When Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, the billionaire owner of the Los Angeles Times, appointed Kevin Merida as the paper’s top editor nearly three years ago, he praised the journalist as someone who would uphold high standards of publishing and journalism. Will maintain integrity.
By this winter, the professional warmth between the two men had cooled. Their relationship was somewhat strained by an incident in December, when Dr. Soon-Shiong tried to stop Mr. Merida from pursuing a story about a wealthy California doctor and his dog, Three people with knowledge of the talks said. People said that the doctor was an acquaintance of Dr. Soon-Shiong.
The previously unreported incident came as the Los Angeles Times, the West Coast’s largest news organization, was struggling to overcome years of losses amid a tough market for newspapers. Mr Merida resigned this month. Shortly afterward, the company laid off about 115 journalists, or about 20 percent of its newsroom.
It is not unheard of for a publication’s owner to seek advice on sensitive reporting, especially if it could jeopardize the newspaper legally or financially. But it is unusual for an owner or publisher to pressure editors to stop reporting on a story well before publication, especially in cases that do not involve government secrets or human life.
In a statement on Friday, Dr. Soon-Shiong disputed the characterization of his performance, calling it “factually inaccurate.” The Los Angeles Times said in a statement that Dr. Soon-Shiong, who bought the newspaper in 2018, had requested “true, factual reporting” on the story.
In a note to staff this month, Mr Merida said he had decided to step down after “considerable soul-searching about my career at this stage”. Dr. Soon-Shiong said at the time that it was “mutually agreed” that Mr. Merida would leave.
Dr. Soon-Shiong’s conflict with Mr. Merida over the incomplete article stemmed from work a business reporter was doing on Dr. Gary Michelson, a California surgeon who made his fortune with medical patents, to keep track of the situation. The three people said.
The reporter was investigating the dueling lawsuits involving Dr. Michelson and allegations that his dog had bitten a woman in a Los Angeles park. In a lawsuit filed by Dr. Michelson in May, he said the woman had tried to extort him. The woman filed a personal injury lawsuit against Dr. Michelson.
Dr. Michelson, who lives in Los Angeles, and Dr. Soon-Shiong belong to a small and rare group of medical professionals who have become billionaires through their innovations and investments. Dr. Soon-Shiong made his fortune in biotechnology. Both are philanthropists.
A spokesman for Dr. Michelson did not respond to a request for comment.
By last month, before the reporting on Dr. Michelson was successful, Dr. Soon-Shiong became aware of the story and contacted Mr. Merida to register his displeasure, the people said. Dr. Soon-Shiong told Mr. Merida that he did not think the newspaper should pursue the article.
Mr. Merida conveyed Dr. Soon-Shiong’s concerns to editors, including senior editor Scott Craft and business editor Jeff Bercovici, the people said. The editor agreed to post Mr. Merida on the article, on which the newspaper continued to work. Mr Bercovici was fired from his job this month.
At one point, Dr. Soon-Shiong asked to see a draft of the article, which Mr. Merida deemed inappropriate, the people said. Dr. Soon-Shiong also told Mr. Merida in the call that if he found out the journalists were hiding the entire article from him he would fire him, the people said.
A Los Angeles Times spokeswoman said in a statement that Dr. Soon-Shiong did not want the newspaper to be used as a “source of exploitation” in the dispute between Dr. Michelson and the woman who is suing him.
“Dr. Soon-Shiong had requested that the facts be gathered from both sides,” she said. “This request for truthful, factual reporting was made by Dr. Soon-Shiong, even though this ‘dog Who was involved in the ‘bite’ story? He simply urged editors to ensure that an investigation is conducted before publishing any story.
Two people said the incident had an impact on Mr Merida. The editor had already had disagreements with the Soon-Shiong family over issues including the newspaper’s budget. If the article on Dr. Michelson was produced and Dr. Soon-Shiong blocked its publication, Mr. Merida potentially was prepared to resign, both people said.
The newspaper has not recently published any articles on Dr. Michelson.
Reporter Laurence Darmiento, who worked on the article, said he continued covering the story. He said that he knew the story was sensitive, like all articles on wealthy residents of Los Angeles, adding that his editors had never told him to stop working on it.
“Also, I had no direct knowledge of what was going on behind the scenes,” Mr. Darmiento said. “Just last week, despite all the turmoil at The Times, I was doing some reporting on this.”