May 9 2012 09:18 AM

Editor's partisan comments to Nathan Fletcher open daily paper to scrutiny

Jeff Light

Jeff Light seems annoyed. He's the top editor at U-T San Diego, and on Monday, he felt compelled to explain himself in a Facebook post. Earlier, mayoral candidate Nathan Fletcher had handed over to the news website Voice of San Diego the audio and a transcript of Fletcher's endorsement interview with the U-T. In the interview, Light essentially informed Fletcher that the paper can't endorse him because he'd been bad-mouthing the Republican Party amid his high-profile decision to leave the GOP and become independent. That's problematic, Light added, because the U-T has "Republican backing and Republican tradition."

Subsequently, the paper endorsed Republican Carl DeMaio and harangued Fletcher for causing harm to the Republican brand. Voice of San Diego's Scott Lewis followed with an analysis of the U-T's explicit alignment with the GOP. You should read it.

Other local media picked up on it and focused on the fact that it was Light, the editor, who was expressing the paper's allegiance to the party, as well as telling Fletcher that the paper could not stomach another candidate, Bob Filner, the only Democrat in the race, reaching the runoff election in November. CityBeat's Dave Maass also questioned Light via email.

So, Light went to Facebook and attempted to explain it. In a nutshell, he said he was speaking not for himself but, rather, for the U-T editorial board when he was talking to Fletcher, and that the "owners" of the paper hold the "key votes" on the editorial board. Ergo, we think it's safe to say that Light was speaking for Publisher Doug Manchester and CEO John Lynch, who are well known to be partisan Republicans.

Light's post sparked debate on Twitter on Monday evening, with Light taking heat for distancing himself from his statements in the interview and blurring the line between the partisan editorial board and the (hopefully) independent news staff—he's both a member of the editorial board and the leader of the news team.

In his post, Light remarked that the recording of the interview had been "purloined," which means "stolen." That's absurd; the interview was on the record. He also seemed chagrined that anyone would come away thinking he's a partisan Republican.

The whole affair raises interesting questions: Why was it Light, the editor, who was articulating the paper's alignment with the Republican Party and not Lynch, who was there, or one of the paper's editorial writers? Should the paper's owner have that much control over the paper's editorial positions? Should the paper disclose its apparent alignment with the Republican Party—the institution itself, not just its principles? For Voice of San Diego's Lewis, commenting on Twitter, Light's post raised questions about the very nature of unsigned editorials—if the editor distances himself from the position of the editorial board, should the editorials be signed by the owner?

For his part, Light is obviously not happy that he had to defend himself. In response to Maass' questions, he said that if he'd known the interview would be posted for public scrutiny, he'd have chosen his words more carefully.

For our part, we're glad the Fletcher people "purloined" the recording, and we're glad someone wasn't carefully choosing words. Otherwise, the public wouldn't have gotten such a rare glimpse at the sausage being made at the U-T's factory.

Separation between newspapers' opinion and news functions has always been tricky business—many in the public don't know where that wall is or if it exists at all.

For the sake of comparison, CityBeat has no wall; our editorial board, as it were, and our news staff are one and the same. We embrace our biases and try our best to be fair and accurate in our reporting.

The U-T, on the other hand, clings to what we refer to as the myth of objectivity on the news side (bias among human beings is inescapable) and the absolute separation between news and opinion. Meanwhile, the new ownership team—Manchester and Lynch—have made it clear that the new U-T is an advocacy operation, the prime example being their crusade to get a large sports-and-entertainment complex built at the Tenth Avenue Marine Terminal. By inserting himself into the conversation the way he did, Light just made the whole thing blurrier.

However, that distracts from a more important matter. Under the brief ownership of Platinum Equity, the paper's editorials seemed better aligned with its readership than they had during the Copley era. Now it's taken an unfortunate hard-right turn.

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