The Voice of San Diego is the cleanest play I have ever participated in. Pure news reporting. No sponsor, no advertising, no boardmembers who want to dictate anything to anybody.
— Neil Morgan, senior editor, columnist, and boardmember, Voice of San Diego
When the Voice of San Diego (www.voiceofsandiego.org), a daily online newspaper, was launched in February, many local news junkies believed it would provide a balance to the Union-Tribune's reporting, which some critics contend has been influenced by heavy-handed editorial oversight. But the recent dismissal of an education columnist at the behest of the Voice's board chairman and major underwriter, Buzz Woolley, has raised questions about how independent the Voice really is.
Les "Topper" Birdsall, described by the Voice as "an education expert who has been involved in federal, state and local (district and school) improvement initiatives for 40 years," was informed on October 26 that his weekly education columns were no longer desired:
We have decided to seek and feature other columnists in an attempt to broaden our content and audience. While you are welcome to submit occasional items to Voice, they will be published on a case-by-case basis. Voice will no longer run your column every Monday. Thank you for your efforts on Voice's behalf.
- Glenn Rabinowitz
- Editor in Chief
- Voice of San Diego
Birdsall says he suspects that he rubbed the Voice's wealthy underwriter the wrong way. Woolley has long had an interest in education, donating, through his Girard Foundation, several hundred thousand dollars annually to reform-based education programs. Woolley confirms that he wanted Birdsall out, saying his columns demonstrated a "lack of understanding of education issues."
"There is too much woolly-headed thinking at the Voice of San Diego," quips Steve Erie, professor of political science and director of the Urban Studies and Planning Program at UC San Diego. Erie has known Birdsall for almost four decades and calls him "one of the top educational consultants and advisors in California." Erie and Birdsall went to graduate school together. "Les's writing ratcheted up the quality of the education debate in San Diego," says Erie. Woolley's role in axing Birdsall demonstrates that "San Diego's disease is small-town, small-minded hypocrisy."
The Voice of San Diego, unlike news outlets owned by corporations or individuals, is a nonprofit, tax-exempt corporation. It is precluded from political advocacy or endorsing candidates or ballot measures.
Woolley founded the Voice, he says, because "this town has had relatively little competition in news and breadth of opinion, especially in investigative views." After Neil Morgan left the Union-Tribune in April 2004, he recalls that Woolley mentioned his concerns about local journalism, saying the "old U-T doomed San Diego to a provincial status." The Voice website says that "the impelling need for more insightful and honest news and information in San Diego inspired Buzz to provide startup funding for Voice of San Diego and to enlist the help of Neil Morgan and the rest of the team." The start-up funding, according to Woolley, was "slightly less than" $400,000.
Working out of shabby offices on the fringes of downtown, the Voice's handful of twentysomething reporters have supplied remarkably in-depth coverage of city hall. While the Voice has a few salaried employees, Woolley says most of its contributing columnists, including Birdsall, are unpaid.
Is Birdsall qualified to write about education issues? The Los Angeles Times has printed his commentary on education five times, most recently in 2001. Four of those articles ran on the front page of the paper's Sunday opinion section.
Erie says that Birdsall is "nationally known" in education reform circles. Birdsall, who's 66 and was nicknamed "Topper" as an infant after ventriloquist Edgar Bergen gave his father a Charlie McCarthy (Bergen's dummy) top hat that fit the baby perfectly, first got involved in California education issues when he advocated for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. His four decades of work in education were capped by serving as an advisor to Genethia Hudley-Hayes, boardmember of the Los Angeles Unified School District from 1998 to 2002. According to his résumé, Birdsall has lectured on education issues at UCSD, UCLA, UC Davis, Stanford, and UC Berkeley. He moved to San Diego in 2004. Erie notes that Birdsall, who has worked in more than 100 schools aiding principals, faculty, and parents, also "ran a prep school [Westside Preparatory School] for disadvantaged kids in Los Angeles."
Birdsall began writing for the Voice of San Diego not long after it was established. He says he approached its first editor in chief, Barbara Bry, sending her "a series of columns" and asking if she would be interested in his contributing regularly. "We would love to run your stuff," he says she told him.
But Birdsall soon started to receive questions, such as whether he was "for or against [Alan] Bersin." Birdsall says he replied, "I am neither for nor against him, although I think he was very committed to reform but was not successful." Bersin was the controversial superintendent of San Diego City Schools until July, when he left to become Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's education secretary.
Birdsall wrote three stories for the Voice in February. But when he submitted a piece on charter schools, it was rejected. "Barbara said she did not want me to write about charter schools" because Voice education columnist Marsha Sutton already did.
At that point, Birdsall stopped writing for the Voice. But in July, he offered Bry a scoop on San Diego Unified's new superintendent. Birdsall said he figured out that it would be Carl Cohn by process of elimination and by "talking to other superintendents" he knows. His July 22 article announced Cohn's hiring before any other news organization reported it.
At the beginning of August, former San Bernardino Sun editor Glenn Rabinowitz replaced Bry as the editor in chief, and later that month the Voice published a follow-up article by Birdsall on Cohn. Rabinowitz invited Birdsall to his office to talk about writing more columns. On the day they met, September 8, Birdsall witnessed an incident that presaged his own experience. "Glenn gets a phone call -- I think it was from Woolley -- and gets his ass reamed for 25 minutes about a column which ran that day criticizing President Bush," Birdsall said. "Glenn was defending his columnist, but it was clear there was an inverse power relationship."