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U-T San Diego Political Ads Don’t Add Up

This story was updated with comment from the FPPC.

Evening Edition

Aired 4/5/13 on KPBS News.

An inewsource and KPBS investigation found the U-T San Diego appears to have offered discounts to favored candidates and causes in last November’s election.

— Campaign strategist Tom Shepard grew more suspicious by the day last fall as he flipped through the U-T San Diego and repeatedly saw full-page ads lambasting his client Bob Filner, a Democrat running for mayor.

“It made me wonder whether they were crazy,” Shepard said. “When I started seeing ads from the other side running as often as they did, it made me wonder — if they were paying $8,000 an ad, they were spending an enormous amount on newspaper advertising.”

An anti-Filner ad that ran in U-T San Diego.

Investigation Details

inewsource and KPBS looked at every page of every U-T San Diego between Sept. 3 and Nov. 6, 2012 (Election Day), to document publication of political ads. Each ad was entered into a spreadsheet, noting the candidate, committee paying for the ad, the date the ad ran and the size and placement of the ad. We repeated this step twice for accuracy.

We then looked at any payments made by the committees to the U-T for ads. We also checked for any in-kind contributions from U-T executives.

Ad rates were calculated using the reported payments to U-T San Diego divided by ads published.

For a full list of the ads, click here.

The $8,000 per full page is what Shepard said the U-T quoted Filner’s campaign for advertising. Campaign finance disclosures, however, show the other side paid far less.

This discrepancy — and others discovered by the inewsource and KPBS Investigations Desk — could violate campaign laws.

“It’s clearly not appropriate for a news organization to make that kind of contribution without reporting it,” said Dan Schnur, former chairman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission, now director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.

Gary Winuk, chief of the FPPC's Enforcement Division, says the agency is evaluating the information to determine whether to open an investigation.

inewsource and KPBS audited ads in the U-T every day between Labor Day and Election Day 2012 and compared the list with campaign finance records. The results show varied payments for ads, indicating the U-T may have offered bargains to the anti-Filner campaign and to other candidates and issues the newspaper endorsed.

U-T owner Doug Manchester did not respond to requests for an interview. Chief Executive Officer John Lynch said in an email that the U-T offered a package to campaigns.

“All political ads were paid as part of a bundle option used to attract political advertising and consistent with how we sell generally. The bundle was available to all campaigns interested in advertising,” Lynch wrote. He declined to provide a copy of the offer or details of it.

The “bundle option” does not explain the variations in costs per ad revealed in the inewsource analysis.

According to local, state and federal campaign experts, discounting ads for certain political candidates can be against the law. In California and San Diego, rules require that discounts be reported as in-kind contributions to a candidate or cause. These laws exist to ensure transparency in political financing and other financial information involving public officials.

The newspaper ran front-page editorials last year endorsing Filner’s opponent, former San Diego Councilman Carl DeMaio, a Republican. It also endorsed Republican Congressman Brian Bilbray in his re-election race against Scott Peters. Both candidates lost.

DeMaio did not return a call for comment. His campaign consulting group Revolvis, which also represented Brian Bilbray, also did not return calls.

Shepard, who has run campaigns in San Diego for decades, called the U-T discounts unprecedented.

“I’ve seen newspapers and television stations editorialize in favor and against my candidates, and I just kind of accept that as part of the game in political campaigns,” he said. “I’ve never seen advertising given away to one candidate in preference over another. And my understanding of the state and local campaign laws, it’s not legal to do that.”

At the very least, transparency is required, according to Schnur.

“If the news organization did not offer the same rates to each candidate, then that means they’re providing a financial level of support that they did not provide to the other,” Schnur said. “That’s perfectly allowable. But it’s something that needs to be reported.”

Campaign disclosure reports and the inewsource/KPBS audit of ads reveal the following:

  • San Diegans for Reform in Opposition to Bob Filner paid $25,000 to the U-T. Sixteen full-page ads ran in the newspaper. That works out to about $1,560 per ad.
  • Former Congressman Brian Bilbray’s campaign paid the U-T $25,000 for for 27 full-page ads that either supported Bilbray or opposed Scott Peters. That works out to about $926 per ad.
  • Representatives of Filner’s campaign and Peters’ campaign said the U-T quoted each of them the equivalent of $8,000 for a full-page ad. Neither campaign could provide the quotes in writing. Neither placed ads.
  • There is no public disclosure of in-kind contributions for advertising discounts from either Manchester or the newspaper to the anti-Filner committee or the pro-Bilbray effort. (Manchester did donate $50,000 to the Lincoln Club in August 2012. The Lincoln Club was the main financial sponsor of the anti-Filner committee and a major sponsor of the anti-Filner ads in the newspaper.)

The number of political ads that ran in U-T San Diego between Sept. 3 and Nov. 6, 2012.

Peters' campaign communications director MaryAnne Pintar said she suspected that the newspaper had given a deal to Bilbray.

“It just didn’t make sense to us to spend as much money as he would have had to have spent, based on the numbers that we were quoted,” she said. “We knew that the U-T was not our friend and that they were very strongly behind Mr. Bilbray on the editorial side.”

An ad run in U-T San Diego for Congressman Brian Bilbray's reelection campaign.

The U-T also appears to have offered a break to proponents of Proposition 32, which would have banned unions from using payroll dues for political purposes had it passed in November. The U-T endorsed the proposition in editorials, saying, “Of all the measures on the California ballot this fall, the most important is Proposition 32.”

The pro-32 campaign committee, called the Small Business Action Committee, ran at least 20 full-page ads in the U-T during the fall campaign. At times, two ads ran on the same day in different sections.

The committee reported paying $26,000 for print ads on its state disclosure forms, but did not specify newspapers that were paid. Despite repeated inquiries, a representative from the group did not provide details. No in-kind contributions are reported to the group from Manchester or the U-T.

Federal election rules are even stricter than the state’s. They don’t allow special pricing of ads even if the discount is disclosed.

“It’s not permissible under the federal election laws to offer a discount period to federal candidates,” said former Federal Election Commission Chairman Trevor Potter. “The federal rule is that candidates must pay the market rate. You have to treat candidates the same way you would treat other customers.”

Potter said most media outlets are familiar with that rule.

“I’ve not heard of a case in the past where a newspaper has intervened in a federal election by selling discounted space because most newspapers understand that they cannot make a contribution to federal candidates through their advertising,” Potter said.

Manchester, a hotel developer, entered the newspaper business in December 2011. He bought the North County Times last fall. But Potter, who was appointed to the FEC by George H.W. Bush and has taught elections law for 25 years, said Manchester’s relatively recent experience as a newspaper owner wouldn’t be an excuse. It’s unlikely that everyone in the newspaper’s advertising department is new, he said.

“They would have had a real problem if this had been a common practice over the years,” Potter said. “If it wasn’t done in the past, then the question is why change it now and why didn’t someone say something.”

inewsource investigative assistant Michele Pluss and KPBS intern Betsy Galchutt contributed to this report.

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Avatar for user 'christiantommy'

christiantommy | April 5, 2013 at 6:43 a.m. ― 3 years, 11 months ago

Lynch and Manchester belong in jail.

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Avatar for user 'RegularChristian'

RegularChristian | April 5, 2013 at 7:35 a.m. ― 3 years, 11 months ago

I like the CEO's answer that the ads were "a package deal." Yeah, a sweet package deal for one side and the old stiff arm to the other.

If it turns out the Tribune broke laws, I hope they are held accountable and don't just get slapped on the wrist like so many well-connected white collar criminals. This is elections were talking about, not silly newspapers ads.

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Avatar for user 'Mmikey'

Mmikey | April 5, 2013 at 8:28 a.m. ― 3 years, 11 months ago

sneaky way to contribute by circumventing the spirit of the law

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Avatar for user 'Roger Mullins'

Roger Mullins | April 5, 2013 at 8:30 a.m. ― 3 years, 11 months ago

The Tribune isn't a News Paper, it is a Propaganda Sheet for the Right Wing Nut, Doug Manchester.

I stopped my subscription after 40 years after 1 year of Manchester. All News Papers editorialize on the Editorial Page. Manchester and Lynch do it in the News Section.

They are not Journalists.

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Avatar for user 'jelula'

jelula | April 5, 2013 at 9:24 a.m. ― 3 years, 11 months ago

No one has mentioned yet whether a "package deal" was also offered to the campaigns opposed by the UT/Manchester/Lynch. Somehow, even if one was offered, I doubt that it would have been the sweet deal described here for candidates & measures supported by the UT.

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Avatar for user 'Becalmed'

Becalmed | April 5, 2013 at 9:33 a.m. ― 3 years, 11 months ago

One thing that we know for sure is that the District Attorney, Bonnie Dumanis, won't enforce campaign laws against fellow Republicans.

Dumanis refused to enforce the residency law against Brian Bilbray when he first ran for Cunningham's House seat in 2006. Bilbray was a lobbyist living in Virginia. He claimed that he lived at his mother's house in Carlsbad even though his children were enrolled in Virginia schools.

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Avatar for user 'Peking_Duck_SD'

Peking_Duck_SD | April 5, 2013 at 9:52 a.m. ― 3 years, 11 months ago

The question is not whether Mr. Lynch and Mr. Manchester are corrupt, criminal political hacks - this has been quite clear for sometime.

The REAL question is, will they keep getting away with it?

I don't see how this "news" paper even stays in business.

Even Republicans I know are increasingly avoiding it because it's such a joke.

Last weekend, I walked into a 7-11 and couldn't help but notice there was only 1 copy of the LA Times left on the shelf, but there were UTs stacked high looking like nobody had bought even a single one.

It's a shame that San Diegans who want to read a local paper have to turn to nearby cities like Los Angeles to get reputable reporting because our local paper is so corrupt, biased, and unreliable.

I know Manchester is sitting on a fortune, so perhaps he can continue using the local paper as his personal propaganda machine even at a net loss of profits, but if he is doing illegal activities he must be held accountable.

My guess is that Manchester, based on his blatant reckless behavior in running this "news" paper doesn't really care if it goes out of business. I think he just wants to get as self-serving political mileage out of it and then when it finally goes under he can redevelop the expensive real estate the UT building sits on and continue building his multi-million dollar fortune.

I hope the qualified journalists in San Diego like those at KPBS and CityBeat dig into this deeply because, as another commenter accurately pointed out, the DA will not do squat because Manchester is a political ally of hers.

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Avatar for user 'eas2'

eas2 | April 5, 2013 at 9:53 a.m. ― 3 years, 11 months ago

The package deal excuse doesn't make any sense. If that were the case, then why did the two campaigns receive different packages at the same cost? Both the anti-Filner and pro-Bilbray campaigns paid $25,000 a piece, but received a different number of ads. Examples cited by KPBS show a full-page color ad for both campaigns. Their reasoning doesn't add up at all.

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Avatar for user 'no_soup_for_you'

no_soup_for_you | April 5, 2013 at 10:08 a.m. ― 3 years, 11 months ago

I'm very tired of people getting away with crimes because they are rich and have political connections. I agree with the first comment in this thread, Manchester and Lynch need to be prosecuted and put behind bars. The Union Tribune is a major city paper, this should be getting national attention. I am repulsed by this and will never pick up a copy of that publication as long as Manchester and Lynch continue to defile it.

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Avatar for user 'glennyounger'

glennyounger | April 5, 2013 at 10:08 a.m. ― 3 years, 11 months ago

Once Tom Shepard comes forward with all the documents that he should have from the UT's advertising department; then we'll know if this was a real story.

For now it is just a hunch of Tom Shepard's that KPBS is broadcasting as news. If there are some facts to support Tom's claims about what they were to be charged please show them. Right now we know what the UT charged the 2 losing campaigns. If it comes out that Tom's campaigns were offered the same deal from the UT and did not take it I would hope that get's reported too.

Although UT bashing is popular right now it is difficult to take seriously if they do not come forward with facts. Otherwise it looks like demonizing of a competing news outlet and is not of the high level of journalistic standards that KPBS normally uses.

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Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | April 5, 2013 at 10:11 a.m. ― 3 years, 11 months ago

We all know that Manjester's UT was a strong supporter of anti-union CDM and "partner" Jack Haze.

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Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | April 5, 2013 at 10:15 a.m. ― 3 years, 11 months ago

Although, in fairness, I must say, UT San Diego ISN'T THE ONLY MEDIA OUTLET that editorialized in its news section, eh Mr. Goldberg?

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Avatar for user 'imominous'

imominous | April 5, 2013 at 11:11 a.m. ― 3 years, 11 months ago

I've enjoyed the Passion of the Doug.

Contributing to the Prop 8 campaign ensured that his was the only hotel on the waterfront empty on Pride Week. He sold it off, as it had BOYCOTT written all over it.

Then he buys the U-T and the quality plummets. Writers who wouldn't get a passing grade in high school English are apparently getting paid to produce the level of stuff the ignorant Teabagger readers will identify with, right down to the misuse of apostrophe's.
(don't make me explain that I did that on purpose, of course I did. Because it's funny.)

Then he expands his wee little right wing empire with a TV station nobody watches.

And now, thanks to the horrible decisions made by Republican lawmakers, his paper is forced to report the failure and hazards such decisions create.

He may be rich, but I would not want to be Dougie. The right wing media empire he envisioned for San Diego is crumbling. We dumped his paper when it became useless for unbiased news, fit only for the bird cages and compost heaps of San Diego.

And then Filner got elected. Like other elections, he won DESPITE the cheating from the other side! Sucks to be you, eh, Doug?

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Avatar for user 'sandiegonative'

sandiegonative | April 5, 2013 at 1:31 p.m. ― 3 years, 11 months ago

I agree with those who said the U-T is not a newspaper; it is just an opinion piece, propaganda, some rich guy's hobby, and nothing more. We should not be surprised at anything the owners of that rag would do. No surprise that U-T subscribers have fled in droves.

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Avatar for user 'JohnInLaJolla'

JohnInLaJolla | April 5, 2013 at 1:32 p.m. ― 3 years, 11 months ago

I would recommend that the campaigns victimized by this practice retain some local consumer attorneys and sue the U-T for business torts and violation of campaign laws.
Public prosecutors and regulators must also investigate the U-T and subpoena their records.
This corrupt practice pollutes our political institutions and must be stopped.
Hopefully, the cost of complying with the law will force a sale of the newspaper to new ownership that is more interested in serving the public interest.

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Avatar for user 'newsreader'

newsreader | April 5, 2013 at 1:44 p.m. ― 3 years, 11 months ago

Not really surprised. This is consistent with the false political polling conducted by the UT showing DeMaio with a 10% lead over Filner two weeks before the election (in an obvious attempt to influence the voting). What I don't understand is why not report the contribution? We already know the newspaper leans republican.

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Avatar for user 'benz72'

benz72 | April 5, 2013 at 1:48 p.m. ― 3 years, 11 months ago

Corruption and crime should be investigated. The guilty should be punished.

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Avatar for user 'franciscocroquer'

franciscocroquer | April 6, 2013 at 8:42 a.m. ― 3 years, 11 months ago

Great information, but completely useless if nobody is going to take to court.
Who is going to do it?

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Avatar for user 'classic49er'

classic49er | April 10, 2013 at 6:19 p.m. ― 3 years, 11 months ago

I also was a daily subscriber to the UT and weekends for the North County Times for years! I dropped the UT for its unprofessional way they 'think' they are reporting the news. Every month I get a call to renew my subscription and I always tell the nice lady from Delzura that I will not waste my time on a paper that parrots 'Fox News' "fair & balanced" approach to news. They are NOT jounalists, just talking heads who have nothing to say -- only editorializing every thing that comes out of their mouths.
Now the NC is owned by Manchester and I will be dropping them as well! It is a disgrace and I wonder who they think they will be 'convincing' of their lies!!

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Avatar for user 'dutchjim'

dutchjim | April 11, 2013 at 10:54 a.m. ― 3 years, 11 months ago

I would like to say I'm appalled by the acts of Doug Manchester. He has wealth and power. He has a history of breaking and bending the law. He will not be held liable for his conduct.

As for the UT, I stopped subscribing. It has lost its purpose, and value.

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Avatar for user 'Peking_Duck_SD'

Peking_Duck_SD | April 11, 2013 at 1:25 p.m. ― 3 years, 11 months ago

Imagine what things wqould have been like if DeMaio won for Mayor.

It makes my skin crawl just thinking about it.

Manchester and Lynch would have basically had the keys to the city - controlling both the government AND the media.

Thankfully San Diegans were able to see the train wreck coming and we got off the tracks by telling mr. DeMaio "thanks but no thanks".

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Avatar for user 'Peking_Duck_SD'

Peking_Duck_SD | April 29, 2013 at 4:50 p.m. ― 3 years, 11 months ago

Any updates on this?

Please, please KPBS don't let this one slither under the carpet like Mr. M. wants it to be.

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