I’ve held my tongue for a week, but the Union-Tribune’s new marketing campaign touting itself as a “Watchdog” has now become too absurd to ignore. Sunday, the print edition of the U-T, ran a full-page declaration touting that paper’s coverage of the city’s pension crisis.

There’s a cutout of the headline: “FEDS INDICT 5 IN PENSION CASE.” And underneath it are the photos of the five city officials indicted by the U.S. attorney in January.

Below that, it reads simply:

“We dig deep to expose corruption, reveal bureaucratic ineptitude and uncover stories to protect the interests of all San Diegans. It’s why the city’s pension fund crisis is getting so much attention…”

That’s ridiculous. The implication is, of course, that the U-T nailed these five people who – by the way – haven’t been convicted of anything.

A number of journalists deserve credit for raising awareness about the mounting unfunded liabilities in the pension system that have gotten so large, paying them off threatens to cripple city government for years. The list of journalists includes, above all, our own Andy Donohue, who in November 2002 followed whistleblower Diann Shipione out of a now notorious City Council meeting and asked her if she could explain to him what she was talking about at the meeting. Andy then broke the story about the controversial 2002 pension arrangements. He wasn’t working for the U-T.

After that, the U-T featured good reports occasionally about the pension problem but didn’t address the very conflict of interest issue that led to these indictments for several months. Andy had that in his first story.

Months ago, a reporter openly admitted in a public forum that it was competition from us, specifically, starting 17 months ago, that spurred the U-T to tap into this new “watchdog” spirit.

But we could go on and on about that and list more of the people who followed Andy covering the pension issue (including me!) and who forced the U-T to stay on its toes. There’s a bigger problem with this ad in the Sunday paper, however.

This full-page display appeared in the local news section of the Sunday paper. Is it safe to say that the U-T’s news department believes these five people are guilty of the corruption the paper said it uncovered? It’s one thing to describe the factors that led the U.S. attorney to indict those five people and to follow the case as it proceeds. It’s quite another to plaster the defendants pictures up in your news section and gloat about exposing corruption underneath them.

The U-T deserves to be proud for nailing Duke Cunningham and they should scream about that as much as they want. But these five aren’t there yet. They may very well be corrupt – the U.S. attorney thinks so – but it’d be hard to be a journalist covering the trial for the U-T and try to tell those defendants that you’re going to cover it from a neutral position after your news section just featured such a dumb declaration.

SCOTT LEWIS

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