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Veteran sports columnist Tim Sullivan didn’t go along to get along.
He wondered about his CEO’s bid to turn U-T San Diego’s sports pages into a cheerleading squad for a new football stadium. He questioned the hiring of a radio talk-show host who’d been fired over vicious on-air slurs. He expressed skepticism about the paper’s new video operation.
Then, on Friday, he lost his job.
News of the firing of the respected sports writer spread instantly. Today, we’re learning more about Sullivan’s side of the story, including his refusal to kowtow to his bosses, and hearing from the U-T editor about the matter for the first time.
Sullivan says he was disturbed by comments that U-T CEO John Lynch made in one of our articles after he and developer Doug Manchester bought the paper. Lynch declared the U-T sports page should push for a new football stadium “and call out those who don’t as obstructionists.”
Publishers routinely try to use their journalists to push their agendas, but it’s rare to see a newspaper boss be so blatant about it.
Sullivan went to U-T Editor Jeff Light to express his concerns, he tells Sherman Report: “I told him then that I was not in a position to quit on principle but that I was worried that Lynch’s interview had inflicted serious damage to the paper’s credibility and that his leadership would result in compromised standards. (It has, and on several fronts.)”
Sullivan described how Lynch and he saw the stadium issue differently:
Clearly, the two of us were looking at stadium issues from different vantage points. My position has been that the paper’s primary responsibility is to protect the public from another bad deal, such as the one that resulted in San Diego agreeing to guarantee sellouts for the Chargers. That document was so badly drafted that even a sportswriter could see its flaws: no limit to liability, no cap on ticket prices. I have felt that the paper dropped the ball in failing to scrutinize that deal (years before my arrival) and should be exceedingly careful in endorsing another stadium deal. Mr. Lynch appears to be of a mind to make the stadium happen and bulldoze the opposition or even those who raise questions.
In an interview media blogger Jim Romenesko, Sullivan adds that he was openly skeptical of the U-T’s planned video operation. “I have raised questions at staff meetings about how this can be done without compromising the printed product and about the hiring of a controversial radio host, who worked for Lynch’s former station and was fired for outrageous comments about a woman prior to being hired at the U-T.”
That’s a reference to sports broadcaster Scott Kaplan, who co-hosts the U-T’s airy morning show on its online video channel.
A local sports talk station sacked Kaplan earlier this year after the U-T reported that he referred on air to a female sports broadcaster as a “sasquatch,” a “beast” and a “monster.” He refused to apologize at first, although later did say he was sorry. (Lynch is a fan, however, and recently said Kaplan and co-host Billy Ray Smith, the former NFL player, “have become really part of the fabric of San Diego.”
In regard to the U-T’s video arm, Sullivan wrote an email to editor Light, saying his “primary concerns relate to the inherent difficulty of serving multiple masters at the same time and serving all of them well in a finite number of hours. I wish I were more optimistic about how this new business model can work, and about our ability to bear the additional burdens being placed on a news operation that many staff members believe is already overtaxed, but I hope to be proven wrong.”
According to Sullivan, Light did not respond to the email, nor did he give “any formal (or even informal) notice that I was in danger.” Instead, Light summoned Sullivan to a Friday meeting at 3 p.m., and “by 3:02, I had been fired.”
Sullivan suspects several reasons could be behind his dismissal:
1) My failure to endorse a new stadium without wondering whether that’s good public policy, a justifiable expense or a good deal; 2) My comparatively healthy salary; 3) My age and/or demographic. Our two other sports columnists are also white males: Nick Canepa, who is older but a local institution, and the youthful Kevin Acee, who was just promoted to that position. Acee has been identified as one of the paper’s “stars.”; 4) The erroneous issue of whether I was “on board.”
When asked for comment, Light had this to say to Jim Romenesko: “Tim has a fine record as journalist, and I think his account is pretty accurate as far as it goes. Without getting into the details, I would say that if he can find the right fit, I think he would make a good columnist for someone.”
The firing of Sullivan continues the newspaper’s evolution toward a much more brash, in-your-face agenda since hotel magnate Doug Manchester bought the U-T last fall.
Among other things, the U-T published a bold front-page spread promoting its proposal for a makeover of the waterfront, including a new football stadium. The paper’s editorial section bemoaned the tepid and even mocking response from the public and local officials, and its editorial and news teams targeted the port after it didn’t take the proposal seriously.
The paper has run two front-page endorsements of Carl DeMaio for mayor and expressed serious concern over protecting the Republican Party’s brand. Lynch has also threatened to use the newspaper’s pages as a weapon for its business interests.
In his response to the firing, Sullivan pointed to a column he’d written on the stadium that included Lynch in 2006.
Of his future ex-boss, Sullivan wrote:
“The man has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.”
Clarification: This story has been updated to note that fired talk-show host Scott Kaplan did ultimately apologize for his slurs against a female broadcaster.