Reporters for The San Diego Union-Tribune have never had an easy ride. Even back before they went to work every day wondering if that was the day they'd get laid off, they had to cope with frequent attacks on their paper's general competence. The daily's always been the most influential press outlet in San Diego, and when you're the big dog in the yard, all the other dogs bark at you. And when the politically conservative editorial page didn't change along with the gradually left-moving population, the reporters had to work overtime to make sure folks made the distinction between the newsroom and the editorial board.
It's been particularly bad for them during the past three years, as they've seen hundreds of fellow employees lose their jobs. Those who didn't watched the longtime local owners, the Copley family, sell the paper to a private-equity firm that trades in distressed corporations. And last week came the news that the company's being sold to Doug Manchester, a high-profile local developer of hotels and other projects (including a major development proposed for San Diego's Downtown waterfront) who's active in conservative political causes (he supported Prop. 8 with $125,000 of his money and has been active in Mitt Romney's presidential bid). Manchester's partner in the deal is another conservative, longtime radio-station executive John Lynch.
Business reporter Lori Weisberg shot back, “Because we reporters haven't suddenly abandoned our journalistic principles, and we wouldn't no matter who owned our news org.” In the U-T's online comments section, reporter Jen Lebron Kuhney and her editor Diana McCabe had to defend Kuhney's story about Manchester's Grand Del Mar becoming San Diego County's first Forbes Travel Guide five-star hotel, which was published the day before it was announced that Manchester was buying the paper. Similarly questioned was a Nov. 5 U-T editorial supporting Manchester Pacific Gateway, the waterfront development.
Meanwhile, reporter Matthew T. Hall posted a comment on the conservative blog SDRostra.com saying that he'll continue to approach his reporting in a “fair, full, balanced and unbiased” manner. Any reporter who has to cover hotel-tax assessment and allocation or write about Manchester's real-estate endeavors will be in a tough spot, but Hall, who covers the quest for a new Chargers football stadium, appears to be in the toughest spot of all.
In an interview with voiceofsandiego.org's Rob Davis, Lynch—who'll be the paper's president and CEO—made a number of comments that should alarm reporters and readers alike. “We'd like to be a cheerleader for all that's good about San Diego,” he said, later adding, “We want to have an incredibly strong sports page that supports the Chargers, the Padres, USD, SDSU, that advocates for a new stadium and calls out those who don't as obstructionists.”
Wow. What Lynch, himself a former football player, is describing sounds more like a paper in a small town somewhere in the Midwest that lives and dies with its high-school football team than a major daily in the ninth largest city in the country. It's hokey and unsophisticated. He singles out the sports section, but those remarks leave us fearful that Hall won't be allowed to keep doing the evenhanded job he's been doing covering the proposal to build a stadium Downtown.
“Clearly, I think there's an editorial direction given by an ownership of media,” Lynch said. “And that will happen—we are more pro-business than anything else. That benefits everybody in our city. We better start creating jobs that attract business. That's one of the things we would probably do.”
There's nothing wrong with being pro-business, but business interests are often at odds with neighborhood, labor or environmental interests, and Lynch's words suggest that anyone competing with business interests won't get a fair shake in the Union-Tribune.
Under David Copley, the U-T's editorial stance was fiercely pro-business and pro-Republican, but it was socially moderate. After Copley sold it, the paper continued to be anti-union, but it moderated its opinions on some other issues, such as recycling wastewater into drinking water, for example, bringing the paper more in sync with its readership. Manchester will likely turn the opinion section far to the right— not only on fiscal matters but on social issues, too.
Yet, it's the reporters we're especially worried about. We have no doubt that they'll do their best to be fair. But they have only so much control over their work. Meanwhile, the new leadership is likely to keep them on defense.
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