The words “INTIMIDATION” and “THUGGERY” splash across the screen as a movie-trailer voiceover describes how “forces” want to thwart a pension-reform ballot measure by bullying signature gatherers. The camera cuts to San Diego City Councilmember Carl DeMaio, a supporter of the measure, who delivers the money quote: “Their form of education is intimidation.”
The clip is on DeMaio's mayoral campaign YouTube channel, but it isn't a campaign ad. It's a promo for the KUSI television program, Solving the Pension Crisis: The Fight to Get on the Ballot, airing at 6 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 15. KUSI news director Steve Cohen tells CityBeat that the two-hour special report will “review the issues that surround the ballot measure.”
In emails to supporters, however, DeMaio refers to the KUSI program as “Sign-a-thon” telecast, with eight different signature-gathering locations across the city. Cohen wouldn't comment on the extent of KUSI's coordination with the campaign and referred all other questions to the station's owner, McKinnon Broadcasting. The McKinnons, frequent donors to conservative causes, didn't return calls.
“I've never heard of a TV station devoting a program to the collection of signatures,” says Tracy western, CEO for the Center for governmental Studies and a law professor at the USC Annenberg School of Communication. Broadcasters are not required to give equal time to each side of a ballot issue, western says, but, depending on how it's executed, KUSI's program could be considered special treatment for DeMaio as a mayoral candidate.
“Candidates will sometimes push ballot measures as a way to get attention to their issues,” western says. “We don't have any rebuttal doctrines for ballot measures, but we still have equal time for candidates.”
CityBeat contacted Kelly McBride, senior faculty in journalism ethics at the Poynter Institute, for an opinion on the news special. After speaking with a member of KUSI's senior news staff, McBride says she learned that the station was practicing “advocacy journalism” and was attempting to interview the measure's opponents (chiefly public-sector labor unions). McBride also says the staffer indicated DeMaio misrepresented the program and other candidates would be participating.
“He pointed out to me that his station's management is very much in favor of people signing the petition and getting it on the ballot, that they have taken a position and that it's actually very common for them to take political positions,” McBride says. “I would say it's definitely outside the norm of what you would see from most local television stations, but he seemed to me pretty transparent about his station's presence in the community… of allowing a political framework to guide some of their choices.”