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.
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.
U-T readers who bothered to read past the first page discovered, in the 34th paragraph, that Safeco field had cost $100 million more than expected -- and that the Mariners were refusing to pony up the difference. That might have provided a good opportunity to talk about any wiggle room Moores might have if there are cost overruns in San Diego. But there was nary a word on the subject.
To the San Francisco Chronicle, the story was much simpler. The headline on its July 15 A-1 story on the Mariners' new home? "Seattle's Ballpark Fiasco: Costs soar and seat sales slump as Mariners open at Safeco Field."
"It was like black and white," a U-T source said. "I wonder who was right?"
Readers interested in fathoming the U-T's complicity in the current mess only need to compare the stories that ran immediately before the November vote on Proposition C with the fig-leaf "Ballpark Impacts" series the paper ran last week. One glaring example that had newsroom sources particularly outraged concerned parking problems associated with the new ballpark. Last fall, on the eve of the election, the U-T ran a story headlined:
"New ballpark would ease traffic, Padres say." Its first two paragraphs read:
"By car, trolley, or bus, getting to and from a baseball game would be a lot less of a hassle at a new downtown ballpark than at Qualcomm Stadium, Padres officials and consultants said yesterday.
"Releasing preliminary traffic and parking studies, team and transit officials described the proposed ballpark site as almost unbeatable from a transportation standpoint."
Fast-forward to last Saturday, when a story on the environmental impact report's findings on parking ran under the following headline:
"Ballpark will jam up freeways/Report sees fans parking at Qualcomm/EIR predicts up to three hours in traffic." Its first four paragraphs read:
"Think parking in downtown San Diego is a headache now?
"Wait until the new Padres ballpark goes in.
"Bad will turn to worse, in a big way, on some game days once the 46,000-capacity ballpark is up and running.
"Which should be no big surprise."
No big surprise, that is, unless you relied on the U-T's pre-election coverage. Then it would be a very big surprise indeed.
James Kelleher, a former assistant business editor at the U-T, writes for the Orange County Register.