The Los Angeles Times has placed Arash Markazi on paid leave as the newspaper investigates potential ethical lapses by the sports columnist, VICE News has learned.
The investigation formally began last week after members of the newspaper’s sports department sent a letter to leadership stating that they were “angry and embarrassed about the repeated ethical breaches” by Markazi, which they claimed included “plagiarism, misrepresenting how his information for stories is obtained, and using his social media accounts to work as a de facto PR representative.” The signees wrote that Markazi’s actions have “negatively affected reporters’ relationships with the people, teams, and leagues that we cover, as well as our peers.”
“During this time of deep newsroom reflection, we feel compelled to demand action in response to these transgressions,” the letter states. “At stake here is not only the integrity and credibility of the sports staff, but of the entire Los Angeles Times.”
Markazi did not respond to emails and text messages requesting comment. When reached by phone, he initially said "Hold on one second. Can you hear me?" then went silent. Subsequent phone calls were not returned.
Executive Sports Editor Chris Stone declined to comment when reached by phone. Times spokesperson Hillary Manning also initially declined to comment on the situation, “as we generally do not comment on personnel matters,” she said.
But after publication, Manning said in a statement that "all allegations received by newsroom management are taken seriously. As a journalism organization, we have responsibility to both ensure that our reporters maintain the highest standards of professional ethics and that our reporters are treated fairly when questions of their ethics are raised."
The members of the sports department sent the letter days after VICE News published a story on the last two years at the newspaper, which, among other findings, uncovered a number of questionable journalistic decisions by Markazi, including an apparent act of plagiarism.
Markazi admitted to VICE News that he “did not do a good job of changing” the words in one column this April that was built largely around a press release about a charity effort by Los Angeles sports teams and other brands to raise money for a local COVID-19 fund. (A newsroom source has since told VICE News that Markazi was disciplined at the time as a result of the column.)
“I tweaked it, but certainly not enough,” Markazi told VICE News in June. “That was unfortunate because that was for charity, and I was just kind of being like, Oh, this is a good thing for a good cause.’ I talked to the sports editor [Stone] after that and we decided that I wouldn't be writing off of press releases moving forward.”
Internal questions surrounding Markazi were raised at the newspaper as far back as January 2019, the month he joined the Times, when staffers approached leadership to address what they saw as Markazi’s past ethical lapses. Executive editor Norm Pearlstine previously told VICE News that he performed “some due diligence with sources” at ESPN but was ultimately fine with the hire, although he did ask the sports editor to “have a conversation with Arash to familiarize himself with the guidelines regarding ethics with the Los Angeles Times.”
But by March, Markazi had published at least two questionable columns within the Times. One, which centered around a USC athletic director involved in the college admissions bribery scandal, did not initially disclose that Markazi was an adjunct professor at the university. The other, about watching March Madness at the Cosmopolitan hotel in Las Vegas, closely mirrored the language of one of Markazi’s columns from the previous year.
From the 2019 column in the Times:
“.. 40,000-square-foot ballroom on the fourth floor into a giant “man cave” complete with 22 22-foot-by-12-foot HD projection screens, a center bar surrounded by 16 more HD monitors, a hardwood basketball court and a dedicated on-site sports book. Admission to the party, which included an open bar for 13 hours, went for $225 each day and sold out on Thursday and Friday. The party attracted more than 6,000 customers over the first three days of the tournament.”
From the 2018 column in ESPN:
“… 40,000-square-foot ballroom on the fourth floor, complete with 12 22'x12' HD projection screens, a center bar surrounded by 16 more HD monitors, a hardwood basketball court and a dedicated on-site sportsbook. Admission to the party, which included an open bar for 13 hours, went for $225 each and sold out on Thursday and Friday. The party attracted more than 6,000 customers over the first three days of the tournament.”
Of additional concern was Markazi’s use of social media, where he has often praised various brands. In particular, Markazi has repeatedly mentioned the Cosmopolitan hotel in the past. Markazi previously told VICE News he has never received free lodging because of any improper relationship.
But in late June, a Times reporter was tasked with writing a story with Markazi about the Cosmopolitan’s handling of the coronavirus. The reporter, according to two sources, subsequently informed management about a perceived conflict of interest with the hotel around the time of the sports department’s letter.
In the July letter, members of the sports department wrote that “multiple editors have been informed repeatedly of [Markazi’s] unwillingness to adhere to ethical standards, yet he continued to write columns, attend events, travel, and peddle influence. He is heretofore undeterred."
This piece has been updated to include a statement from Times spokesperson Hillary Manning and additional information about the Cosmopolitan hotel.