EXCLUSIVE: The award-winning columnist has said he was too old and too highly paid, but his attitude toward mistakes may have helped cause his ouster
Since being handed his pink slip nearly two weeks ago, award-winning L.A. Times columnist Tim Rutten has told KCRW and KPCC that he was forced out of the paper where he worked for nearly four decades because of cost-cutting and, he implied, ageism.
“Whatever the merits of your work, to be older and to be collecting a relatively large paycheck was to have a kind of target on your back,” Rutten said on KPCC’s “The Madeleine Brand Show” after news of his layoff hit.
That explanation has rankled some in the Times newsroom, who claim that careless errors contributed to his ouster.
An op-ed incident in February of this year was apparently the worst transgression: It prompted a disciplinary review and Rutten's removal from writing book reviews.
In a Feb. 2 opinion piece, Rutten severely criticized the book "O: A Presidential Novel," a roman à clef about the 2008 election, and its publisher Simon & Schuster, saying the author — "Anonymous" — had political scores to settle and should be "ashamed."
It has been widely rumored that top John McCain aide Mark Salter authored the book, which Rutten also had criticized a week earlier in the paper's books section.
"'O' reflects admiringly on (Obama's) first opponent's willingness "always [to] put his country first" or one in which he "wished he had his former opponent's courage, valor, integrity," wrote Rutten.
The problem is, the quoted passage does not appear in the book — instead, it comes from a parody website. Jeffrey Goldberg uncovered the error for a story in the Atlantic in March.
Reached by TheWrap, Rutten said that the "O" mistake was not among the reasons cited for why he was let go from the paper.
"No mention of that correction or of anything connected to it was made to me when I was laid off," Rutten said. "I was simply told that I was being laid off because they were asked to make serious cuts in the department, and that’s the only explanation that I was given.”
Of Rutten, a Times spokeswoman said only, "We can’t comment on personnel issues, but Tim Rutten, who worked for the Times for many years and did some great work for us, was among those who recently left. The realities of our business challenges often require making difficult decisions."
Regardless of whether the mistakes actually caused him to be let go, Rutten did receive disciplinary action. The Times was forced to make a correction, and the paper considered all types of punishment, up to and including firing the columnist.
Instead, higher-ups took Rutten off of the books section — cutting the salary he received for writing reviews — and confined him to the opinion page.
Additionally, as an op-ed contributor, Rutten was made to undergo a special fact-checking process, according to two individuals at the Times. That process included submitting backup materials supporting his writing to copy editors.
Rutten told TheWrap that he found some elements of the "O" punishment puzzling.
"It seemed odd to me that because of an error in an op-ed column, I was told that I wouldn't be writing book reviews any more, when there had been no errors in my book reviews," Rutten said.
The incident was not the only one involving errors, however, and what apparently bothered Rutten's editors as much as the error rate was his reaction when confronted with mistakes. A senior Timesman described his response as “dissembling,” and said Rutten wouldn’t readily admit to his missteps.
Rutten declined comment on many of the allegations in this piece, but he did acknowledge that his media appearances have generated some blowback at the paper. In addition to speculating on what prompted his dismissal, Rutten has publicly characterized the paper as a shell of its former self.
"I know they were upset with those interviews — which I did not seek — because one of my editors was instructed to call me and tell me that they were upset by it," Rutten said. "I think that if people were upset, then the burden is on them to say what part of what I said about the state of the Times is either factually incorrect or substantially unfair. If they can point to those things, I think they have a legitimate beef."
"In fact," he said, "I’d be delighted to be wrong about the state of the L.A. Times, because if I were, I'd sleep better."