San Diego Ethicists often examine the "do" contract -- "you do me and I'll do you." The advertising salesman sells an ad to a company, and lo and behold, the paper's business page shortly carries a puff piece on the enterprise. A Wall Street firm gets a multimillion-dollar investment banking contract from XYZ Company, and suddenly the firm's analysts pump out a bullish review on XYZ.
Inevitably, the newspaper and the Wall Street firm will claim there is a wall: advertising doesn't influence editorial, investment-banking fees don't influence research. But in this post-Enron, post-Peregrine Systems world, only naïfs believe in such walls.
Publications expect their readers to trust their editorial endorsements because it's claimed there are no cozy relationships between the paper and politicians. Supposedly, there's an ethical wall there. We're told there is never a quid pro quo -- no favors being exchanged. Naïfs, beware.
On January 19 of 2004, First District councilmember Scott Peters and Union-Tribune editorial-page editor Robert A. Kittle had a discussion at a Martin Luther King Day breakfast.
Not long after getting back to his office, a bit after 10:00 a.m., Peters sent an e-mail to Kittle. "Here is the letter Casey Gwinn [then city attorney] sent in on Thursday evening, which I said I would get to you," wrote the councilmember. "Also, we will be in touch this week about LJ Mesa [La Jolla Mesa Drive] traffic. (I didn't mention it in front of Karin Winner, but I think your telephone poles come down this week.)" Kittle lives on tony La Jolla Mesa Drive. Winner is editor of the Union-Tribune.
Just before 3:00 p.m. the same day, Kittle e-mailed back to Peters: "Thanks much. We're going to run Casey's piece on the op-ed page later in the week, not as a letter to the editor." Gwinn had written a letter about the Boy Scout/Balboa Park controversy. It ran as a signed commentary January 22, three days later.
Having dispatched with the Gwinn matter early in the e-mail, Kittle turned to political back-scratching. "I guess I should quickly tell my neighbors that I've asked you to take down the telephone poles, so that both you and I get credit for this great achievement," wrote Kittle. Next he went on to complain about speeding on La Jolla Mesa Drive. "Little ol' ladies from Pasadena careen down the hill at the blind curve.... Maybe you could ask the Traffic Division folks to assess the situation and suggest ways to mitigate the safety hazard."
Kittle signed off, "I look forward to your meeting with our editorial board. Ciao. Bob."
Such coziness. Shortly, Peters came in for his interview, and on February 18, the Union-Tribune endorsed him with these enthusiastic words, "We like Peters' reserved demeanor and hard work, and we heartily endorse him."
The e-mail exchange between councilmember and editorial writer raises a number of troubling questions. In pledging to do the favors, was Peters angling for the endorsement? Why was Peters carrying Gwinn's water on the letter that became a signed commentary? Gwinn had a large staff to handle such matters. Why did Kittle seem to be twisting Peters's arm in the same e-mail in which he appeared to be doing him a favor on the Gwinn letter? It wasn't even subtle. Shouldn't editorial writers be more circumspect about asking favors of councilmembers, particularly when they are about to appear before the editorial board?
Why did Peters give such fast action to Kittle's request both on the telephone poles and on the La Jolla Mesa traffic? Do all of Peters's constituents get two-hour service?
Why did Peters send Gwinn's letter to Kittle? There is supposed to be one of those walls: Kittle writes editorials, and Bernie Jones, editor of the opinion pages, decides what runs on the op-ed page.
Kittle says he and his wife moved into the La Jolla Mesa Drive house in August 2003. "The neighbors called us in to get acquainted. Everybody was complaining about the traffic," he claims. At the Martin Luther King Day breakfast, he took up the matter with Peters. After their conversation, "The traffic department people came out, looked at our street, and said nothing could be done," asserts Kittle. However, officials noticed a crack in the sidewalk that ultimately cost him $1200 to correct, he claims.
"The poles came down that week," confirms a neighbor of the Kittles, although he thinks that may have been in the works before the e-mail exchange. The poles that were removed that week were actually several houses from the Kittle residence, says Nathan Bruner, the city's underground program manager. Some poles closer to the Kittle house could not be moved. "Members of the community tried to make it happen," and they appealed to politicians, says Bruner, "but technically it was not doable." So the "great achievement" Kittle boasted of was not so great after all.
Kittle points to a purported wall. He was not saying, " 'Scott, you need to do this for me in exchange for an op-ed for Casey Gwinn.' I do not select op-ed pieces. Bernie Jones does," he insists.
Jones and Winner point to the same so-called wall. "I do make all the decisions" on op-eds, says Jones, although sometimes Kittle gives him a potential commentary without making any recommendation.
"Bob is not in charge of op-ed," says Winner. Kittle and Jones "work together, but Bernie makes the ultimate decisions." Is the incident redolent of a quid pro quo? "I would not condone anyone engaging in a quid pro quo on this staff. I would be disappointed in Bob if there was a quid pro quo." Winner claims to have no idea why Peters went out of his way not to mention to her that the poles in Kittle's neighborhood would come down that week.
Was it appropriate to mention the telephone pole and traffic problems in the same message in which Kittle was discussing the Gwinn letter? Winner didn't answer the question. Claims Kittle, "I have the same right to ask my city councilman about a traffic problem as anybody else has."