U-T Editor Puts Paper in Awkward Position

Tony ManolatosTony Manolatos 10 Comments


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.

Fletcher’s expectations for his morning newspaper aren’t what they used to be. That might not be a big deal if the election wasn’t less than a month away.

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.

I also have never seen a newspaper’s top editor back away from an editorial the way the U-T’s Jeff Light did this week.

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.

Tony Manolatos is a communications strategist. You can follow him on Twitter or LinkedInYou can hear Tony talk politics and media with KOGO’s LaDona Harvey every Friday at 2:35 p.m. on AM 600 and FM 95.7.

Comments 10

  1. I have never heard of a candidate recording a editorial board interview and then going public with it. Wouldn’t you say that is unprecedented too Tony?

    If there is a “war” between Fletcher and the UT it was clearly started by Fletcher. If this “war” really does exist then I predict it’s not going to turn out well for Fletcher.

  2. “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.”

    To get a verbatim record of what was said?

  3. I’ve never heard of a campaign releasing a recording of a discussion with an editorial board.. I can understand recording to protect against something you said being misconstrued. This was simply an attack on the UT by Fletcher before the endorsement was even released.

  4. Tony: Really appreciate you referencing and linking to my column in your post. But I disagree with your reductive statement that my column was “essentially” about an anonymous post published on Rostra “nearly two months ago.” Also gotta dispute the implication that no one has discussed the things I wrote about “for weeks.”

    My column was about much more, as I’ll explain in greater detail below. Get a coffee everyone. You’ll be here awhile. Not really.

    Here goes. My column was about the entertaining, thought-provoking and evolving political activity of the teenage daughter of one of San Diego’s most well-known political figures, which has got a lot of politically involved people talking around town. It was about that daughter’s decision to engage in what I (accurately!) called a doozy of a mayor’s race. It was about the speculation about the donation, and my chance to say I don’t think the conspiracy theory holds water. It was about the (again) entertaining social media interaction between Lorena Gonzalez and her daughter, Tierra, that followed Tierra’s contribution. It was about me sharing those Twitter conversations with a broader audience outside the insular Twitter bubble. It was about being a teenager and being a go-getter and blazing your own trail at a young age. It was an opportunity for myself as a newly-minted columnist and for all of us as adults to look back on our own teenage years, which most likely came and went without the scrutiny of Tierra’s, and which certainly came and went without the mirror (and potential land mine) of social media that we all carry around with us today.

    One other nit, about me saying the “hook” was the “Twitter chatter.” The word “hook” was yours. You’ll see I put it in quotes to reflect that. To elaborate: There was Twitter talk about this on May 1. Lorena herself weighed in. I called her May 2. That’s timely. Period.

    Anyway, I wrote the column for the reasons above, and because I knew it would provoke thought and conversation. That’s my job. Not to persuade people to one side or another of an issue, but to get them thinking and talking. As your post shows, I clearly succeeded.

    Thanks for indulging me on this long post here, everyone. Please let me know what *you* think of my column (this one or any other) in the comments section there or here, by email or via social media.

    To see them all, visit my U-T San Diego staff page here: http://www.utsandiego.com/staff/matthew-hall/ And if you have a column idea, you know how to reach me.

    Cheers. See ya around town.

  5. Matt, thank you for the explanation, although under normal circumstances it wouldn’t be necessary. Your column was well-done, taking the reader through the labyrinthine twists and turns of the Gonzalez/Fletcher saga. The mother-daughter angle is heartwarming and funny.

    In my personal opinion, the real culprit is the practice of newspapers of running institutional editorials. These purport to reflect the view of the paper as an entity. Justly or unjustly, this practice casts suspicion on the news staff. And reporters, who have no control over the editorials, take the brunt of the suspicion.

    To people unschooled in the arcana of journalism, and to some that are, the distinction between the paper’s putative institutional voice and its news reporting is as mysterious as the Trinity.

    U-T San Diego’s owners can mitigate the confusion by removing the news-side staff from the editorial-writing process. And on major subjects, the truth would best be served if the editorials were signed by Papa Doug and John Lynch.

    Finally, it seems to me that the paper’s heavy-handed way of promoting DeMaio’s candidacy is counterproductive. Is Papa Doug secretly backing Fletcher?

  6. Post

    Owen: You’re right. Numerous politicians record interviews, especially in settings like this one. But I have never heard of a politician releasing the tape to the media. That said, Nathan did that because he felt the U-T wasn’t being fair when it listed numerous questions for him in a Sunday editorial…questions he believed he had answered, and he felt the tape would prove that.

    Paul: Thank you very much!

    Matt: The headline, lead and a good chunk of your column is about the donation, the anonymous blog post and the fallout. It is good to see you here on Rostra. Thank you for weighing in! I’m enjoying your start as a columnist.

  7. Winning an editorial endorsement is different than winning “American Idol.” With the latter, the “on stage” performance before the judges (and public) is all that matters. With an editorial endorsement, the candidate interview is just one component of the endorsement process. Doubtless an important component (sometimes THE most important component when the candidates are not well known), but still one of several factors to consider.

    MOST important is the policies the candidate can be expected to back or oppose — or to let quietly die (such as pension reform). Obviously Fletcher’s heart is not in it (pension reform). He’d like the matter to somehow fade away.

    While I often squabble with editorial endorsements, I think that in this case the U-T board AND the owners know all too well (and are tired of the inaction on) the city issues — and they know the candidates’ approaches to these issues.

    Given that only one endorsement is issued, how else could such sane people select anyone other than DeMaio?

  8. What was the editor doing talking about the endorsement process in the first place? Reporters don’t talk about their reporting methods; we talk about what we found out. If the editorial board thinks it’s appropriate or necessary to explain how an endorsement was arrived at, that’s the job of the editorial page editor.

    This is one more thing the U-T has done lately — like a Page 1 endorsement for mayor — that blurs the lines and reinforces the widespread myth that the editorial policy drives the news coverage.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.