rumsfeld.JPGUPDATE: Today, LAT Publisher/CEO David Hiller killed the guest editor program.

EXCLUSIVE: It’s no longer Grazergate; it’s now Rumsfeldgate at the Los Angeles Times. I’m told that Donald Rumsfeld was asked to guest-edit the newspaper’s “Current” opinion section which appears on Sundays. The ex-Defense Secretary is a long-time personal and professional friend of LA Times publisher David Hiller, who supervises the paper’s editorial, Op-Ed and opinion pages. Rumsfeld also has strong ties to the LA Times‘ parent company since he was a member of Tribune Co.’s board of directors for years. Sources tell me that Rumsfeld’s selection was suggested and approved by Hiller. The former Pentagon chief was expected to follow Hollywood producer Brian Grazer as a Current guest editor under the paper’s new quarterly program. Grazer’s special section was supposed to appear today but was killed by Hiller (photo below) on Thursday “to avoid even the appearance of conflict” after a newsroom uproar over editorial pages editor Andres Martinez dating a Hollywood publicist whose firm represents Grazer. Martinez resigned in protest. “I think it’s fair to say that we got ourselves into a predicament and we should not have let it happen,” Hiller said about Grazergate. logo_latimes.gif“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.” But for the LA Times‘ editorial pages to even be talking to Rumsfeld about guest-editing Current much less offering him the gig, given the Hiller and Tribune Co. connections, is yet another wrinkle in this saga about journalism ethics: here’s an even more clear impression of favoritism than Grazergate.

david_hiller11.jpgUntil this morning’s statement, there had been no word as to whether the guest-edit program, or Rumsfeld’s participation in it, had been stopped. So far, the LA Times newsroom which so bitterly opposed Grazer’s selection has not protested Rumsfeld’s even though they know that his name was in the mix. The paper’s own media reporter Jim Rainey wrote that “Martinez hoped that former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and retired Lakers star Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson, among others, would edit future sections”. Nor did Rainey mention Hiller’s longtime friendship or Tribune Co.’s longtime ties to the former Pentagon chief. But two different sources told me about Rumsfeld’s selection for the guest editor program and said Hiller both suggested it and approved it. The insiders were unsure if Rumsfeld accepted the offer or started work on the section. But Martinez indicated it may have been a done deal in one of his weekend Internet missives describing the guest editor program (“…an invitation from time to time by said autonomous opinion pages to have notable personalities like Brian Grazer and Donald Rumsfeld edit 5 articles, regardless of who their damned publicists are.”) mullens3.jpgWhen Hiller was appointed LA Times publisher in October 2006, I described his extensive ties to Reagan administration policies as a Justice Department special assistant to then Attorney General William French Smith. I also cited a 2001 Chicago Tribune story noting that, when Rumsfeld was a director at Tribune Co., he was a “friend” of Hiller, then president of Tribune Interactive. The paper quoted Hiller gushing about Rumsfeld’s squash game: ”I played with him a lot. He is one of the most competitive son-of-a-guns I have ever stepped on the court with: quick, great court strategy and riflelike aim. And he did take pleasure in beating me, his junior by 23 years.” Then, in November, Hiller used the occasion of Rumsfeld’s resignation as Defense Secretary to personally pen a worshipful Op-Ed piece for his LA Times rehashing those late 1990s squash games in Chicago.

Grazer’s selection and its circumstances prompted concern about the integrity of the paper’s Hollywood coverage. But Rumsfeld’s Pentagon policies, especially the Iraq War, is a mainstay of the paper’s reporting and opinion sections. On Saturday, LA Times‘ media columnist Tim Rutten wrote about Grazergate that “Hiller had no trouble at all recognizing an ethical train wreck when he saw it coming”. Yet Hiller and others seem blind to Rumsfeldgate’s latest and worst crash of the newspaper’s integrity.

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