MEDIA WATCHDOG: UNION TRIBUTE SALE RAISES MEDIA ETHICS CONCERNS
By Miriam Raftery
November 20, 2011 (San Diego) –Media reform and citizens’ groups have voiced concern over purchase of the San Diego Union-Tribune, a self-proclaimed “watchdog”, by a team led by real estate developer and political activist Doug Manchester. His major pending development projects are the very sorts of deals an independent media outlet would ordinarily report on and investigate.
The acquisition has drawn pointed criticism from both conservative taxpayer advocates and representatives of liberal interest groups.
Manchester’s funding of conservative political causes including Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign and a ballot initiative to ban gay marriage have raised concerns that Manchester may use the newspaper as a soapbox to promote his personal political views as well as to support development deals from which he would personally gain.
Any hope that the paper might refrain from shilling for development deals or other causes favored by its new owners went out the window with an interview granted to Voice of San Diego by John Lynch, named by Manchester to be the paper’s new president and CEO.
“We’d like to be a cheerleader for all that’s good about San Diego,” said Lynch.
The Union-Tribune’s announcement of the deal quoted Manchester calling the acquisition an “honor” and emphasizing the strong community roots that both he and Lynch have. “We believe San Diego is the finest city in America and pledge to be strong advocates for the city’s interests and conscientious caretakers of the Union-Tribune and its legacy.”
But is what’s good for the city of San Diego necessarily what’s best for taxpayers and residents?
A former professional football player and ex-radio executive for stations hawking sports and conservative politics (until he was ousted by Broadcast Company of the Americas), Lynch told Voice of San Diego that he wants the newspaper to be pro-business and the sports section to advocate for a new football station. Those opposed should be called out as “obstructionists,” according to Lynch.
Building a new stadium has been controversial, drawing criticism from both conservative taxpayer advocates as well as liberal voices who argue city funds should best be spent on other purposes.
On San Diego Rostra, a blog for conservatives and Libertarians, North County Times columnist Bradley J. Fikes lambasted Lynch for “advocating biased cheerleading coverage to support using taxpayer assets for corporate welfare—aka a new Chargers stadium.” He called the move "crony capitalism" ading, "If this is what Lynch was willing to say publicly, I shudder at what instructions he's giving the U-T staffers privately."
Both mayoral candidates Nathan Fletcher, a Republican, and Bob Filner, a Democrat, have said they oppose taxpayer funds being expended to help build a stadium. Soon, however, it appears the Union-Tribune’s new owners will be pushing whoever wins the mayoral race to support a new football stadium--and possibly other projects in which Manchester Financial has an interest.
A Democratic Party media team member has called the acquisition by Manchester “a media disaster.” Romney donated $2,500 to Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s campaign and $5,000 to the Free & Strong America PAC supporting Romney. His business website, www.dougmanchester.com, includes a link to the Romney for President campaign.
That may rankle even many conservatives rooting for other candidates in the primary election, should the Union-Tribune's editorial policy reflect promotion of Romney over other Rebublican contenders such as Ron Paul (winner of the GOP San Diego straw poll), Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Michelle Bachman, Newt Gingrich or others. Democrats, too, would take offense if Romney wins the primary and gets an editorial boost by the Union-Tribune in a general election against President Barack Obama.
Some have likened Manchester's acquisition of San Diego’s major newspaper to a media takeover. “San Diego now has its own Rupert Murdoch,” one observer posted on a local news site, referring to the controversial owner of Fox News, who has infused a conservative slant on news coverage and has also been implicating in a taping scandal involving a British tabloid that he owns.
Manchester, who goes by the nickname “Papa Doug,” also has interests in the banking industry—ties that may not be popular in the era of the “occupy” movement protesting banks and corporate power. His website lists him as Founder of La Jolla Bank and Trust Company and La Jolla Pacific Savings Bank, as well as Next Wave Telecom, a wireless communications company. He serves on boards for the World Presidents Organization and Chief Executives Organization and was named Man of the Year by the San Diego Chamber of Commerce. He takes pride in his philanthropic endeavors, including United Way and more. His motto is “Making Positive Memories,” according to his website.
Groups advocating for gay rights, labor, and the environment have joined the chorus of those raising serious concerns, however. Manchester gave a six-figure donation to fund a ballot initiative to outlaw gay marriage, sparking a boycott of his Manchester Grand Hyatt and Grand del Mar Resort hotels, as well as boisterous protests that ultimately led him to issue an apology to gay rights advocates. (Manchester has since sold the Hyatt, but now also owns the San Diego Marriott Hotel & Marina.) Some unions have also targeted boycotts against Manchester’s hotels over labor issues.
Joshua Romera, who works for an HIV research center, expresses worries over future news focus. “I am concerned over the coverage that will be given to LGTB and LGTB-related news,” he said, San Diego Gay & Lesbian News reported. He cited concerns over issues such as HIV/AIDS research and treatment advances being made here in San Diego.
Fred Sainz, former spokesman for Mayor Jerry Sanders, now serves as a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign in Washington D.C. He told Voice of San Diego that Manchester “has a well-earned reputation for being a small-minded, resentful, mean-spirited man…Those are not the character traits that you want in the publisher f your newspaper…It’s putting way too much power in the hands of one person with a multitude of agendas.”
Manchester is currently pushing a billion-dollar waterfront development on Navy land downtown, a project that triggered outcries by environmentalists and was recently rejected by the California Coastal Commission. Yet on November 2, the Union-Tribune published an editorial urging the Coastal Commission to approve the project , touting its potential to bring jobs and provide an economic stimulus for our region.
Astoundingly, the paper’s editorial board did so without disclosing its clear conflict of interest at the time, while Manchester was negotiating to buy the newspaper, according to Poynter.org, an organization dedicated to fostering ethical and responsible reporting standards in journalism.
The newspaper also ran a glowing front-page story on November 17 touting the Grand Del Mar resort for being first in the nation to receive Forbes Travel Guide’s top rating—without disclosing the resort’s owner, Manchester, is acquiring the Union-Tribune.
If Manchester’s private development interests are already being openly promoted at the newspaper, the prospect of any true investigative reporting on projects in which he holds a vested interest appear slim once the newspaper deal closes, as projected, by December 15.
Don Bauder, former Union-Tribune financial editor and current columnist for the Reader, has speculated that Manchester may be acquiring the newspaper with an eye toward ultimately eliminating the print edition (and possibly the entire newspaper) in order to develop the Mission Valley property. “Manchester is interested in real estate. He’s not interested in the media and never has been,” Bauder told 10 News.
Lynch issued a statement in response insisting that “We are committed to building a very strong integrated media company.” He added that the price paid, while not disclosed, was more than double the $55 million price tag that Bauder had guessed. “We also intend to be a positive force in San Diego supporting all that is good in our community,” he added.
The 143-year old newspaper has drawn controversy in the past. The modern-day paper was formed through a merger of the San Diego Union and the San Diego Evening Tribune. Under leadership of the Copley family, the newspaper developed a union-busting reputation following bitter labor disputes. Freelance writers also filed a landmark copyright class action suit over copyright infringement. (Disclosure: ECM editor Miriam Raftery was among the named plaintiffs in that suit.)
The newspaper had a clearly conservative editorial slant during ownership by the Copleys, who once donated a million dollars to put elephant fireworks in the sky for the Republican National Convention in San Diego. The paper not only endorsed almost exclusively Republicans, but went so far as to completely ignore high profile local races. For instance, the Union-Tribune refused to interview or cover a prominent local Democrat running against incumbent Republican Darrell Issa on the rationale that as the richest man in Congress, Issa couldn’t lose. (Lack of news media coverage, of course, makes that argument a self-fulfilling prophecy when one candidate has the ability to buy paid messaging in the media.)
The newspaper began losing both readers and profits, cutting half its staff from 2006 to 2009. Following Helen Copley’s death, her son, David Copley, sold the newspaper to Platinum Equity, a Beverly Hills-based private equity firm.
According to Deal.com, Platinum stemmed losses and turned the tide toward profitability through a combination of changes in advertising through “micro-zoniong” to appeal to local sponsors with smaller budgets, revamping the online edition, and putting more focus on local news coverage. It also laid off another 204 employees.
Hoping to regain market share, with subscriptions reportedly dipping to 200,000 (not counting those who read the online edition free) Platinum purchased Enlace, catering to Spanish speakers, acquired the lifestyle website DiscoverSD.com in April to appeal to younger readers, and this month launched Vida Latina San Diego, a Spanish-language entertainment magazine.
With Platinum at the helm, the newspapers once staunchly conservative editorial tilt skewed closer to the middle, allowing multiple viewpoints, a nod perhaps to San Diego’s changing demographics and now majority Democratic party registration.
Lynch has stated that he plans to keep publisher Ed Moss and editor Jeff Light at the helm. Light told KPBS that he enjoys “a diversity of ideas” and strived to make the paper less strident editorially.
But how difficult might that be if the publisher who writes his paycheck asks Light to tone down coverage negative of Manchester’s development projects, or perhaps issue an editorial favoring a conservative cause or candidate?
Journalistic canons of ethics discourage journalists from having vested interests in projects that they cover. Still, some hold out hope that the Union-Tribune’s new owners will refrain from using the Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper for private personal or political gain. Even during the conservative Copley reign, for instance, the newspaper once sleuthed out corruption on the party of then-Congressman Randy Duke Cunningham, resulting in criminal conviction of the Republican representative on bribery charges.
“It is our hope that despite his personal political leanings, Mr. Manchester will not attempt to influence the objectivity of the news reporting or editorial stances of the newspaper,” a statement issued by San Diego Democrats for Equality reads. “Many media companies, such as the Murdoch empire (owner of Fox News) attempt to impose the political views of the owners on their outlets; others try to serve the best interests of the community. We call on Mr. Manchester to embrace the latter.”
Should Manchester ignore that call and misuse the power that he is acquiring as owner of our region’s biggest daily newspaper to promote special interests over the public interest, he may soon find that readers will voice their own views with their wallets—by cancelling their subscriptions to the San Diego Union-Tribune.