It's easy to picture the scene when the rabid news hounds at the Union-Tribune learned that at least two of the Sept. 11 terrorists had used San Diego as something of a staging area and beer hall.
Editors jumped up on tables waving battle flags, exhorting the troops on to victory covering the biggest story since JFK caught one in the brain. High-level task forces were established to direct coverage. Special investigative units formed to parachute into every mosque and Middle Eastern restaurant in town, hunting down local angles on this Islam thing.
“This one is for the Pulitzer!” editor Karin Winner yelled to the assembled staff, sparking cheers and applause as crews fanned out to cover the biggest story of their lives...
Hah! Just a joke, boys and girls. It's still the same ol' dependable U-T.
So maybe it's not a shocker that the U-T editors apparently think all this talk of jihad is a yawner. But even longtime U-T bashers are flabbergasted at the way the editors of San Diego's answer to the Barstow Gazette are sleep walking through the biggest story in the world, which landed squarely in their plump, McDonald's-fueled laps.
The latest embarrassment came in November when Newsweek broke the story that terrorists living in San Diego might have received money from Omar Ahmed Al-Bayoumi, who was getting money directly from the Saudi government.
When the news hit, the U-T simply ran New York Times wire coverage. The editors didn't bother to add any new reporting-apparently there was a good episode of Murder, She Wrote on TV that night. But they did manage to give themselves a nice lick on the haunches, using questionable ethics to insert a line into the bylined New York Times story assuring readers that the “San Diego Union-Tribune had reported in October 2001 that Al-Bayoumi was well-known in the San Diego Muslim community and was widely believed to be a Saudi government agent.”
The story also said that “investigators now believe Omar Ahmed Al-Bayoumi was the advance man for the terrorists,” which you would think might be enough to rouse the U-T into a frenzy of news coverage.
But the next day the U-T editors were happy to use another New York Times story, apparently deciding reports that the advance man for the terrorists might have been hanging out at Pacers and sailing toy airplanes off the roof of the Hyatt wasn't particularly newsworthy, not with the Mission Bay Pancake Breakfast coming up.
The U-T's idea of coverage came later in the week when it breathlessly broke the news that San Diego FBI chief “Bill” Gore, during a “question-and-answer meeting with the Union-Tribune editorial board,” denied his office was lame.
Although he “declined to discuss the details,” Gore said the FBI has “thoroughly and doggedly pursued the money trail from the start of the Sept. 11 investigation.”
That wasn't exactly stop-the-presses material, but longtime U-T watchers know this is fairly typical of the paper's small-town approach to news. When a national paper butt-whumps them, they wade in with an obligatory update, run wire copy, act like they already had reported the news and then move on, satisfied with kicking the crap out of the Borrego Sun.
This got them into a wee bit of trouble a few months ago on, when the paper was, yet again, following up a Newsweek scoop. This time the story was about a local Muslim leader who may have been an FBI informant.
The U-T actually managed to assign reporters to cover the report, except their story didn't make it clear that the U-T was simply following the Newsweek story. Even normally flaccid “reader's representative” Gina Lubrano was obligated to note that the U-T's coverage “failed to acknowledge how the matter came to light; it should have.”
Although the Newsweek story didn't mention the name of the suspected informant, the U-T decided it was okee-dokey to publicly accuse the man of being a snitch. Lubrano assured readers the U-T released the name only after television reporters named him.
So that's the U-T's idea of leadership, which kicks in once the editors watch the local TV news shows.
Instead of tracking the terrorist story, the U-T is busy covering the Chargers stadium deal, chasing a story it missed six years ago. It's also devoting a lot of time to the trial of a perv who killed a kid, which wouldn't be big news, except it happened in the suburban wonderland of Rancho Bernardo, an assault on the very core of the U-T's heartland.
The Arab terrorists were living in a subculture of San Diego that doesn't attend parties at the symphony or swap shrimp skewers at the Fish House over mar-toonies. That's strange and foreign ground for the U-T, which prefers its stories based in City Hall or the courthouse, where things shut down at 5 o'clock, allowing reporters plenty of time to make it to TGIF for happy hour.
With such a strong local connection, some papers would have assigned squads of foaming-at-the-mouth reporters to work the story, covering every aspect on a daily basis, mining sources, getting behind the scenes, driving the story until it connects San Diego directly to Osama bin Laden's Jacuzzi parties.
Instead, the U-T moves along with its usual slow-poke yokel attitude-mixed with a healthy dose of the paper's unique brand of arrogance-reinforcing the commonly shared opinion that the U-T wouldn't know a big story if it ran into their building with a 747.