stop the edition before its scheduled Friday printing.
"I believe, based on everything that I have seen, that we have only the appearance of a conflict here," Hiller said. "I believe that the selection of Grazer was not based on this relationship. We have an appearance and not a case of actual undue influence.
"We want to do the right thing for our readers and for the paper," Hiller added.
Many reporters and editors in The Times' newsroom said they were unhappy about how readers might perceive the decision to let an outsider -- with the appearance of a special inside connection -- hold sway over the Sunday opinion and editorial pages.
Several journalists recalled how the newspaper's reputation for impartiality suffered in 1999 when it was revealed that The Times had shared profit from a special magazine edition with the management of Staples Center.
On Wednesday, reporters registered their dismay to Times Editor James E. O'Shea, who is the top editor for news and features in The Times but has no responsibility for its opinion pages.
"We're concerned that even the appearance of a conflict is enough to discredit the hard work of reporters and editors in the newsroom," said Charles Ornstein, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter. "This newspaper has worked very hard, even during these trying times, to consistently improve our coverage and remain upbeat about our future. To face a potential scandal is really discouraging."
The Times has weathered considerable turmoil in the last year. The paper and its parent, Tribune Co. of Chicago, have been on the sales block for six months. The paper's previous publisher and editor left after fighting Tribune's proposal to cut dozens of newsroom jobs.
Hiller oversees the opinion and editorial pages. O'Shea said he spoke to Hiller about the issue but he declined to elaborate. Other editors said O'Shea told the publisher he had no choice but to cancel the section's publication.
With a chorus of criticism growing louder through the day, Martinez hurriedly called a staff meeting, saying his relationship with Mullens had nothing to do with Grazer's selection. He said he expected to write an editor's note explaining that to readers.
Martinez said Grazer, who has made several of his films with director Ron Howard, had been chosen on his own merits.
"Given his well-known intellectual curiosity and his track record in the industry, Brian Grazer is a terrific choice to guest-edit Current," Martinez said. "This was not just my judgment, but the judgment of two other senior editors and the newspaper's publisher."
Martinez said Hiller was not aware of the editor's relationship with Mullens when the publisher approved Grazer's assignment. He said halting publication "would be excessive and magnify this.... It would be like an admission of guilt that's not warranted."
Martinez is married and has a child, but he has been separated for months.
In a statement issued through her firm, 42 West, Mullens said her romantic relationship with The Times' editorial page editor had nothing to do with Grazer's assignment at the paper.
"I believe my personal relationships are a private matter," Mullens said. "That said, I have a great respect and a keen understanding of journalism and journalistic ethics. I have never let my personal relationships interfere with my work and any suggestion to the contrary is insulting and untrue."
Martinez took control of the opinion and editorial operation 18 months ago, when Michael Kinsley left The Times. He said he conceived of the "guest editor" idea to bring new voices to the Current section and to give readers an unusual insight into the prominent individuals who would serve in that role.
The opinion section tried to enlist investor Warren Buffett, Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs and movie director Steven Spielberg as the first outside editor, according to an individual familiar with the process.