A bitter media war is raging in San Diego’s gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender community. The battle pits San Diego Gay and Lesbian News, an online operation that is less than a year old, against Gay and Lesbian Times, an online and print publication that is a graybeard of 22 years.
On May 11, San Diego News Network (SDNN), a general-readership online publication, and its media partner Gay and Lesbian News published a scathing hit piece on Michael Portantino, publisher of Gay and Lesbian Times. On May 19, SDNN published a second article that contained detailed financial information purportedly from the bank account of Portantino’s company, the parent of Gay and Lesbian Times.
Two prominent San Diego politicians are involved. The publisher of Gay and Lesbian News, Johnathan Hale, is the boyfriend of Councilmember Carl DeMaio, a self-professed gay. District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, who is also gay, has put investigators on the tail of Portantino, allegedly to check if the publication is inflating its circulation figures.
Portantino’s company, in turn, on Monday filed suit in Superior Court against one of his former financial employees, Tim Marzullo, for breach of confidentiality agreement. The suit charges that Marzullo publicly released private and confidential financial, tax, and bank information that he got from the Gay and Lesbian Times. As a result, “Agents of the San Diego County district attorney’s office appeared unannounced at the homes of employees of the Gay and Lesbian Times and questioned those employees about the private information publicly released by defendant Marzullo,” according to the suit. The suit says that others participated in Marzullo’s alleged scheme.
The story is full of ironies. The reporters who put together the SDNN attacks showed the purported bank figures to a local accountant, who declared that Portantino’s company was in “severe financial turmoil.” But before the month was out, SDNN had sent emails to its freelancers, who provide the bulk of its original copy, saying, “We are suspending all agreements and stipends with our free lance contributors and writers” in a mere three days. Later, chief executive Neil Senturia said SDNN was seeing if it could survive financially with “a smaller team.” So much for the Times's “financial turmoil.”
In its second attack on May 19, SDNN said that “a California Bank & Trust business account statement [for the parent of the Times] shows a negative ending balance of $16,060.33 on Feb. 26, 2010.” The bank account had a negative balance for 34 of 38 days in January and February, claimed the story. Then it talked about wire transfers to the mother of Portantino, whom he has supported for 25 years, and mortgage and utility payments from the bank account.
Asked if the bank would have given out such information to a publication, California Bank & Trust spokesperson Tiffany Massey says, “Absolutely not. We’re aware of that situation. We have no idea how that person got that.”
There is a rumor that the News and SDNN reporters got the bank account information from district attorney investigators. But district attorney spokesman Paul Levikow says that the agency’s investigators would never have given out such figures to reporters. And a prominent San Diego bank attorney says such information cannot be subpoenaed unless there is ongoing litigation, and Levikow won’t even confirm that there is an investigation because no complaint has been filed. Clearly, the purported bank account information did not come from either the bank or government investigators.
The May 11 piece gave purported facts about how many Times papers were being printed. “The first rendition on the SDNN website implied that Advanced Web Offset [the Times’s printer] gave the information,” says Dan Armstrong, general manager of the Vista printing company. “Four or five hours later they amended it.” (The rumor is that Advanced had its lawyer call SDNN and demand the change; Armstrong, laughing, won’t confirm that.) “Everything between Advanced Web and its customers is confidential.”
And that raises a serious question: how could Dumanis send her investigators out to see if the Times is bloating circulation numbers when she should also be asking how the News and SDNN got the private financial and printing-invoice information that was published? And she could look into one other matter: the News reprinted the first SDNN hit piece. But it did not reprint the second piece that contained the figures from the bank account.
In the early 2000s, several papers, particularly the Chicago Sun-Times, Dallas Morning News, and Tribune Company’s Long Island Newsday and companion Spanish-language publication Hoy, admitted that they had pumped up circulation numbers. In the last-named case, there were criminal charges and admissions of guilt. So there are legal precedents for pursuing a criminal case for circulation inflation.
But there are also precedents for criminal cases against reporters who illegally get private information. One of the best-known was an incident in Cincinnati in the late 1990s. The Cincinnati Enquirer published an 18-page exposé of locally based Chiquita Brands, charging the controversial company with misdeeds in Colombia, Honduras, Guatemala, and Ecuador, among many other things. But the primary reporter, Michael Gallagher, illegally dialed into Chiquita’s voice-mail systems and listened to conversations among company officials. Result: the paper’s owner, Gannett, retracted the article and paid more than $10 million to Chiquita. Gallagher was fired and pleaded guilty to two felony counts.
Dumanis already has a reputation for only pursuing possible wrongdoers who do not belong to the establishment — particularly those who do not donate to her campaigns. The Times is liberal and Democratic. It has criticized her and DeMaio, and particularly Proposition D, the strong-mayor initiative so passionately backed by DeMaio before its passage last week. (Hale’s newspaper carried ads in favor of Prop. D, as well as backing it editorially.)
Several former employees of the Times, including Marzullo, contributed to the slashing attack on Portantino. Joseph Peña, a former editor of the Times, was listed as a contributor to both stories. He would not comment to me. Marzullo, a former accounting assistant and office manager of the Times, says, “My comment is that I am cooperating with authorities.” Hale, publisher of the News, worked for Portantino in marketing. “I am not at liberty to comment. It is the D.A.’s investigation,” says Hale. DeMaio made an innocuous comment on the record, then called back and wanted to withdraw the comment. Portantino won’t comment.
I have been trying for some time to contact Senturia and his wife, Barbara Bry, the associate publisher of SDNN. Lo and behold, one time I reached Senturia. He said hello. I said, “Is this Neil Senturia?” His curious reply: “It depends on who is calling.” I gave my name, and he terminated the conversation.