U-T Editor Puts Paper in Awkward Position
Politics & Media Mashup
Some believe Nathan Fletcher is at war with U-T San Diego. I wouldn’t call it war, but relations certainly are chilly.
For all its troubles, the U-T is still the biggest game in town, meaning it could play a significant role in the San Diego mayoral race. Some insiders believe the race is down to Fletcher, Carl DeMaio and Bob Filner. Only the top two vote getters move on after the June 5 primary election. So a rough few weeks of coverage in the U-T could finish Fletcher, who has been surging since leaving the Republican Party in March.
The newspaper has run several stories and editorials recently that have had an anti-Fletcher bent. The daily paper also made quite a splash with its support of DeMaio when it wrapped its endorsement across Sunday’s front page. I have never seen anything like that.
After Fletcher released a tape of his interview with the U-T’s editorial board – which makes Light and the paper sound like good Republicans – Light felt compelled to explain himself on his Facebook page. He said the editorial really wasn’t about him or his beliefs.
“It does not mean that I, Jeff Light, am a Republican,” the paper’s executive editor said.
The DeMaio endorsement was mostly expressing the position of the paper’s new owners, Doug Manchester and John Lynch, Light said.
“I do think the recording has caused some confusion among some readers, and that is unfortunate,” Light said. “I can’t guess at the motives of the people involved.”
It’s certainly not unheard of for editors like to Light to sit on editorial boards. It’s awkward because a newspaper’s executive editor oversees the reporters who write the stories that populate the paper. Most reporters count objectivity as one of their strengths, which made Light’s recorded comments so intriguing to local news outlets and politicos.
Light can be heard saying: “You’ve put us sort of in a tough position. We as an editorial board do not want to see Bob Filner get through to the general election, because the environment around the general election is much more favorable to Bob Filner. So we certainly want to keep that from happening. On the other hand, some of the things you said, it was a little more than, ‘Hey I just want to be an independent voice.’ And I think this was what Pete Wilson was reacting to. It was sort of that message that the Republican Party is bad. How can we get behind you given that we’ve got a lot of Republican backing and Republican tradition? I think that puts us in a tough position.”
And later: “As an institution it puts us in a pickle because we’re like – I think that’s sort of a problem. If there is a repudiation of the Republican Party, you know, I think this place isn’t going to be super fond of that. And so that we have endorsements coming up, and so I’m looking for a reason we can argue that, we can say, we should endorse me.”
Newspapers usually avoid endorsing a candidate in a primary. If that candidate doesn’t get past the primary the paper looks foolish and is forced to decide between rallying behind its second choice or not offering an endorsement in the general election.
The U-T’s decision to go all in on DeMaio drew praise and criticism this week. Much of the blowback was directed at Light and his response to the drama.
Voice of San Diego CEO Scott Lewis tweeted: “The awkwardness comes from endorsing ‘as an org’ and then pretending the most important part of the org is still neutral.”
I worked at the U-T, The Detroit News, Florida Today and other newspapers. No one ever said to me, “Do this story. The owner really wants to see it in the paper.”
Editors do assign some stories and columns but, for the most part, a wall between the editorial board and the newsroom exists. I don’t, however, think the public sees it that way. To them, the paper is the paper. In other words, there is no wall. Light’s recorded comments add to that perception.
In the last week, the U-T published its DeMaio front page wrap; stripped two unflattering Fletcher headlines across its Local section; ran an op-ed ripping Fletcher by Rodger Hedgecock (without noting Hedgecock has endorsed DeMaio and helps his campaign with fundraising); and it published this column by Matt Hall.
Hall’s column, which he says was not assigned, essentially was about an anonymous blog post published on Rostra nearly two months ago. I hadn’t seen any discussion about the post for weeks, yet there it was on the Local front of Thursday’s U-T. Hall and I had a brief exchange about this on Twitter, which ended with him telling me Twitter chatter was the news hook for his column.
The anonymous blog post and Hall’s column zoom in on a $500 campaign contribution Fletcher received from Lorena Gonzalez’s teenage daughter. Gonzalez, the local labor leader, is supporting Filner, the only Democrat in the race, for mayor.
If you haven’t read San Diego CityBeat’s editorial on the Fletcher/U-T flap click here. It’s excellent and does a better job than I do this week mashing up politics and media. _______________________________________________________________________ Be sure to follow San Diego Rostra on Twitter and like Rostra on Facebook.