Tuesday, October 23, 2012
Famed newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer acquired newspapers as a way to attain power.
Developer Doug Manchester's multi-million dollar investment in a television channel and his purchase of U-T San Diego and the North County Times has left many long-time readers wondering if Manchester is doing the same.
U-T San Diego reporters and former staffers complain that Doug Manchester's boosterism and strident editorials are dimming the paper's heft.
They believe he’s using the paper to wage a propaganda campaign on matters close to his heart. They point to over-the-top anti-Obama commentary, the paper's front-page editorials endorsing San Diego mayoral candidate Carl DeMaio or the open championing of the use of the waterfront at the Tenth Avenue Marine Terminal to build a sports complex.
U-T reader Christina Schaefer, who works as a biologist, canceled her subscription to the paper this summer because she said she saw echoes of positions taken in the paper's opinion section in news coverage of downtown development.
"The U-T became a vehicle for Doug Manchester to promote his agenda," Schaefer said. “I felt bullied almost into a position."
San Diego State University journalism professor Tim Wulfemeyer said it’s a positive that the U-T is under local ownership, because he believes Manchester cares about the region. But he's also concerned about what he calls the paper’s mean-spirited viewpoints.
"It starts out on the editorial page. 'We're out to get Filner or we're out to get Obama. We don't want those people re-elected and so we'll say and do just about anything to keep that from happening,’” Wulfemeyer said. “Well, pretty soon, people might wonder if that kind of mean-spirited unbalance is going to seep into the traditional news coverage."
U-T CEO John Lynch stands by the paper’s editorials.
“We make no apologies for what we do on the editorial page,” he said. “We’re very actively involved. Papa Doug Manchester and I have views that are very consistent and we communicate regularly and try to reflect those views on what’s important to us and what we think is best for the community.”
Manchester said he’s aware that readers are canceling subscriptions over news coverage and editorials, but he claims circulation is up.
“Listen, we’re interested in serving everybody in San Diego because we love the city,” Manchester said.
That said, he added, “I’ve always said under Ronald Reagan, we had Steve Jobs, we had Johnny Cash and we had Bob Hope and under Obama, we have no cash, no jobs and no hope.”
But both Manchester and Lynch maintain the firewall between news and opinion remains.
“Our newsroom runs itself through the leadership of Jeff Light,” Lynch said.
U-T editor Light did not respond to requests for comment. But U-T staffers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Light most often sides with his bosses over his staff.
They tell of a review of the self-published book, "Capitalist at Large: Reflections of an International Entrepreneur." The reviewer blasted the book as "self-congratulatory" and "unreflective." The review was not published, according to insiders, because it was negative. The book’s author mentioned Manchester in the index positively four times.
"There's a sort of adolescent mentality that's running the newspaper," one reporter said. "It's petulant and not particularly thoughtful. If you have a really good story, I don't know if it would get into the paper if Lynch or Manchester didn't like it or it was too controversial. Morale is terrible. People are distressed."
They also said Lynch and Manchester are far more hands-on than their predecessors in pitching story ideas, angles and people to profile. The reporters said the two men suggest their friends as subjects for the paper’s front-page “Making a Difference” stories. Lynch shrugs off any criticism of that process.
“I see nothing wrong with saying, 'Here’s Father Joe who’s done an awful lot, let’s put him up,’” Lynch said. “Sometimes we have a purview to people through our charitable involvements that the people in the newsroom don’t have.”
Several reporters also worry about what effect Manchester's insistence on rosy stories will have on the paper's credibility. The new motto on the U-T’s front page reads, “The world’s greatest country and America’s finest city.” Manchester has said the ability to order up positive copy is why he bought the paper.
"I'd like to be in a position where we point out what's good and right about the city of San Diego as opposed to some of the negativity that has permeated prior,” Manchester said.
But former U-T reporter Craig Rose said the paper’s quality will suffer if its ownership doesn’t understand that’s not the role of journalism.
"There are armies of public relations people,” Rose said. “It is their job to crank out positive news and they do. The newspaper's role when they're at their best is to point out the uncomfortable truths."
Developer David Malcolm said the public not only needs facts but a silver lining too.
“Everything I get on this thing is negative all day long,” Malcolm said, pointing to his cell phone. “Greece is falling apart. Europe is falling apart. It is great to have a news organization that says our number one goal is going to be a cheerleader for San Diego. There are a lot of great things going on in this town and in the state but you don’t read that. And they dare to say we’re going to try to create something positive. I like that.”
Malcolm said Manchester is following a shrewd business model.
"Fox News, regardless if you like them or hate them, created an incredible cash cow,” he said. “There hasn't been a conservative newspaper in the U.S. other than the Wall Street Journal. What's the most successful newspaper in the U.S.? The Wall Street Journal.”
But Manchester’s goal may extend beyond creating a successful media outlet.
When he bought the paper, some assumed he was really after the prime real estate underneath the building in Mission Valley. Whatever the motive, it’s clear Manchester now wants to reprise the days when media owners had real clout in shaping events.
Like all newspapers, the U-T has had a lousy five years with shrinking revenue, falling circulation and budget cuts But Lynch believes he can reverse the decline.
“A lot of people think we’re crazy because we’re probably the only people in the country re-investing in newspapers,” he said.
He thinks the paper can once again be a player.
“If you look at the history of San Diego, this newspaper was really very active in changing history in San Diego,” Lynch said. “Jack Murphy in bringing the Padres to San Diego and bringing the Chargers to San Diego and building Qualcomm Stadium with Neil Morgan collaborating with Pete Wilson and Ernie Hahn to build the entire Gaslamp center and for the past 20 years, this newspaper has been AWOL in terms of leadership.”
The leadership Lynch speaks of includes kingmaking. Almost as soon as Manchester bought the paper last December, he and Lynch met with San Diego mayoral candidate Carl DeMaio at Manchester’s hotel, the Grand Del Mar.
Six months later, DeMaio and two other City Council candidates, Scott Sherman, who has since won, and Ray Ellis, met with Manchester. DeMaio says the meetings had nothing to do with city business.
“They relate to campaign activities," DeMaio said.
Lynch and Manchester also gave DeMaio a boost in two front-page editorials.
“We felt very strongly that we needed a mayor who could lead us economically out of the morass that we were in,” Lynch said.
Manchester’s endorsement of DeMaio raises questions about what he might expect in return if the man he wants as mayor is elected. An I-Newsource/KPBS investigation last month showed the financial and political ties between the two men go back a decade.
Manchester’s plans for San Diego’s waterfront go back even further. Soon after he built his first Manchester Grand Hyatt tower 20 years ago, Lynch says Manchester eyed the Tenth Avenue Marine Terminal as the next coastal land to develop. Right after he bought the U-T, the paper touted its vision on the front page to build a sports complex and hotels. He said the motive was purely visionary.
“Whether or not it’s a stadium, whatever it is, I don’t have control over that,” Manchester said. “If Filner or anyone else thinks I’m backing DeMaio for maybe developing that, I have no interest in that, nor would I have any interest in doing anything ever again with the Port of San Diego.”
The I-Newsource/KPBS investigation found that Manchester bought stock in Host Hotels & Resort when he sold his waterfront hotels to the conglomerate in 2008. The piece provoked a debate about whether Manchester was using the paper to advance his financial interests, a charge Manchester denied.
“If Host shares increase in value, there would be an opportunity to have a share increase, but I have so little shares, it’s immaterial,” he said.
Even so, the paper’s ownership has been willing to use the paper as a club to get Tenth Avenue redeveloped.
In August, Lynch sent San Diego Port Commissioner Scott Peters an email asking how he planned to vote on a multi-year lease with Dole Food Company. Lynch also wrote that the contract should contain a provision that would allow Dole to drop off its bananas in National City if the Port goes away. The email says otherwise the U-T will be forced to lead a campaign to disband the Port.
Peters viewed that last line as a threat.
"The comments seemed intended to influence my vote,” he said.
Lynch initially said that line was not meant to intimidate.
"It was not a threat,” he said. “It was a call to action. This was a giveaway of public property."
University of Southern California journalism professor Gabe Kahn said there’s a long history of media owners with vast business holdings and political interests strutting their power to settle scores and promote agendas. But that approach could tarnish the U-T’s credibility.
“That does not help the brand or the business model of the newspaper,” he said.