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Monday, Nov. 19, 2007 | For a sleepy public affairs show, Full Focus has generated more news and attention by being taken off the air than it ever did while it was on television. The nightly half-hour show was watched by less than 1 percent of the viewing audience when the management at KPBS, San Diego’s public broadcasting station, unceremoniously pulled the plug in August. But Full Focus has continued to haunt us ever since. Maybe it’s mad at us for watching Access Hollywood instead.
Full Focus may have only attracted 13,000 viewers a night, but they were an influential, civic-minded group, and some contributors were upset that the show had been so abruptly yanked off the air. The station’s general manager, Doug Myrland, didn’t help matters when he told contributors where they could stick it.
“Just because you give a contribution or pay taxes doesn’t give you the right to decide — or even influence — what goes on the air and what doesn’t,” Myrland wrote on the station’s blog. “Listeners and viewers get to decide only if they want to watch or to listen.”
The controversy attracted the attention of San Diego’s city attorney, Mike Aguirre, who had been a frequent guest on Full Focus. Aguirre’s investigation, however, managed to turn KPBS into the victim, a First Amendment martyr even. Instead of asking meaningful questions about how the station is run and what it is doing with contributors’ money, Aguirre set out on a foolish quest to uncover the sinister conspiracy that he — and only he — saw lurking in the halls of local public broadcasting.
The typical conspiracy theory involving public broadcasting stations like KPBS is that they are run by a bunch of Prius-driving, tofu-eating, perverted, godless liberal eco-weenies. Aguirre, however, believes that KPBS is being secretly run by the same Hummer-driving, backroom-dealing, cigar-smoking developers who hate forces for change in San Diego like the one the city attorney believes himself to be.
Aguirre fired off a series of requests for documents from KPBS. The city attorney wanted to know 1) why the station canceled the show; 2) how the show chose guests for its weekly “Editor’s Roundtable” program; and 3) the details of the relationship between KPBS and Copley Press, which owns The San Diego Union-Tribune.
KPBS meekly complied with Aguirre’s requests, turning over documents and e-mails about its internal programming decisions. Material relating to internal news-gathering decisions is usually protected by the First Amendment, but KPBS is owned by San Diego State University. That makes it a quasi-governmental organization subject to Aguirre’s requests under the California Public Records Act.
In October, before all the facts were in, Aguirre produced an 11-page report that reached the conclusion that Robert Kittle, the bow-tie wearing editor of the Union-Tribune’s editorial page, which frequently criticizes the city attorney, “appears to control 100 percent of the televised public affairs programming produced by KPBS.”
Absurd is the word that comes to mind here, but even assuming it’s true, so what? If it wanted, couldn’t KPBS put Kittle on television all day? Why is it the city attorney’s business if Kittle reads Elmo his editorials in the morning, cooks with Martin Yan in the afternoon and goes on Rick Steves’ travel show to complain about the French?
Last week, Aguirre called a press conference and, to his credit, announced he was reversing course and withdrawing the requests. In a show of candor, Aguirre conceded that it was not appropriate for an elected official to be the one making these requests, even though he was entitled to the information.
“I don’t want to do anything to in any way invade the province of the media, even though it might be warranted in this case,” Aguirre proclaimed after weeks of investigation.
So what was this whole thing about? “What the whole issue is about is the role that the very conservative establishment newspaper plays in whether we have a fair public broadcasting system,” Aguirre said. “The only real source of discussion of local issues on television has been ended.”
What about the local CBS, NBC, ABC and FOX affiliates? “They don’t have the kind of discussion that Full Focus had.”
How does this fall under your jurisdiction, exactly? “It falls within the jurisdiction of the City Attorney’s Office to protect the public. The public has a right to know what’s going with its local public television station because that station is raising money from the public. We have a consumer protection role to play.”
Going in, I had thought that I would be troubled most of all by a city attorney who was willing to trample over the First Amendment to investigate the demise of his favorite local news show. But that wasn’t what bothered me most. Nor was it the silly and meaningless conspiracy Aguirre was after. No, what bothered me most was the second purpose of the news conference.
The second purpose of Aguirre’s press conference was to lambaste Alex Roth, a Union-Tribune reporter whose stories about the city attorney have become critical lately.
“As has been his previous practices, Mr. Alex Roth has engaged in unethical behavior in violation of the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists,” the city attorney said. “Mr. Roth did not seek truth and he did not report it.” Interestingly, Roth, who is one of the paper’s best reporters, attended the news conference but Aguirre refused to acknowledge him or answer his questions.
What prompted this attack was Roth’s Nov. 15 story about the Full Focus investigation. What about the article was so terrible? Well, nothing actually. What Aguirre found unethical were the questions that the reporter had posed to one of the named sources whom he quoted (accurately, as I confirmed later). Although he won’t speak with Roth, Aguirre spent his day re-interviewing the reporter’s sources.
Aguirre even saw evidence of a conspiracy in the way Roth’s story was structured. The whole article, he said, had been “orchestrated” by KPBS, Roth and his editors. How did Aguirre know this? Somehow Roth had gotten hold of a letter Aguirre sent to KPBS. Isn’t it possible he asked for a copy?
“Just knowing how Alex operates and how his editor operates, it’s my belief that is not what happened,” the city attorney said.
I’m at a loss here. Maybe the nefarious structure of the article will be clearer to me if I hold it up to a mirror to read it.
Despite all the fuss, not much has changed at KPBS. Full Focus remains off the air, and Kittle continues to appear on both television and radio on “Editor’s Roundtable.” That speaks volumes. Aguirre can’t even intimidate the local public broadcasting station. I mean, if you, as an elected official, can’t bully a bunch of eco-weenies, what good are you?
Seth Hettena, a San Diego-based freelance journalist and author, writes an occasional column “The Peanut Gallery” about local media and journalism. You can e-mail him at email@example.com with your complaints, thoughts or stories about San Diego reporters.