Only In LA: Oh my God! They insulted George Lucas!

WHAT COULD possibly be wrong with a big-city newspaper giving ample coverage to the opening of a major new sports and entertainment complex in the centre of town? Not much, one would have thought.

OK, the Los Angeles Times might have got a little carried away a few weeks ago when it chose to devote the whole of its Sunday magazine supplement to the brand new Staples Center, enthusing over its design, its new hockey and basketball arenas, and its potential for reviving downtown. But this, in itself, was nothing too unusual and it barely raised a murmur at the time.

That, though, was before a few awkward truths began to emerge. Like the fact that the LA Times' parent company is a shareholder in the Staples Center. Or the fact that the magazine supplement broke all records for advertising revenue - a fat $2.1m - suggesting that profit, not editorial discretion, was the guiding factor at work here. Most damaging of all was the revelation that the LA Times management had agreed to share the advertising revenue 50-50 with the enterprise it was reporting on - that's right, the Staples Center itself - and that it had chosen to conceal that fact even from the journalists who put the supplement together.

The result: a media furore of rare intensity, even in a city like Los Angeles where covert power games, blatant conflicts of interest and big building projects have gone together hand-in-glove for decades. The LA Times' legendary former publisher, Otis Chandler, emerged from retirement to describe the ethical lapse as "the most serious single threat to the future survival and growth of this great newspaper".

Local politicians have been cracking jokes with their journalistic contacts, asking what the going rate is to get themselves on to the front page.

The paper's editorial staff, meanwhile, feel betrayed and angry, and have declared a virtual state of war on the corporate management. For the journalists, this is the latest outrage since their parent company, Times Mirror, appointed an aggressive Wall Street financier called Mark Willes as chief executive two years ago. One of Mr Willes' first acts was to announce that advertising and editorial departments should work more closely together so that the paper's content could be more closely determined by its revenue potential; the Staples episode is just one more instance of that philosophy.

The journalists have had their revenge by publishing the most embarrassing details of the affair in the newspaper as they emerge. In response, publisher Kathryn Downing has been forced to announce a special investigation, to be conducted by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Times reporter David Shaw and printed in full in the paper. It's a curious spectacle: watching one of America's most prominent publications tearing itself apart on its own pages.

WHILE THE Times teeters, another LA institution is doing remarkably well, especially considering that he is dead.

Sherman Block served as LA County Sheriff for 17 years, becoming so essential a part of the local political machine that he secured the highest salary of any public official in the country - an astonishing $223,000 a year. He commanded such power that when he died a few days before the end of his fifth re-election campaign last year, his friends insisted on keeping his name on the ballot, if only to spite his opponent. He got 40 per cent of the vote - not enough to win, but not bad for a dead candidate.

One year on, Sheriff Block is defying the hereafter once more, following a decision by the county pension board to keep paying his full salary. He won't have much use for the money himself, of course, but his widow Alyce will find it handy.

Normally, she would have received a pension equivalent to 60 per cent of his salary, but the pension board decided she deserved the full whack on the highly dubious grounds that her husband's death was work-related (he suffered a stroke, at home, aged 74). "She's definitely the highest paid widow in the country," one board member said. When Bill Clinton retires, he'll only get $151,800 a year - and that on condition that he stays alive.

PUT-DOWN of the week: Trey Parker, co-creator of the irreverent TV cartoon turned movie South Park, meets George Lucas of Star Wars fame at a very glitzy Hollywood party.

"I haven't seen your movie yet," says Lucas.

"I didn't see yours either," replies Parker, slightly the worse for Scotch, "after everyone said, you know... it sucked."

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