San Diego When Karin Winner, the top editor of the San Diego Union-Tribune, issued a memorandum in September discouraging newsroom employees from attending media parties because she said the events compromised the U-T's integrity, bullshit detectors went off throughout the paper's Mission Valley newsroom and all across the city.
The September 14 memo itself was an unimpeachable document, presenting a cogent argument for a policy -- common at many U.S. newspapers -- that reporters pay their own way and avoid relationships with newsmakers that might blur their loyalty to readers.
But coming from the U-T, which has developed a reputation under Winner as the gold-hearted hooker of American journalism, a paper with good intentions but round heels, a paper that says it wants to stop sinning but keeps getting caught in flagrante delicto with all sorts of local rakes, it sounded like another promise that would be forgotten the moment Padres owner John Moores showed up with a warm smile, some cold duck, and his big downtown plans.
And sure enough, in the days after Winner circulated her memo, that's exactly what happened.
While ballpark backers waged a behind-the-scenes campaign in late September to convince the San Diego Unified Port District to bankroll the stalled hotel at the Campbell Shipyards, a campaign that Scott Barnett of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association called "the biggest thing since Prop C," because it effectively doubled the public subsidy for the Padres' new home, the U-T's ballpark reporters conveniently looked away. (The Campbell project is key to the Padres' plan because 25 percent of the room-tax revenue needed to pay for the ballpark is supposed to come from the hotel.)
Aside from a brief September 9 story that characterized the proposal as a last resort for Port commissioners frustrated with a hard-bargaining Douglas Manchester, and September 13 and September 30 editorials that urged the Port to go ahead and pay for the "vital bayfront hotel," the U-T was mute about the deal -- even though the proposal represented at least a quarter billion dollars in additional public financing for Moores's ballpark.
Instead, U-T readers were treated to ballpark coverage that ranged from the simply embarrassing, like the A-1 story September 18 on the design of the proposed ballpark that could have been written by the Padres press office and featured an artist's rendition -- an artist's rendition! -- on the front page, to the simply bizarre, like the multi-part series on the environmental impact report, a document that was hardly controversial and widely expected to be rubber-stamped by the city council.
"The Padres couldn't have bought better coverage," said one U-T staffer, who, like everyone who spoke candidly about the paper's coverage, asked not to be identified.
Which is why Winner's high-minded memo of September 14 was so loopy. The proximate cause of the missive was a September 23 press junket sponsored by the Viejas band of the Kumeyaay Indians, the tribe that operates the popular casino and outlet mall off Interstate 8 near Alpine. The invitation for the event, which was mailed to U-T reporters and editors as well as other members of the local media, promised an evening of "dinner, drinks, casino games, free chips, and prizes."
All in all, a tempting offer for most U-T employees, who, despite San Diego's high cost of living, earn less than colleagues at comparably sized papers like the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Every now and again, they could use a free chicken wing.
But in her memo, Winner warned the staff that "as tempting as this opportunity may be, it cannot be reconciled with our duty to keep at arm's length, and free of obligation toward, newsmakers in our community." Winner, a 23-year veteran of the U-T who cut her journalistic teeth at Women's Wear Daily and W in the late 1960s and early 1970s, went on:
"The Viejas band is a major player in the politics of Indian gambling in California, an issue which this newspaper has reported on with distinction and is likely to be covering for many years to come. For that reason, I ask that no one attend this event except in a newsgathering role, and only then after discussing it with your editor.
"This announcement may seem to come out of the blue, but the appropriateness of media parties -- be they hosted by the Del Mar Fair, Sea World, or the Hotel-Motel Association -- is one of many ethical issues we will be discussing in the months ahead."
Winner's memo prompted a predictable amount of grumbling among some U-T staffers, who saw it as a violation of the right to free food and booze, a perk as important to some journalists as the First Amendment itself. But the Viejas Indians took the snub in stride. Nikki Symington, a public relations official for the tribe, said she was aware of Winner's order but that it didn't matter. The U-T's words, she said, spoke louder than its actions.
"The Union-Tribune has been very good to the Indians editorially," Symington said. "I don't think anybody takes it personally. I certainly don't."
Sources at the U-T say Winner has deputized a committee headed up by senior editor R.B. Brenner and reporter Gerry Braun to continue this examination of the paper's ethical policies. As the group goes about its work, U-T staffers say it would do well to consider Symington's comment, which could just as easily been uttered by officials of the San Diego Padres -- and would have been just as troubling. If the U-T boycotts junkets but gives junket throwers coverage they can't complain about, what has it accomplished exactly?
"They never focus on what's in the paper," one U-T source said. "They get caught up in the chicken wings and free chips."
Five days after Winner circulated her memo, the U-T provided a graphic illustration of its real ethical problem when it ran an artist's roseate rendition of what the downtown ballpark will look like in the most important spot in the most important paper of the week: near the top of Sunday's front page.