UT Returns to the Bad Old Days

Daily newspapers are having troubled times, financially, but a different kind of trouble has also arrived at San Diego’s daily, the Union-Tribune. Excuse me… UT San Diego, it’s now called.

But I don’t care what the new publishers call it. The issue is the integrity of the paper’s content.

When San Diego real estate mogul Doug Manchester bought the paper, a few months ago, he and his partner shocked journalism purists by saying the new UT would be a “cheerleader” for San Diego (not a watchdog or a paper of record).

They said their sports page would portray opponents of a new stadium for the San Diego Chargers as “obstructionists.” To me this all meant that UT journalists would not be objective reporters, but promoters of the publisher’s agenda.

Some of us wished for the best, hoping this was a naïve attitude of someone who had yet to learn the news business. Eventually, we thought, Manchester would understand what is required of journalism and he’d let the newsroom do its job.

But I now believe that was wishful thinking because the footprint of the new publisher has been so clearly seen.

Within the past month, the paper endorsed conservative Republican mayoral candidate Carl DeMaio in a special front-page section. Endorsing a candidate in the primary is unusual; endorsing him with that level of display is practically unheard of.

Not long after that, a news headline described independent mayoral candidate Nathan Fletcher, arguably the person most likely to defeat DeMaio in a general election, as a “panderer.” The day after that, a front-page story about Robert Brom, who’s retiring as bishop of the San Diego Diocese, made no mention of the enormous financial settlement, paid on Brom’s watch, to victims of sexual abuse by priests.

We read this in the paper owned by Manchester, who’s well known as conservative Catholic and a big supporter of Prop 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m Catholic too and I’ve got no problem with Doug Manchester’s views on gay marriage or his history of donating to favored political causes.

I also understand that the opinion page of any newspaper is bound to reflect the publisher’s opinions. For years, the Wall Street Journal combined a right-wing editorial page with great nuanced coverage of major news stories on the front page.

But what’s happened in the UT has gone beyond a simple rejiggering of its editorials. It’s infected the actual coverage of news.

I’m sure the editors at UT San Diego could offer some other explanation of the stories I mentioned. They may say the headline was a mistake, not a malicious effort to smear Fletcher.

But the problem is; I wouldn’t buy those explanations and it doesn’t really matter whether I’m right or wrong. The paper is losing my trust, and if you want to have editorial integrity, you’ve got to have trust of the readers.

I’d say this new development is a sad chapter in a newspaper that’s always been a bastion of fair reporting but that would not be true. In the old days of the UT, back when there was a Union and a Tribune, the publisher’s politics had a huge impact on news coverage.

I’ve spoken with people who’ve told me during the 1970s you simply could not get coverage about Watergate in the San Diego papers. This was thanks to the tight relationship that owner James Copley and editor Herb Klein had with the GOP and the Nixon administration.

So the moves by Manchester & Co. aren’t really a new thing. But they sure look like a return to the bad old days.

And it’s sad. In the past half-dozen years the UT won two Pulitzer Prizes and there are still plenty of talented journalists who work there. But members of the whole Pulitzer team that uncovered the great bribery scandal of Congressman Duke Cunningham have now either left the paper or have been fired.

Meanwhile, there’s talk of the Manchester group buying the Orange County Register as well. I’m still hoping for the best and my trust can be regained. But so far the signs have not been encouraging.

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3 Comments on “UT Returns to the Bad Old Days”

  1. Tom Fudge Says:

    Let me clarify. When I said I had no problem with his views on gay marriage I wasn’t saying whether I agreed or disagreed with him. I was only stating that publishers have opinions and they get involved in politics, it’s always been that way and it’s not necessarily a problem. The problem comes when they allow their political views to influence coverage of news. My concern with Manchester’s ownership of the UT is that he seems to be doing that. TF

  2. Paul Jamason Says:

    No problem with Manchester’s $125K to take away gay marriage rights from my partner and me? Learn something new every day I guess…

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