Fresh from her controversial appointment by the board of supervisors, San Diego's soon-to-be District Attorney Summer Stephans took to the New York Times this month in the midst of a victory round politically orchestrated to enhance the incoming D.A.'s already substantial electoral chances come next year.
"Tireless San Diego prosecutor draws comparisons to Olivia Benson, ‘Law & Order’ character," blared a June 22 headline.
The story, appearing in an online section of the paper labeled "Women in the World, in association with the New York Times," begins, "She is not from New York and she does not wear pantsuits, but she is as fierce, passionate and committed to her job as Olivia Benson, the tireless detective on NBC’s Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Her name is Summer Stephan and she is the chief deputy district attorney in San Diego."
According to the piece, "San Diego is one of the top 13 cities in the U.S. where sex trafficking and child prostitution is a thriving industry of about $810 million per year. In San Diego alone, it amounts to the second-largest criminal enterprise, even outpacing gun trafficking."
But Stephan is on the case, per the story.
"Prior to Stephan’s intervention, the law put the blame on victims at the age of 18, and those people were often put in prison. Stephan changed that paradigm,"
According to the piece, "Her reputation among victims and survivors grew and eventually she started being referred to as a 'modern day abolitionist.'"
The coverage caught the eye of The Voice of San Diego, a local online news and opinion outlet, that linked to the story, noting, "The New York Times has a glowing write-up of Summer Stephan’s work as deputy district attorney investigating and prosecuting sex trafficking."
Now comes word via the Columbia Journalism Review that Stephan's interview in the Times was not real news, but another manifestation of the newspaper's desperation to buoy its bottom line.
"In the digital age, The New York Times treads an increasingly slippery path between news and advertising," CJR headlined its June 28 report, which went on to describe how in late 2014 the Times made an investment in Women in the World Media, run by ex-Vanity Fair and New Yorker editor Tina Brown, which in addition to a website"hosts a high-profile annual summit."
"The deal gave Brown’s website a broader platform, putting it under the auspices of the Times, though she retained editorial control. (That provision would later prompt questions from Times readers and lead to a January column by the paper’s public editor highlighting the potential for confusion over whether Brown’s site carried Times editorial content.)"
"A few months later, in a quarterly filing, the Times said it was investing $2.3 million for a 30 percent stake in Brown’s company. As a result, the joint venture with Brown became a subsidiary of The New York Times.
“([Times Chief executive officer Mark Thompson], in an interview, initially disputed that Women in the World was a Times subsidiary, but later clarified that the paper’s interest was non-controlling because the Times owns less than 50 percent of Women in the World Media.) "
Adds the report, "None of the articles in the section disclose the interest of the Times in the summit. However, a full-page Toyota ad, at the back of the section, mentions, in small print and at the bottom of the page, that the summit is “In Association with The New York Times.”
Times editor Dean Baquet told CJR that the event’s connection to the paper “should have been made clear. This is new territory for us."
The paper’s senior editor in charge of the special sections, Trish Hall, promised in the future to "say somewhere in the section that The New York Times owns a stake in Women in the World.” Hall was quoted as saying that the section represented “journalism we want to do, but [that] we don’t do without advertisers.”
The June interview with San Diego’s Stephan appeared under the byline of Zainab Salbi, identified as "an editor at large for Women in the World, reporting on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures." The material is copyright, according to a small notice below the story, by Women in the World Media, LLC.
San Diego political insiders are looking for Stephan, who was appointed by the board of supervisors June 20 to fill the seat created by the resignation of incumbent Bonnie Dumanis following months of closed-door political plotting, to easily outspend any electoral rivals who might materialize to campaign against her.