Michael Zucchet’s demeanor didn’t change last night, but the intensity of his delivery did, when he started talking about U.S. Attorney Carol Lam’s recent forced resignation.

“She prosecuted me when she knew my case had no merit, and she is responsible for an injustice to me and my family,” he said. So is he celebrating over her removal?

“She is now being called the savior of all that is pure,” he said. “But I am not celebrating. Her firing doesn’t change what happened to me.”

He even sounded like he felt a little sorry for her.

“Much of what is being said about her is based on an anonymous source to a Union-Tribune reporter, and it has been repeated so often that it is now being accepted as fact,” he said. “But no one knows what is really behind this.”

Zucchet, the former City Councilman, whose conviction on fraud charges was thrown out in November, was part of an annual event put on by the San Diego chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists last night at Point Loma Nazarene University. The event is called “Report Card on the Media,” where newsmakers are asked to evaluate the performance of the news media in its coverage of them. Mayor Jerry Sanders was one of the panelists, along with Xema Jacobson of the regional airport authority, and John Jodka, the father of a U.S. Marine who is serving time for killing an Iraqi civilian.

Regarding news media coverage of his own legal problems, Zucchet said he understands why it was difficult for balanced information to get out. “When it came to the relationship that the prosecution had with the media, I couldn’t compete with that,” he said. “The prosecutors gave out the scoops. Giving out information about a federal case like this is a felony, by the way, but no one seemed too concerned about that.”

He observed that, since most news organizations are commercial ventures, thoughtful and analytical coverage doesn’t sell as many papers or attract viewers as much as sensational stories.

“This case had strippers, money, politicians and Las Vegas — a news media dream world,” he said.

Sanders’ evaluation of the news media was less specific, “I have two years left in my term,” he said, laughing, as he said he would not single out specific media performance. He did, however, say that he felt that the news media in general, and KPBS Radio in specific, treated him differently when he was identified as a Republican.

“Reporters were more pointed toward me than to others in their questioning,” he said. “I am more aware that the news media have a point of view. I hadn’t noticed that before I ran for mayor.”

He also confessed that he doesn’t watch television news.

“I haven’t watched television news for more than 10 years,” he said. He stopped, he said, when he was police chief and saw that crime scenes he witnessed were different from how they were being reported.

Sanders didn’t want to give the news media a letter grade for their performance. “I’d rather make it a pass/fail,” he said. “And they didn’t fail.”

Jodka said that it took him a while to figure out that the national news media was interested in him as a commodity, not a human being, so he allowed himself to be used as long as he could get his message out that his son needed money to pay for an adequate legal defense team. The instant media spotlight on him and his family was a necessary disruption, he said.

“It wasn’t painful,” he said. “What was painful was seeing my son go through the military justice system.”

He said he was treated kindly by local media. He gave local newspapers a “high B, to low A,” and broadcast media a C for using sound bites that painted an inaccurate picture. One television station aired a speculative animation re-enactment of what might have happened in the Iraqi’s killing, but it was completely inaccurate, he said. The national media failed completely, he said.

Jacobson, of the airport authority, said that since much of the information they deal with is “dry, it’s hard to nuance that.” She felt that the news media did an adequate job in covering the airport issues, but something like the airport issue “takes more than sound bites,” she said. She was complimentary to voiceofsandiego.org for its coverage, and noted that often there was follow up coverage in the Union-Tribune only after it was in Voice. She also said that the North County Times and KPBS television covered the issue in depth.

Her main recommendation for improvement was that there could have been coverage of the process in its earlier stages, with community discussions. Some of the news media realized that the issue was not just two sides pitted against one another, she said, which made the coverage more complete.

This event, with sources talking back to the news media, is a healthy thing for our city. Often these two groups are adversaries of one another, even though they need one another in order to exist. An open discussion like this, though, takes people out of their roles, and puts them on level, human, terms.

As a long-time member of the SPJ chapter, I have been part of putting on these events for several years, and we have had some memorable ones. When the news media have deserved a public whipping, these events have provided the forum. When the newsmakers became whiners or evasive, they were told so. Some of them were so heated that the moderator lost control. But it’s the dialogue that matters. It means we’re not afraid of one another.

When we stop talking with each other, stop evaluating one another, stop holding one another accountable, the community suffers.

May these events have a long, fruitful future.


Editor’s Note: Nelson runs the journalism program at Point Loma Nazarene University. Check out his book.

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