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Monday, May 19, 2008 | San Diego County Supervisor Bill Horn recently added a new section to his official website called “The Whole Story.” Supervisor Horn has attracted a great deal of critical coverage since he was first elected to represent northern San Diego County in 1995. “The Whole Story,” he said, provided a forum “to respond in like manner to distortions, innuendos, misstatements, bias or lies.”
The site would counter media bias and distortion with accurate information and give readers “a better chance of getting the truth.”
If that was the goal, “The Whole Story” failed miserably. Its ham-fisted approach only served to draw attention to a story that could have been brushed aside. It bungled up its facts, accusing other supervisors of doing something they had not. And that led to an embarrassing correction on a site that purported to give the unvarnished truth.
“The Whole Story” is a textbook case of how NOT to deal with bad press.
Horn and San Diego City Attorney Mike Aguirre may not seem to have much in common but Horn’s recent foray into public criticism of the press reminds us of the fiery lawyer at City Hall. Aguirre directed his ire toward reporter Alex Roth (who recently left the Aguirre beat at The San Diego Union-Tribune for the Wall Street Journal). Now, Horn appears to have picked up the torch. Nobody wins in these disputes, least of all the voters. So I’d like to offer some suggestions on how to improve the dialogue (or lack of it). But first, a bit of context:
The focus of the “The Whole Story” was an April 30 article in the North County Times. Reporter Darryn Bennett’s story revealed that Horn met with the chief executive of a wireless company that had official business before the council. Horn has a reputation of being unreachable, and Bennett wrote that the meeting revived complaints that the supervisor is more accessible to developers than his constituents.
Compared to earlier scandals involving the Republican supervisor, this one didn’t seem like such a big deal at first. In his first campaign, Horn faced down brutal accusations about his service in Vietnam. KFMB-TV discovered that Horn, a frequent critic of U.S. immigration policy, had immigrants living illegally on his Valley Center ranch. And the California Fair Political Practices Commission fined Horn $12,000 for failing to report, among other things, $349,000 in income he had received from his chief of staff, Joan Wonsley, who was living in a house her boss owned in Carlsbad.
But Bennett’s story about Horn’s meeting with Leap Wireless Chief Executive Doug Hutcheson struck a nerve. Two days later, Horn and his spokesman posted more than 3,000 words on “The Whole Story.” Horn published the e-mails Bennett had sent to his office and questioned her motives and her reporting.
Horn’s spokesman, a former local TV news anchor named John Culea, followed with a column about the state of the media, in which he revealed the “manipulation” by Horn haters in the local press. One example of this, and I’m not making this up, was a radio station who invited Horn to talk about a community grant and then “used the opportunity to ‘ambush’ him about the cost of transportation in San Diego County.”
In their zeal to poke holes in the story, Horn and Culea wrote that the four other supervisors had also met with Leap Wireless’ Hutcheson. That wasn’t true. Supervisor Dianne Jacob demanded a correction. A few days later, “The Whole Story” set the record straight. As for Bennett’s story, no corrections have been published and none requested, she told me.
What a mess, right? Well, this whole thing could have been avoided rather easily. There is a right way to deal with bad press, one that will go a long way to quieting the nattering nabobs of negativism.
- 1. Stop whining. No one likes a baby. You’re an elected official, for Pete’s sake. Have some self-respect.
- 2. Get your facts right. Do I really need to explain this?
- 3. Maintain focus. Attack the story, not the reporter or the news organization. A politician who goes after an individual reporter comes off as slightly unhinged (see Mike Aguirre). What purpose did printing Bennett’s e-mails serve? She comes across as polite and professional.
- 4. Don’t quibble. Point out errors of fact. A misspelled name. An incorrect title. Demand a published or on-air correction or apology. Even small errors undermine the story and reporters hate nothing more than a correction. Complaints about tone or statements taken out of context will most often get you nowhere.
- 5. Be fair. You can’t complain about the anonymous attacks against Supervisor Horn on the Internet and then turn around and do the same thing yourself. Horn’s “Whole Story” had just that. What’s the name of the reporter who “hated Supervisor Horn” so much he or she wouldn’t write about an organization Horn supported? Which TV station twisted Horn’s statement to put its own slant on the story?
- 6. Make nice. Reporters aren’t that hard to figure out. A little decency goes a long way. Answer their calls, meet them for lunch (reporters love to eat!), share some off-the-record gossip and compliment them on a story. Make them see things your way.
It’s simple really. The press is part of the job. And if you can’t stomach the idea of making friends with a bunch of miserable media elites then say as little as possible, or better yet, nothing at all.
Next time, you’ll be glad you did.
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.