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— The accompanying story, which was billed as an inside look at the proposed ballpark's interior, could have been written by Moores himself. The only voices the story contained were those of Larry Lucchino, president of the team; Erik Judson, the Padres' director of ballpark planning; and two employees of companies that stand to make money from the project. The only news in the story that appeared to be reported for the first time was the curious tidbit that Qualcomm Stadium has just 17,000 seats with cup holders. In the proposed ballpark, the U-T informed its readers, there will be "a cup holder in every seat."

"That story really caused some consternation in the ranks," said a newsroom source. "There was nothing really new in it."

But the real embarrassment for some staffers was the art accompanying the story: an artist's rendition of what the inside of the ballpark might look like. So in the spot on A-1 where U-T readers normally find pictures of air crashes that really happened or earthquakes that really happened, they were treated to a picture of something that doesn't exist and only represents one version of downtown's future.

Almost two weeks later, the U-T finally acknowledged that not everyone was buying into the Padres' optimistic vision of an improved downtown, pointing out in its five-part series on the environmental impact report that the report's authors had painted a picture of clogged streets, freeway gridlock, and noise pollution. But by then, the real story wasn't the environmental impact report but the effort by desperate ballpark backers to get the Port District to pay for the hotel on the site of the old Campbell Shipyard, a project that forms the linchpin for the public financing for the ballpark.

Of course, the badly muffed coverage is nothing new. To say that the U-T's support for the Padres and the proposed ballpark has spilled off the paper's editorial page and into its news columns only states the obvious. This is the paper, after all, that in almost every discussion about the ballpark's financing resorts to the following boilerplate:

"The ballpark itself will be paid for with $225 million raised in a city of San Diego bond issue planned for early next year; $50 million from the Centre City Development Corp.; and $21 million from the San Diego Unified Port District. The Padres will arrange $115 million in private financing, including money raised from corporate naming rights."

A paper that cared about the truth -- and its readers -- would cut the boilerplate and state the facts. The ballpark is expected to cost about $411 million. Almost $300 million of that will be publicly financed. The remainder will come from private sources. But the Padres may not pay a penny out of pocket if they can line up enough outside money to pay for naming rights, sponsorships, and seat licenses.

"If John Moores is a smart businessman, and his track record says he is, he's not going to pay a dime," says one observer.

And that massive public subsidy is only likely to get bigger. While the U-T was creating a fig leaf for itself last week with its multi-part series on the environmental impact report, it missed what Barnett of the Taxpayers Association believes could be the biggest ballpark story this year: the proposal to have the Port build the hotel at Campbell Shipyard. The hotel, which was expected to cost $250 million when local developer Doug Manchester was talking about building it, would almost double the public subsidy associated with the ballpark, from $300 million to $550 million. Throw in the tens of millions of dollars in interest costs that will be paid with public money, as well as the inevitable cost overruns, and the publicly funded subsidy could conceivably be three times what ballpark backers claim.

What makes the story even more compelling is that the whole plan to get the Port involved threatens to splinter the coalition that supported the ballpark. The hotel owners and operators who grudgingly supported the ballpark, even though it was financed through a tax on their customers, are unlikely to back a plan that puts the Port District in competition with them. Already, the San Diego Port Tenants Association has called the proposal "a very bad idea" and the Taxpayers Association has fired off a note to Port chairwoman Patricia McQuater expressing deep misgivings about the plan.

Sound like a story? Not at the U-T. Sources inside the newsroom complain that outside of the occasional column from Don Bauder, who has waged a one-man war against the deal, the U-T's coverage has been compliant and compromised, colored by a pro-ballpark agenda right from the get-go. So while at least one staffer thinks Bauder deserves a special prize for selfless community service, the paper as a whole stands a better chance of getting a Pulitzer for its Giant Panda Updates than for its coverage of the ballpark controversy.

The problem has been especially obvious, these sources say, on the odd ballpark stories that have also been covered by outside media, like the controversy over Moores's talks to pay for an NFL stadium in Orange County, a story that was broken by the Los Angeles Times and the Orange County Register. When the U-T finally chased the story (following the lead of this newspaper), it seemed more interested in printing Moores's hollow-sounding denials and moving on to other issues than in checking out his story.

Newsroom sources also point to the U-T's handling of the opening of Seattle's Safeco Field, the new $517 million ballpark home of the Mariners that bitterly divided the city and went $100 million over budget. In many ways, the publicly financed ballpark afforded San Diegans an opportunity to advance the clock to 2002, when the Padres' new ballpark is supposed to open, and consider some of the problems that might lie ahead.

The U-T's July 16, A-1 story on the opening of Safeco Field ran under a huge headline quote from Mariners president Chuck Armstrong that read, "We think this will become the number-one tourist attraction in the Pacific Northwest." It then spent most of its 2400 words admiring the new ballpark's "bells and whistles." Anyone reading the story would have come away with the impression that, while the Mariners' new ballpark had been controversial, it was now the new gem of the Emerald City.

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