It's been just about a year since developer and financier Douglas Manchester bought the San Diego Union-Tribune, the largest newspaper in the city. For some staffers and media observers, it's been the worst year in the paper's eight-decade history.
Manchester, a major Republican Party contributor, and U-T CEO John Lynch have overhauled the once-respected daily into what many consider a front for Manchester's "cheerleading" for business interests and right-wing politics.
"People are so embarrassed by the [newspaper] that they are dropping their subscriptions," says Don Bauder, who spent 30 years at the Union-Tribune from 1973 to 2003, which included stints as financial editor and columnist. "Around town it is an embarrassment."
A group headed by Manchester purchased the Union-Tribune in November 2011, just a few years after the paper won two Pulitzer prizes. He took over operations in January 2012 and immediately put his mark on the paper, changing the name to U-T San Diego to promote all of its news outlets beyond print, hiring Lynch, a longtime friend and local radio station owner, as his CEO, and placing a front-page editorial on the print edition that all but vowed to work for big business.
Such changes have come at a cost. David Carr of The New York Times, among the most respected media columnists in the country, wrote in June that the Union-Tribune "often seems like a brochure for [Manchester's] various interests." He added that any pretense of protecting news coverage from the new ownership's editorial views "was obliterated from the start."
The paper's decline has continued apace since Carr published his piece. In the run up to November's elections, the paper took its support for a Republican mayoral candidate to unusual lengths with front page editorials, while also disparaging President Obama via opinion pieces that featured vitriol usually confined to Internet fever swamps.
From its outlandish front page editorializing for a new football stadium and waterfront development (which would indirectly benefit Manchester's bank account) to its top executive's threatening email to a public official, the newspaper is considered by many staff and local media experts to have fallen into an ethical morass.
And that worry has grown worse in the past few months as Manchester bought the North County Times, a smaller daily in nearby Escondido, CA, which was considered a necessary rival to the Union-Tribune.
"The only way the paper will survive is if people trust it to give the news of their community," said Dean Nelson, director of journalism at nearby Point Loma Nazarene University, who also writes for The New York Times and The Boston Globe. "If people get the sense it is just whoring for the leadership's business enterprises, they are done.
Two former network news presidents offered criticism following the revelation that a Fox News contributor had urged Gen. David Petraeus to run for president at the request of Fox News chief Roger Ailes.
"That just isn't what a news guy does," said Michael Gartner, who served as NBC News president from 1988 to 1993. "Twenty years ago it wouldn't have been done. But that was a different era."
The critiques come in response to a December 4 report from The Washington Post's Bob Woodward that Fox News contributor K.T. McFarland, on instructions from Ailes, had urged Petraeus to run for president during a recorded 2011 interview in Afghanistan.
McFarland suggested that Ailes would leave Fox to work on Petraeus' campaign and that News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch might "bankroll" the effort.
During the same interview with Petraeus, McFarland said of Ailes, "he loves you, and everybody at Fox loves you. So what I'm supposed to say directly from him to you, through me, is first of all, is there anything Fox is doing, right or wrong, that you want to tell us to do differently?"
Media critics have nonetheless responded harshly to the McFarland-Petraeus interview, with Dylan Byers at Politico writing that no other major news outlet would tolerate such behavior from their top executive, and Erik Wemple at the Post writing that it indicated "Fox News is corrupt."
David Westin, who served as ABC News president from 1997 to 2010, also offered concern about the exchange to Media Matters.
While Westin said he did not know the details of Ailes' direct involvement, and noted Ailes had told Bob Woodward his comments to MacFarland had been "more of a joke" than a serious request, Westin did offer criticism of such communications between news person and news subject.
"The report had someone from Fox News, now it was a contributor, not on staff, but a contributor, saying things to a subject of news coverage that normally a journalist wouldn't say," Westin said late December 4. "You need to keep some distance from the people you're covering and you don't want to be partial for them or against them either way, so what I read would be something that normally a journalist wouldn't do."
After inquiries from Media Matters, Politico has updated an op-ed on energy policy authored by former Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI) to acknowledge his role at a law firm that represents energy companies that would benefit from the policies he supported in the piece.
In his November 4 op-ed, Stupak argued that as part of a "grand bargain," congressional proposals "must include significant segments in regard to energy consumption and our environmental footprint," including an increased focus on "clean coal," natural gas, and renewable energy sources.
Politico originally identified Stupak as only "a Democrat from Michigan" who "served in Congress on the House Energy and Commerce Committee." But Stupak is currently a partner at Venable LLP, where he represents clients in the energy industry. Venable's energy practice includes clients in the "clean coal," natural gas, and renewables sectors.
Asked for comment on why Stupak's conflict of interest had not been disclosed, Politico managing editor Bill Nichols responded, "It's a totally fair point; we should have disclosed that to readers and we'll update the piece to do that and acknowledge the error." Nichols also said Politico plans to run a correction in Monday's print edition.
Stupak's original description from Politico has since been replaced with the following text: "CORRECTION: An earlier version of this opinion piece failed to note that Bart Stupak is employed by a law firm that does work in the energy sector."
Current and former staffers at the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune are expressing concern at reports Friday that News Corp. Chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch might be interested in buying the papers from Tribune Company, with one veteran Times newsman calling the notion "horrifying beyond belief."
While many told Media Matters they are worried about Murdoch's potential ownership due to concerns over his ethical history and conservative ideology, others are so desperate to give their bankrupt papers financial stability that they are reluctantly willing to give him a chance.
"I have heard people express concerns of various kinds," said one current Los Angeles Times' journalist and former newsroom editor who requested anonymity. "He invests in the properties, he has not downsized the [Wall Street] Journal. The one concern, fear of the unknown, is, well, the L.A. Times still has a substantial foreign staff, a substantial national staff and a substantial Washington bureau. What happens to those?"
One fear is that the takeover could spark an exodus of staff, which occurred at The Wall Street Journal after Murdoch purchased parent company Dow Jones in late 2007. Dozens of the paper's best journalists left, citing a perceived change in the paper's focus and at times an increased push for more business-friendly stories.
Several current and former Tribune Company staffers recalled what happened when Murdoch bought the rival Chicago Sun-Times in 1984, later selling it in 1986. The sale sparked the departure of many Sun-Times staffers, including the legendary columnist Mike Royko, who vowed not to work for Murdoch and left for the Tribune.
"If you look at the history of what he did across the street at the Sun-Times, that is a shot that the paper never fully recovered from," said a current Tribune staffer who sought anonymity. "The sentiment of people is 'we want to keep doing the work we do,' owners do what they want to do with the paper."
Speculation about a Murdoch purchase of the Times, Tribune, or perhaps other Tribune Company properties began last week with an October 19 Los Angeles Times report that he was interested. It cited "two ranking News Corp. executives and others familiar with the situation," indicated talks were in the "early stages," and stated a takeover could occur by the end of 2012.
News Corp. has denied the report, but the Los Angeles Times stands by its story.
A News Corp. purchase of the Times and the Tribune would give Murdoch control of four of the top 10 U.S. newspapers by circulation and, as the Times notes, "strong footholds in the nation's three largest media markets."
The possible purchase by Murdoch comes at a time when Tribune Company, which owns the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, and 10 other daily newspapers, as well as 23 television stations and other media properties, is emerging from a bruising four-year bankruptcy battle that has already cut its revenues and staff.
The financial problems stem from the 2007 purchase of Tribune Company by real estate magnate Sam Zell, who paid for the takeover through a leveraged buyout that created $13 million in debt. The company filed for bankruptcy a year later, a move that remains unresolved as creditors battle over a resolution plan in court.
The thought that Murdoch could take over some or all of the company's properties drew concern among current and former staffers.
A new "documentary" alleging that President Obama's real father is actually communist writer Frank Marshall Davis was enthusiastically promoted by Fox News contributor and O'Reilly Factor guest host Monica Crowley on her radio show last month.
Dreams from My Real Father, which was written, directed, and produced by conservative filmmaker Joel Gilbert, largely bases its premise that Obama is a "red diaper baby" born to the communist Davis on Gilbert's contention that the two men closely resemble one another (the authors of this story disagree). In an interview with Media Matters, the documentarian castigated both the mainstream and the conservative media for not following up on his work, which he compared to the Academy Award-winning Watergate thriller All The President's Men.
Though it has not been picked up for theatrical release, the film recently made headlines due to a campaign to mail millions of copies of the DVD to voters in swing states. On October 23, The New York Times described the effort as "the latest example of how secretive forces outside the presidential campaigns can sweep into battleground states days before the election."
Since its release in April, coverage of Dreams by conservative outlets has been relegated mostly to fringe websites like WorldNetDaily, where Jerome Corsi has written several articles promoting the film (when he hasn't been busy alleging that Obama is also secretly gay and secretly Muslim). Gilbert told Media Matters that without conservative talk radio, "it would be very hard to get information out" on the film, and indeed his promotional tour has featured numerous appearances on lower-tier conservative radio shows and a handful of interviews with larger shows like that of Michael Savage, as well as conspiracy-friendly broadcasts like The Alex Jones Show.
But alongside outlets that promoted the film like birther website WorldNetDaily and radio hosts like "conspiracy king" Alex Jones stands Fox News' Monica Crowley.
Last month, Crowley invited Gilbert onto her radio show for an extended interview. Previewing the segment, Crowley claimed that Obama "has been president for almost four years and we still don't know who he is." Blaming the "left-wing press" for their supposed lack of interest in vetting Obama, Crowley claimed that Gilbert has done "the actual investigative work into Obama and his background."
Crowley made it clear that she had already seen the film before hosting Gilbert and over the course of the interview repeatedly plugged the film's website, ObamasRealFather.com. Crowley labeled the film "just dynamite" and "very well done" and encouraged her listeners to "judge the story for themselves."
Wisconsin-based radio host Charlie Sykes may want to be the next Glenn Beck.
But a new marketing project aimed at spreading his hard conservative talk brand beyond home station WTMJ of Milwaukee to web, video, social media and perhaps other media outlets owned by parent company Journal Communications is drawing concern in the state's media community. Sykes' burgeoning network of platforms resembles nothing other than a smaller-scale version of the former Fox News host's sprawling web-based empire.
"That is a fair comparison," says Don Walker, a 34-year veteran of Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which is also owned by Journal Communications. "Glenn took this huge, I think risk, getting off Fox, or he was pushed, and he left Fox to form this very, very different venture. I think there is some comparison to that Charlie is making a move in a direction that he senses that he can make a move nationally, that he can make a move in a national direction."
That potential move is causing distress in the ranks of the state's journalists, including among reporters at the Journal Sentinel who say the paper already suffers from its association with Sykes' hard-right views.
Several newspaper staffers point to Sykes' partisan approach as undermining the paper's image as the source for fair, unbiased news.
"I know that it frustrates some people," Craig Gilbert, who works out of the Journal Sentinel Washington, D.C., bureau said about his newspaper's staffers. Gilbert called Sykes "a guy who takes sides in all these political battles" and said the radio host's show "certainly has an impact on the Republican party, all of the conservative talk, on Republican primaries. It's a venue where if you are a Republican politician, you can speak to your base in a sympathetic environment."
"I think there's probably people out there who feel we're this large cabal and that we're force-feeding our particular views on all our products," he said about Sykes' impact, later adding, "he does this show, I think it is highly, highly partisan, there is no mistaking where he is coming from. I think a lot of people, including journalists, feel that most of the time he is there just to repeat Republican Party talking points."
In just the last year, Sykes, 57, has used his platform to become a major voice in the nationally-followed recall election of Republican Gov. Scott Walker, and more recently has enjoyed access to GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, whose congressional district is just south of Sykes' home base.
A former reporter for the Milwaukee Journal (which merged with the Milwaukee Sentinel in 1995) and one time editor of Milwaukee Magazine, Sykes launched his radio show nearly 20 years ago on WTMJ. He also hosts a Sunday morning political talk show on WTMJ-TV and this year produced his sixth book A Nation of Moochers (St. Martin's Press, 2012).
But it may be Sykes' newest effort, the ambitious Conservative Politics Digital Project, which will extend his reach even further. The project, using the website RightWisconsin.com, seeks to take his outspoken conservative approach and expand it to many platforms, including podcasts, web columns, videos, and on-location events.
Given his recent high-profile connections to some of the country's conservative leaders -- and the backing of a communications company that owns 48 television and radio stations in 12 states -- observers say Sykes has the platform to push his far-right views nationally.
"He is a smart, ambitious guy and I would not be surprised to see him go beyond WTMJ," said Jim Romenesko, who runs an influential media news website and worked with Sykes at Milwaukee Magazine in the 1980s. Asked if Sykes could reach that national level, Romenesko added, "I think so, he's smart, he's very quick and I think he has what it takes to really capture the audience's attention. He knows how to play that talk radio game."
An online ad for a managing editor of the Conservative Politics Digital Project indicates it will be a very direct effort to push a conservative message, describing it as "a new suite of digital products related to Charlie Sykes and targeted at Conservatives in Wisconsin."
Veteran economics reporters and columnists are strongly criticizing conservative claims that the unemployment data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics Friday was manipulated to benefit President Obama politically, calling such allegations "implausible" and "unfounded."
Shortly after the BLS announced that the unemployment rate had fallen to 7.8%, former GE CEO Jack Welch tweeted, "Unbelievable jobs numbers..these Chicago guys will do anything..can't debate so change numbers." Welch's tweet was quickly highlighted by the Drudge Report. Since then, conservative media figures, including multiple Fox News personalities, have tried to cast doubt on the new jobs numbers.
But experienced financial journalists at outlets like The New York Times and The Economist say the contention that the new unemployment rate is fraudulent is not based on any valid proof.
"It is completely implausible to me that they would actively rig the thing to help Obama," said Joe Nocera, New York Times business columnist. "The guys are green eye-shaded career bureaucrats who have no particular vested interest one way or another in who wins the presidential election."
Nocera was referring to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which compiles the unemployment rates and has no political ties to the White House.
"They come out of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, if you are going to cook them, how exactly would you go about it, it is pretty implausible that the career bureaucrats at the Bureau would cook the books for Obama," Nocera added. "Everybody likes a conspiracy theory, but it is hard to understand how they would do it."
Jesse Eisinger, senior reporter for finance at ProPublica and a former seven-year Wall Street Journal reporter, agreed.
"This is complete fantasy," he said about the claims of political influence. "It is yet another one of these right-wing denialist ideas. They're perennial ideas that government statistics are manipulated. These are flawed measures, certainly, but the flaws are not due to any partisanship ... These are done by reputable civil servants. There is almost no way that these numbers could be manipulated for political gain. It doesn't hold up in any way you think about it."
Martin Wolk, executive business editor for NBC News Digital, also called such claims baseless.
"I've been covering economics for a long time and I have been watching these reports come out every month and I talk to these economists and I think that those claims are unfounded," Wolk said in an interview Friday. "They do the best to present those claims honestly. I have never seen a pattern where the numbers consistently favor one party or another. I would defy anyone to find a pattern in those numbers that is politically motivated."
Added David Cay Johnston, a former New York Times economics reporter and author of many books on taxes and business:
"This claim gets made often. It has never been shown to have any basis in fact afterward during previous administrations."
The president of the National Association of Black Journalists is criticizing columnist George Will's claim that President Obama may be re-elected because he is black, calling the assertion "narrow-minded."
NABJ President Greg Lee, who is also executive sports editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, reacted to Will's October 1 column, in which the Washington Post scribe wrote that President Obama's "administration is in shambles, yet he is prospering politically."
Will suggested that the explanation for this alleged contradiction may be that Americans seem "especially reluctant not to give up on the first African American president."
"I think it's a slippery slope, you are making a broad sweeping suggestion that the only reason why Obama would be given a second term is because he is black. I think that's very narrow-minded and not looking at the totality of what Obama had to go through his first four years and what Mitt Romney has said during his campaign and also his resume in the past," Lee told Media Matters by phone Tuesday. "To make a broad sweeping generalization, it is a very dangerous thing to do, to just use race an excuse in this election. It's not an overall fair assessment if you are going to use that as a litmus test to decide a president because of their color."
In the column, Will sought to compare Obama's election as the first African-American president to that of Frank Robinson, the first African-American manager in Major League Baseball:
A significant date in the nation's civil rights progress involved an African American baseball player named Robinson, but not Jackie. The date was Oct. 3, 1974, when Frank Robinson, one the greatest players in history, was hired by the Cleveland Indians as the major leagues' first black manager. But an even more important milestone of progress occurred June 19, 1977, when the Indians fired him. That was colorblind equality.
Managers get fired all the time. The fact that the Indians felt free to fire Robinson -- who went on to have a distinguished career managing four other teams -- showed that another racial barrier had fallen: Henceforth, African Americans, too, could enjoy the God-given right to be scapegoats for impatient team owners or incompetent team executives.
After being fired by the Indians, Robinson went on to manage three other teams, and won the American League Manager of the Year Award in 1989. He was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982 and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush in 2005.
The Wall Street Journal's failure to disclose that 10 of its op-ed writers are Mitt Romney advisers has drawn criticism from veteran editorial page editors at some of the nation's top newspapers.
In a total of 23 pieces, the op-ed writers attacked President Obama or praised Romney without the paper acknowledging their Romney connections.
Media Matters reached out to several veteran opinion editors who either criticized the Journal directly or noted that their papers handle such disclosures more openly.
"Not disclosing is inexcusable," declared Stephen Henderson, editorial page editor of the Detroit Free Press since 2009. "If you don't know, that is one thing, but if you are hiding it or purposely not disclosing it I am not sure what the rationale would be. We are pretty careful here to disclose any affiliation. There are times we have declined pieces because someone is too close to it. I am pretty shocked by that."
He added that it's the newspaper's responsibility to discover and report conflicts: "The Journal is publishing this stuff, so the responsibility falls on them. I expect my op ed editor to ask anyone who is writing about a campaign or a ballot issue, 'are you involved with the campaign? Are you being paid by someone to write this?' That is our job."
Nicholas Goldberg, Los Angeles Times editorial page editor since 2009, said that providing transparency for the relationships of op-ed writers is "absolutely essential."
"Op-ed writers aren't supposed to be objective or to have no stake in the subjects they're writing about," he explained. "But when a writer does have a particular relationship to his subject that is not immediately apparent to the reader, it is important to disclose that so that the reader can evaluate the argument intelligently."
But such information is not always provided to readers of the Journal.
This is not the first time the Journal's editorial page has come under fire for lack of transparency. Several of the editorial page editors who spoke with Media Matters had previously criticized the Journal for failing to disclose that weekly columnist Karl Rove is the co-founder of a super PAC, American Crossroads, which raises funds to oppose Democrats. The Journal apparently changed that practice, disclosing Rove's super PAC connection in his latest column published Thursday.
Journal Editorial Page Editor Paul Gigot and a Journal spokesperson did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the paper's failure to disclose the op-ed writers' Romney ties. Media Matters sought comment both before and after the Journal's apparent change in policy to disclose Rove's role with Crossroads.
A PBS NewsHour global warming report that allowed a climate change contrarian to "counterbalance" mainstream scientific opinion is worth criticizing, according to PBS Ombudsman Michael Getler, who said he received hundreds of emails and calls about the program.
Getler said he is penning a column on the issue that is likely to be posted late today or Monday, and hinted it will be critical.
"There's just a lot of...hundreds of emails about it," Getler said when asked why he is writing about the issue. "Commentary about it all over and it's interesting."
Getler declined to offer specific views on the NewsHour report, which aired last Monday. But when asked if he has found elements to criticize, he said: "Oh yeah, of course there's material to be critical about."
When Media Matters first called this morning, Getler said he had been contacted by many viewers since Monday about the issue: "It's what everyone's calling about, the global warming thing."
At issue is the 10-minute segment that aired on September 17, 2012, on NewsHour. Much of the report focused on physicist Richard Muller, who had been skeptical of climate change for years but recently changed his mind after re-examining the data.
It also prominently featured an interview with climate change contrarian Anthony Watts, who is a former television meteorologist and claims that man-made global warming is still in doubt despite agreement among 97 percent of scientists that it is occurring. The report did not note that Watts has been paid for his work in the past by the Heartland Institute, a climate change denial group which is funded by billionaire oil magnates Charles and David Koch.
Criticism of the report and the accompanying online interview has come from numerous outlets, including PBS itself. Science reporter Miles O'Brien, who does freelance work for NewsHour, weighed in against Watts' inclusion in the report during an interview with the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media. O'Brien called the report "a horrible, horrible thing."
It even prompted a petition by Forecast the Facts, a climate change awareness and advocacy group, asking Getler to investigate:
Immediately investigate the NewsHour segment featuring climate change denier and conspiracy theorist Anthony Watts for violations of PBS standards on accuracy, integrity, and transparency, and recommend corrective action to ensure that such reporting never again occurs on PBS.
Spencer Michels, who reported the story for NewsHour, has said that "we should not" have added an online post with extended remarks from Watts without providing the same platform for actual climate scientists. On September 18, NewsHour's director of digital partnership, Hari Sreenivasan, responded to complaints about the segment by encouraging viewers to "look at [it] in the context of several other segments we've been doing at the NewsHour on climate."
For its part, the Heartland Institute has praised PBS for "attempting to bring balance to the debate over man-made global warming."