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Thursday, October 13, 2005 | When I resigned from The San Diego Union-Tribune nearly a year ago over an issue of censorship, I planned to end my subscription and subsist on the New York Times and Los Angeles Times. Folks my age, unlike some of you younger, online addicts, have a long-time newspaper habit.
But for movie, theater and TV listings and reviews; local obits and sports; museums, restaurants, openings, closings, where does one go except to the local newspaper? The Voice of San Diego stepped into the void caused by the Union-Tribune‘s weak local news coverage and biased opinion pages, but our local monopoly newspaper provides us with features found nowhere else. It also provides me with access to my own columns from its archives, some 1,400 of them written over 13 years that I could not access as a non-subscriber.
For my $100 annually, I look at the rest of the newspaper, too, comparing its news coverage and opinion pages with other journals, observing how things might have changed since I left after last year’s election. What follows is what I have found.
The Union-Tribune is essentially a sports and entertainment newspaper, with hard news coverage wholly inadequate for a city of San Diego’s size, complexity and sophistication. Its opinion pages are biased to a degree rarely found in general circulation newspapers today, though there is one ray of light, which I will come to. The newspaper’s rudderlessness has even begun to attract outside attention, with the Los Angeles Times doing a long article on the enigma of owner David Copley last month, and the San Diego Magazine, which has ignored the Union-Tribune for years, working on a series on it in coming editions.
If there is a ray of light on the opinion pages, so is there one on the news pages. Marcus Stern, who came to the newspaper from the Arizona Republic and made a reputation for himself as an indefatigable reporter on immigration issues, uncovered the Rep. Randy Cunningham flimflam story last summer, a story that led to the end of Cunningham’s political career and a criminal investigation. Though Cunningham is a Republican, Stern was allowed to publish his findings – a rare event.
Stern could win a Pulitzer Prize. In awarding its prizes, the Pulitzer committee looks not just at the reporting, but the effects of the reporting, and when Cunningham announced he would not run again, Stern’s chances for a Pulitzer increased. One factor, however, weighs against him: Normally, a news Pulitzer goes both to the reporter and the newspaper. In looking at the newspaper’s contribution, the committee looks at all aspects of the story, including editorials.
Stern has had no support from his newspaper’s editorials, loathe as always to criticize Republicans. Union-Tribune editorials, which supported Cunningham for a decade, simply can’t accept that the top-gunner from Rancho Santa Fe, who never met a defense contractor he couldn’t do business with, was on the take.
One sees the Union-Tribune‘s dilemma again today as House Republican leader Tom DeLay accumulates indictments. As repulsive a politician as this nation has produced in years, DeLay’s actions are “routine” for our ethically-challenged local newspaper. As for Jack Abramoff, the Republican Party figure and DeLay pal now the focus of a federal criminal probe that includes murder, you won’t find his name mentioned on Union-Tribune editorial pages.
Now, imagine that DeLay and Abramoff were Democrats. Or imagine that a Democratic president conducted a war like Iraq and ran up deficits like Bush. We’d be choking on the miasma of righteous indignation emanating from Mission Valley.
It is partisanship that makes the Union-Tribune such a rotten newspaper. Years ago, when I was a correspondent in Paris, I found myself at a press luncheon seated next to Roland Salini, editor of l’Humanite,’ the French Communist paper. These luncheons were oiled by a good deal of Bordeaux, and Salini and I were having a good time. At one point I asked him, “Roland, which comes first for you, journalism or Communism?”
Communism comes first at l’Humanite’ and Republicanism comes first at the Union-Tribune. Journalism comes in second both times.
We see the problem not just in the cases of Cunningham and DeLay, but in the latest Supreme Court nominees. Union-Tribune editorials positively gushed about John Roberts, and on Harriet Miers an editorial informed us that Miers’ background “is the most impressive thing about her.”
That is cheer-leading, not informed criticism. What background is the Union-Tribune referring to – that Miers is a born-again Christian, a Bush lawyer and a one-termer on the Dallas city council? Nothing in that “impressive” background remotely qualifies her for the Supreme Court, but don’t expect to read that in the Union-Tribune.
How can a newspaper serve its community, let alone its profession, if it’s in the pocket of a political party? How can it do its job of representing the community in speaking truth to power, which is its job, when it refuses to ask the hard questions? How can it do its job when the most searching questions on these issues come not in editorials but in letters-to-the-editor? If that’s the case, why not let readers write the editorials, a practice, by the way, with which the Los Angeles Times is experimenting.
When I left the Union-Tribune, I pointed out in talks around town that the letters-to-the-editor printed daily on the op-ed page were manipulated to reflect Union-Tribune editorial positions. If you supported Donna Frye for mayor, for example, your chances of getting a letter printed were slim. This was a serious violation of the newspaper’s trust, and I believe that my drawing attention to this dishonest practice played some role in changing things. My observation lately is that readers are no longer censored to the degree they were a year ago.
Stern’s articles have been the ray of light on the Union-Tribune news pages, and there is also one on the opinion pages.
When I left, Steve Breen, the editorial cartoonist, lived under daily censorship. It was not unusual for Breen’s best cartoons, which are syndicated, to run in newspapers around the country but be killed in the San Diego for being too critical of Republicans. Breen, a talented man, was being de-fanged, never a good state of affairs for a watchdog.
Lately Breen seems to have gotten his fangs back. I have an idea why that happened, but never mind. It helps make up for all those dreadful editorials.
James O. Goldsborough has written on foreign affairs for four decades, both from the United States and abroad, where he worked as a foreign correspondent for The New York Herald Tribune, International Herald Tribune and Newsweek magazine for 14 years, reporting from more than 40 countries. Most recently, he was a columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune.