U-T San Diego, a California daily newspaper which has been criticized for promoting the pro-business and hard-right political activities of new owner Douglas Manchester, is under review by state election regulators for allegedly giving discounted political ad rates to conservative campaigns and Republican candidates it favored.
Manchester, a local developer with a history of conservative political activism, purchased the paper, then named the San Diego Union-Tribune, in late 2011. Since then, he has come under fire from local media observers and U-T employees for using the paper to benefit his corporate and ideological interests.
The state inquiry comes amid reports that another pair of corporate titans who are major funders of the conservative movement, Charles and David Koch, are among those interested in buying Tribune Company, owner of the nearby Los Angeles Times and other daily newspapers.
The U-T San Diego's alleged practice has sparked a review by the state's Fair Political Practices Commission, an independent body which oversees campaign violations and can issue fines.
The outlets explain:
inewsource and KPBS audited ads in the U-T every day between Labor Day and Election Day 2012 and compared the list with campaign finance records. The results show varied payments for ads, indicating the U-T may have offered bargains to [a group opposing the campaign of Democratic Mayor Bob Filner] and to other candidates and issues the newspaper endorsed.
According to their report, U-T San Diego may have offered discounted ad rates to local, state, and federal Republican and conservative campaigns that the paper endorsed. Unless such discounts were reported as in-kind contributions to the recipients, they could violate election laws, experts told inewsource and KPBS.
The U-T San Diego profiled a new anti-immigrant coalition in the San Diego region working to lobby against immigration reform but failed to note the coalition's ties to the nativist group, the Center for Immigration Studies, and to a former Minutemen organization.
In its profile of the San Diegans for Secure Borders Coalition, the U-T San Diego quoted a member of the coalition, Peter Nunez, who the U-T San Diego identified only as "a member of the coalition and a former U.S. attorney in San Diego." It also discussed the founding of the group by two San Diego residents, Jeff Schwilk and Rob Luton:
A new coalition in San Diego County is lobbying members of Congress to support a plan that calls for enhanced border enforcement, decreased legal immigration and the end of automatic citizenship for those born in the United States.
The coalition was formed by San Diego residents Jeff Schwilk and Rob Luton.
"Amnesty is a bad idea in general, but certainly it's a bad idea if you are not first going to ensure border enforcement and workplace enforcement," said Peter Nunez, a member of the coalition and a former U.S. attorney in San Diego. "If you don't secure the border and have a viable workplace enforcement program, then you will just be dealing with the same issue over and over and over again."
However, the newspaper did not note that many of the people highlighted in its story have a connection to nativist and former Minutemen groups. Nunez is the board chairman for the anti-immigrant nativist group, the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS). CIS is part of the John Tanton network of anti-immigrant nativist groups, which include the hate group the Federation for American Immigration Reform and NumbersUSA. CIS Executive Director Mark Krikorian is known for making derogatory remarks about Muslims and the American-born children of immigrants.
The coalition's founder Jeff Schwilk was "the hot-tempered leader of the San Diego Minutemen (SDMM), a nativist extremist organization with a reputation for violent confrontations and crude insults," according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. In 2009, Schwilk was ordered to pay $135,000 to a Korean-American civil rights activist who filed a defamation lawsuit after the SDMM circulated photos of her and referred to her in derogatory and racist terms.
It's been just about a year since developer and financier Douglas Manchester bought the San Diego Union-Tribune, the largest newspaper in the city. For some staffers and media observers, it's been the worst year in the paper's eight-decade history.
Manchester, a major Republican Party contributor, and U-T CEO John Lynch have overhauled the once-respected daily into what many consider a front for Manchester's "cheerleading" for business interests and right-wing politics.
"People are so embarrassed by the [newspaper] that they are dropping their subscriptions," says Don Bauder, who spent 30 years at the Union-Tribune from 1973 to 2003, which included stints as financial editor and columnist. "Around town it is an embarrassment."
A group headed by Manchester purchased the Union-Tribune in November 2011, just a few years after the paper won two Pulitzer prizes. He took over operations in January 2012 and immediately put his mark on the paper, changing the name to U-T San Diego to promote all of its news outlets beyond print, hiring Lynch, a longtime friend and local radio station owner, as his CEO, and placing a front-page editorial on the print edition that all but vowed to work for big business.
Such changes have come at a cost. David Carr of The New York Times, among the most respected media columnists in the country, wrote in June that the Union-Tribune "often seems like a brochure for [Manchester's] various interests." He added that any pretense of protecting news coverage from the new ownership's editorial views "was obliterated from the start."
The paper's decline has continued apace since Carr published his piece. In the run up to November's elections, the paper took its support for a Republican mayoral candidate to unusual lengths with front page editorials, while also disparaging President Obama via opinion pieces that featured vitriol usually confined to Internet fever swamps.
From its outlandish front page editorializing for a new football stadium and waterfront development (which would indirectly benefit Manchester's bank account) to its top executive's threatening email to a public official, the newspaper is considered by many staff and local media experts to have fallen into an ethical morass.
And that worry has grown worse in the past few months as Manchester bought the North County Times, a smaller daily in nearby Escondido, CA, which was considered a necessary rival to the Union-Tribune.
"The only way the paper will survive is if people trust it to give the news of their community," said Dean Nelson, director of journalism at nearby Point Loma Nazarene University, who also writes for The New York Times and The Boston Globe. "If people get the sense it is just whoring for the leadership's business enterprises, they are done.
An editorial in the November 15 edition of the San Diego Union-Tribune advocated for an "oil-shale revolution" by expanding fracking in California, completely ignoring the harmful economic and environmental impacts fracking could have on agriculture and the renowned, multi-billion dollar wine industry in California.
The Union-Tribune gave a whole-hearted endorsement of fracking, specifically in the Monterey Formation region of central California, saying in its editorial:
On Dec. 12, the federal Bureau of Land Management is set to auction off drilling rights to nearly 18,000 acres in Monterey, San Benito and Fresno counties. We hope Gov. Jerry Brown and state regulators talk a calm look at fracking and its long history. Environmentalists' griping about fracking's allegedly huge downside only ramped up when new methods proved transformative for oil and gas exploration.
Even if California's media haven't caught on to the state's potential for a Bakken-style economic boom, the oil industry has. By far the BLM's biggest 2011 lease was the $180,000 paid for a 200-acre parcel by Vintage Production California, a Bakersfield-based subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum, the third-largest U.S. oil and gas producer. On Oxy's website, it estimates the shale reserves on California land it already controls to have over 20 billion barrels of potential oil - a claim that the company says is made in accordance with the Securities and Exchange Commission's rule that only "economically producible" reserves can be cited in SEC filings.
The Union-Tribune left out some important voices in the discussion on fracking, most notably farmers and winery owners. Simon Salinas, a member of the Monterey County Board of Supervisors, has expressed fear that it could taint the food and water supply needed to grow crops or produce wine -- which in California is a $19.9 billion a year industry.