'L.A. Times' Invites 'Whacking' by Critics

Do you like the Whack-a-Mole game from the old arcades? Would you really want to be the Mole?

Michael Kinsley apparently would. He's the relatively new editorial and opinion page editor for the Los Angeles Times. And over the past several Sundays he's invited a series of critics of the Times to beat the paper up — in the paper's own editorial pages.

The first guest Kinsley landed for the guest column? Blogger Mickey Kaus, who writes a feature called "Kausfiles" for the online magazine Slate — a skeptic so severely disposed against the L.A. Times that he's repeatedly called for the newspaper to cease publishing.

(Anyone hyperventilating over the NPR-Slate partnership can find a mess of disclosures listed at the end of this column.)

Kaus wrote that most Angelenos didn't know that L.A. Mayor James Hahn's marriage had collapsed, or how his child-care issues had distracted him from his job. And that was a problem, Kaus wrote on Jan. 16:

"Some blame the sunny climate for our apathetic political structure. Some blame the distraction of the colorful entertainment industry. I blame the stuffy aversion to gossip of the region's dominant newspaper."

The insult seemed to inspire as much as sting: The Times' top editor, John S. Carroll, sent out a memo soon after Kaus' column appeared, encouraging the staff to weigh his concerns seriously.

The next week brought conservative radio talk show host and blogger Hugh Hewitt's denunciation of what he says is the Times' failure to cover the war on terror. After him came left-of-center journalist Marc Cooper's plea for more interpretive reporting, and less of what he suggested was mere stenography.

Kinsley writes in an e-mail that the goal is to "open the paper to constructive criticism, to try to develop some media self-criticism that isn't as pompous as the usual 'ombudsman' column, and of course to produce a feature that people will read. You never know what people will be interested in, but it's a pretty good bet that if they're reading the L.A. Times, they are interested in the L.A. Times."

Initially, all Kinsley wanted to do was hire Kaus outright; they had worked together at Slate. (Kaus has gained some fame in political circles as the Democratic pundit most likely to tear apart other Democrats and liberals for being too liberal.) When Kaus turned him down, Kinsley invented this forum, which he called "Outside the Tent." It's an experiment inspired by the spirit of the Web world, which tends to invite critics as part of a continuing dialogue.

Hewitt thinks it's healthy -– but says there's an imbalance so far. He says by e-mail he's been the only one right of center, as he counts Kaus as center-left, and Cooper as a pure leftist.

Kinsley says he hopes to build "a small group of rotating writers (f)rom a variety of ideological backgrounds, but I hope all with a sense of humor. We want this not to descend into a longer letter to the editor."

Hewitt can take heart. Patrick Frey, a self-described conservative/libertarian prosecutor who runs a blog called Patterico's Pontifications, is the latest addition to the invitation-only mole-whackers. He routinely refers to the Times on his site as the Los Angeles Dog Trainer.

BONUS FULL-DISCLOSURE: Michael Kinsley was formerly editor of Slate, the online magazine that has a partnership with NPR to produce the show Day to Day; Mickey Kaus' blog, Kausfiles, is part of Slate. Kinsley was hired at the Los Angeles Times by Editor John S. Carroll, who was this reporter's boss for nearly six years at the Baltimore Sun. The Sun and the L. A. Times are corporate siblings. Marc Cooper's radio shows are distributed on some public radio stations -– though not by NPR.

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