When Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, the billionaire owner of The Los Angeles Times, hired Kevin Merida to be the newspaper’s top editor nearly three years ago, he hailed the journalist as someone who would maintain the publication’s high standards and journalistic integrity.
By this winter, the professional warmth between the two men had chilled. Their relationship was strained in part by an incident in December when Dr. Soon-Shiong tried to dissuade Mr. Merida from pursuing a story about a wealthy California doctor and his dog, three people with knowledge of the interactions said. The doctor was an acquaintance of Dr. Soon-Shiong’s, the people said.
The previously unreported incident occurred as The Los Angeles Times, the largest news organization on the West Coast, struggled to reverse years of losses amid a difficult market for newspapers. Mr. Merida resigned this month. Shortly afterward, the company laid off roughly 115 journalists, or about 20 percent of its newsroom.
It is not unheard-of for the owner of a publication to be consulted on sensitive reporting, particularly if it could jeopardize the newspaper legally or financially. But it is unusual for an owner or a publisher to pressure editors to stop reporting on a story well before publication, especially in cases that do not put government secrets or human lives at risk.
In a statement on Friday, Dr. Soon-Shiong disputed the characterization of how he had acted, calling it “factually incorrect.” The Los Angeles Times said in a statement that Dr. Soon-Shiong, who bought the newspaper in 2018, had made a request for “truthful, 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 had been “mutually agreed” that Mr. Merida would leave.
Dr. Soon-Shiong’s confrontation with Mr. Merida over the unfinished article stemmed from work that a business reporter was doing on Dr. Gary Michelson, a California surgeon who made his fortune with medical patents, the three people with knowledge of the situation said.
The reporter was looking into dueling lawsuits that involved Dr. Michelson and accusations that his dog had bitten a woman at a Los Angeles park. In a suit 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 rarefied 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 return a request for comment.
By last month, before the reporting on Dr. Michelson had reached fruition, Dr. Soon-Shiong had become 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 believe the paper should pursue the article.
Mr. Merida relayed Dr. Soon-Shiong’s concerns to editors including Scott Kraft, a senior editor, and Jeff Bercovici, the business editor, the people said. The editors agreed to keep Mr. Merida posted on the article, which the newspaper continued working on. Mr. Bercovici was laid off this month.
At one point, Dr. Soon-Shiong asked to see a draft of the article, which Mr. Merida regarded as inappropriate, the people said. Dr. Soon-Shiong also told Mr. Merida on a call that he would fire journalists if he learned they were concealing the completed article from him, the people said.
A Los Angeles Times spokeswoman said in a statement that Dr. Soon-Shiong didn’t want the newspaper to be used as a “source of exploitation” in the dispute between Dr. Michelson and the woman who had sued him.
“Dr. Soon-Shiong had urged that the facts be gleaned from both sides,” she said. “This request for truthful, factual reporting was made by Dr. Soon-Shiong, irrespective of who was involved in this ‘dog bite’ story. He simply urged the editors to ensure that an investigation was done before any story was published.”
The incident weighed on Mr. Merida, two of the people said. The editor had already found himself at odds with the Soon-Shiong family on issues including the newspaper’s budget. Mr. Merida was prepared to potentially resign if the article on Dr. Michelson was ready and Dr. Soon-Shiong blocked its publication, the two people said.
The newspaper has not recently published any article on Dr. Michelson.
Laurence Darmiento, the reporter working on the article, said he had continued to cover the story. He said he was aware the story was sensitive, like all articles on wealthy Los Angeles residents, adding that his editors had never told him to stop working on it.
“Beyond that, I didn’t have any firsthand knowledge of what was going on behind the scenes,” Mr. Darmiento said. “Just this past week, despite all the turmoil at The Times, I was doing some reporting on it.”