Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2009 | Love him or hate him, to know Robert A. Kittle, The San Diego Union-Tribune’s now former editorial page editor, is to have an opinion about him.
As the principal architect of the newspaper’s conservative editorial page, the source of its institutional voice, Kittle was the primary force behind the anonymously written editorials and endorsements on the influential page.
To many, Bob Kittle was the Union-Tribune — its debate moderator, KPBS radio guest and community forum pundit. He likes bowties and big words. And he was laid off Wednesday along with at least 13 other news staffers.
His dismissal marks a sharp break in the newspaper’s tradition by its new owner, Beverly Hills-based Platinum Equity. Kittle had been an institution there, long supported by David Copley, the newspaper’s former owner, who sold the business earlier this year.
By late afternoon Wednesday, his name had been stripped from the newspaper’s editorial board listing on the Union-Tribune’s website. Same with Bernie Jones, the paper’s opinion page editor, who was also laid off. More than half of the newspaper’s editorial staff has departed in the last two years through layoffs and retirement. The newspaper now has less than 850 employees, down 40 percent from the 1,422 it employed in 2006.
Kittle and his conservative editorials championed development, the business community and Republican candidates. He was an important ally of Mayor Jerry Sanders, a key detractor of organized labor. He’s been described as intellectual. But also condescending.
His position in the community was unique for a metropolitan editorial page editor, said Tony Perry, the Los Angeles Times’ San Diego bureau chief. At other big-city papers, the editor or publisher is the face of the franchise. But neither Karin Winner, the Union-Tribune’s editor, nor Copley, the former publisher, have been prominent public voices in San Diego. That left Kittle out front.
“People thought of the Union-Tribune, they thought of Bob,” Perry said. “It’s the underpinnings of the canard that Copley just existed to put out a conservative editorial page with a newspaper attached. That’s not true. But one reason it persists is because they had no publisher or editor in public view. They had Bob. It was all Bob.”
Kittle, who’s on vacation, couldn’t be reached Wednesday.
As the paper’s public face, he prominently clashed with some of San Diego’s most high-profile figures, and in the process drew sharp criticism for misrepresentations and exaggerations.
During the 2006 ballot-box push to move the international airport to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, it was Kittle who continued perpetuating the erroneous idea that commercial and military aircraft would safely operate together in the same airspace — even after the airport authority abandoned the argument.
When City Councilwoman Donna Frye ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2005, Kittle’s editorial page claimed a temporary tax hike she’d proposed to fund the city’s pension obligations was her first option. It wasn’t. Frye had described it as a last resort.
“He was very liberal with the facts,” Frye said. “And had a great disregard for truth. Name-calling goes with the territory. That doesn’t bother me. But what bothered me was the absolute lack of factual information. When facts are deliberately tortured, that’s not ethical journalism.”
More recently, Kittle engaged in few battles that were as vitriolic as his fight with Mike Aguirre, the former city attorney. The irony in their sometimes petulant squabbles: Kittle had endorsed Aguirre in 2004. That was a short romance.
They clashed over pension issues. They clashed over Sanders’ proposed reforms. And as in many knock-down fights, they clashed over the irrelevant, such an Aguirre aide’s use of foul language. Aguirre eventually started his own blog, largely dedicated to refuting Kittle editorials.
One 2007 editorial accused Aguirre of violating campaign finance laws. The local Republican Party jumped on the news. GOP officials marched into the City Clerk’s Office — TV cameras watching closely — to file an ethics complaint against Aguirre.
But the editorial’s accusation was baseless.
“Bob was the absolute spokesperson for the establishment,” Aguirre said Wednesday. “One of his jobs was to use the paper to take on all comers to the establishment. I thought the establishment had disserved the public. So there was a natural clash between the two of us.”
Aguirre sounded almost nostalgic when talking about his interactions with Kittle. Almost.
“Bob Kittle was an incredibly intelligent human being who could’ve made a real difference in San Diego,” Aguirre said. “The failure to fulfill his promise was not only a loss to the city but a personal loss for those of us who knew him and liked him personally but could never understand why he engaged in the self-destructive behavior he practiced.”
As Aguirre’s criticisms of Sanders grew more pitched while in office — he famously dubbed the mayor corrupt — and as Aguirre fought for reelection, Kittle and the editorial page served a vital role for Sanders, said the mayor’s former spokesman, Fred Sainz.
“Bob was an important validator that Mike Aguirre was crazy and irresponsible,” Sainz said. “It wasn’t the mayor saying it, it was the editorial page.”
That affirmation was vital, too, when Sanders took office, Sainz said. The mayor’s reform agenda “needed third party validation,” Sainz said. “Bob Kittle and the editorial page were the Good Housekeeping seal of approval that these were good ideas that were in San Diego’s best interest.”
Sainz said he counts Kittle as a close friend. And he was a key ally — for Sanders, Sainz and other politicians.
“Bob provided an awful lot of elected officials with a backbone when they needed to have one to make decisions in the community best interest,” Sainz said. “That’s his biggest legacy. Elected officials used him as they wanted to. Sometimes he provided cover. Sometimes he provided the rationale to make a hard decision.”