The venerable journalism publication Editor & Publisher was on the phone, and Neil Morgan, who calls himself "San Diego's most trusted journalist," pondered the conspiratorial possibilities that might have led to his firing from the Union-Tribune last week.
"I go after crooks in City Hall and crooks who are developers. I'm an old reporter, so I get it right-and make a lot of enemies," the 80-year-old son of a Baptist minister was saying.
But did Morgan get the boot, as he suggested, for skewering some sacred-cow meat? Sure, and CityBeat won 15 Pulitzers this week.
Earlier, Morgan hinted at another possible reason for his dismissal, which he described as "job elimination." According to an Associated Press report, Morgan "said he believes he was forced out for angering a senior newspaper executive who shared information with him about "a prominent San Diegan.' Morgan said the executive accused him of lying to other managers about their conversation."
Insiders at the conservative daily said they believe the latter is the more likely scenario. The popular story making the rounds at the paper these days is this:
The senior executive Morgan refers to is none other than Charles Patrick, the bottom-line-dwelling executive vice president and chief operating officer for Copley Publications, which operates the Union-Tribune and nine other papers in Southern California and Illinois. Patrick, the story goes, offered a grim assessment of publisher David Copley, the ailing son of former publisher Helen Copley, who spends her golden days sequestered in her La Jolla mansion.
Patrick is said to have told Morgan that Copley would never be the same. Morgan then proceeded to sound the clarion call to other members of management. When word got back to Patrick that Morgan was relaying their conversation to others, Patrick eliminated the columnist's position.
CityBeat's attempt to contact Patrick was unsuccessful. However, he told Editor & Publisher, "Our policy is we don't talk about personnel matters."
David Copley suffered a heart attack in January, according to an e-mail disseminated throughout the company's Mission Valley compound at the time. He spent several weeks at Sharp Memorial Hospital and was released in late February. According to a published report in the San Diego Reader and insider accounts, Copley must wear a special device to keep his heart pumping. The device is used most frequently for what its manufacturer calls "end-stage heart failure."
Years of speculation about whether the Union-Tribune will be sold to the Chicago-based Tribune Company-which owns such major dailies as the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and New York's Newsday-have now ramped up to a fever pitch. Insiders report that the accounting department has been asked to put together figures that suggest a sale is imminent-possibly by the end of the year.
As one insider put it: "If you're Dave Copley and you don't know how much time you have left, are you really interested in hanging on to a bunch of newspapers? I don't think so."
The moral of the story? Said one insider: "Ironically, the gossip columnist got fired for gossiping."
In a six-page account of his termination and tenure with the paper-released during a news conference with his heavy-weight attorney, Milton Silverman, at his side-Morgan offered a rather telling rendition of "Here's how a 54-year employee gets treated." Just a sampling:
Neil Morgan, the "Conscience of San Diego," was unceremoniously fired by the San Diego Union-Tribune after fifty-four years of dedicated service. The man many consider San Diego's most-trusted voice was treated like a miscreant. On Friday afternoon, February 6th, he was handed a letter by editor Karin (pronounced Car-in) Winner. It read: "Your job as associate editor and senior columnist will be terminated and your employment will end effective March 31, 2004."
Neil shook his head and looked at Winner.
"It's time to cut the chain," she said.
He reviewed the "Release of Claims" which accompanied the letter. It gushed legalese. Sign it, the letter said, and he would get one year's pay. Refuse, and he would get two weeks.
The last paragraph suggests, as one insider put it, that Morgan was offered "hush money" to keep his side of the dispute from reaching the public. Morgan, in a brief e-mail to CityBeat, remained vague about the circumstances surrounding his firing, or whether the public and his former colleagues at the U-T deserve the straight scoop.
"They are all good questions," he wrote.
The real question, at this point, is will this story just fade into the shadowy recesses of Copley history, or will the "Conscience of San Diego" stand up and tell it like it was.
The episode also raises myriad questions for Copley employees. Why the concern about revealing Copley's medical condition? Seriously overweight for decades, Copley survived previous heart surgery back in the late '80s but did little afterwards to curtail his penchant for partying.
Insiders note that publishing executives are nervous about mucking up any potential sale of the newspaper. "If the Tribune Company got wind of David's condition, they might opt to just wait it out," said one, who like the others who spoke to CityBeat requested anonymity for fear of reprisals.
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