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Last Saturday, in a breezy, promotional editorial, Union-Tribune publisher Ed Moss told readers that the U-T “makes a difference.” With its scenic beauty, he wrote, San Diego fosters “a climate receptive to innovative ideas” and it’s the U-T’s “philosophy” to continually pioneer novel approaches that “influence our future.” The paper, according to Moss, will move our city forward by improving lives and building stronger communities through quality reporting, insight, information and ideas.

Having spent decades creating marketing-speak for corporations, I know fluff when I read it so I can’t let Mr. Moss’s hyperbole pass without using it as an opening into a discussion that is, for me, far more indicative of what the U-T is really about.

“Keep it civil, stay on topic and your posts will remain online.” These are the terms of use for reader comments posted on the web version of the U-T. They are flagrantly ignored. As a result, uncivil remarks reeking like a clogged toilet in a public restroom routinely appear online. They would be viewed with equal disgust if similarly visible.

If you are atheist, black, gay, homeless, Irish, Jewish, Mexican, Muslim, Vietnamese — any group not considered mainstream in San Diego — you’ve been slurred on SignOnSanDiego.com. Our “hometown paper” permits this stink because it helps keep their failing business alive. What gets posted is so vile the Voice of San Diego insisted I remove the examples included in the original version of this post.

I believe what appears in a newspaper is not there by happenstance but rather as part of the understanding that exists between the paper and its constituents: the readers, the advertisers, the owners and the news sources. Newspapers can report whatever they wish, however they wish; but there are consequences if they don’t meet the needs of their constituents: subscriptions get cancelled, fewer advertisers will pay less for smaller audiences, profits drop and sources take their stories elsewhere. It’s important to know that powerful groups influence what is reported in a newspaper.

So why does the U-T allow ethnic, racial and religious epithets to appear on its website? Even editor Jeff Light acknowledged trouble feebly posting on his Facebook page in May, “The quality of the comments is a problem on our site.” The answer starts with power and ends with money. For the U-T (whose business model is leading to an uncertain future), feeding fear, promoting prejudice and providing angst-ridden distractions from real civic problems provides the control the paper needs over public opinion in order to stay relevant. It even furnishes a way of gaining influence because of what passes for publicly acceptable conversation in San Diego. Influence props up advertising rates, which in turn results in profits. Without influence, the U-T is little more than a glorified penny-saver.

It’s clever to profit from prejudice. Audiences identify with prejudice. Bigotry is therapeutic because it comes with the ability to hand over one’s problems to a scapegoat. Blaming our weaknesses on someone else means we can battle with an external enemy instead of one within, enabling us to take the easy way out and conduct our lives without change, once those other people are eliminated. Yet, while bigotry may be natural, profiting from it is not.

Contrary to the rosy picture painted in Saturday’s editorial, America’s finest newspaper is at a crossroads. Because its readers relate to the intolerance it allows it cannot preach acceptance of others; to do so would alienate the audience it needs to survive. Yet, as a business on a downward slope, to continue as a platform for hate will eventually undermine its credibility with advertisers whose customers are growing more diverse with every census.

What a dilemma: If the U-T cleans up its act, it fails as a business. If it stays dirty, it fails the future of the city it claims to love.

Bob Stein lives in University City.

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