U-T San Diego, a California daily newspaper which has been criticized for promoting the pro-business and hard-right political activities of new owner Douglas Manchester, is under review by state election regulators for allegedly giving discounted political ad rates to conservative campaigns and Republican candidates it favored.
Manchester, a local developer with a history of conservative political activism, purchased the paper, then named the San Diego Union-Tribune, in late 2011. Since then, he has come under fire from local media observers and U-T employees for using the paper to benefit his corporate and ideological interests.
The state inquiry comes amid reports that another pair of corporate titans who are major funders of the conservative movement, Charles and David Koch, are among those interested in buying Tribune Company, owner of the nearby Los Angeles Times and other daily newspapers.
The U-T San Diego's alleged practice has sparked a review by the state's Fair Political Practices Commission, an independent body which oversees campaign violations and can issue fines.
The outlets explain:
inewsource and KPBS audited ads in the U-T every day between Labor Day and Election Day 2012 and compared the list with campaign finance records. The results show varied payments for ads, indicating the U-T may have offered bargains to [a group opposing the campaign of Democratic Mayor Bob Filner] and to other candidates and issues the newspaper endorsed.
According to their report, U-T San Diego may have offered discounted ad rates to local, state, and federal Republican and conservative campaigns that the paper endorsed. Unless such discounts were reported as in-kind contributions to the recipients, they could violate election laws, experts told inewsource and KPBS.
Among the elections allegedly affected was the 2012 mayoral race that pitted Democratic Mayor Bob Filner against businessman Carl Demaio in a contest eventually won by Filner.
While the U-T San Diego went out of its way to support Demaio, with unusual Page One endorsements, it also may have given a break on political ads to a group opposing Filner, inewsource and KPBS report.
Filner's campaign told inewsource and KPBS that it was quoted a price of $8,000 per full-page ad from U-T San Diego, a price it chose not to pay.
But the report states its review of U-T San Diego ads and campaign expenditure reports found that a group opposing Filner, San Diegans for Reform in Opposition to Bob Filner, paid $25,000 for 16 full-page ads, roughly $1,560 per ad.
The news outlets conducted a similar review of U-T San Diego ad spending for the local congressional race. They found that while Democrat Scott Peters' campaign said they were also told that a full-page U-T San Diego ad would cost $8,000 (they also declined to pay), his Republican opponent, then-incumbent Brian Bilbray, paid $25,000 for 27 full-page ads, a price of about $926 per ad.
Then there is the campaign for Proposition 32, a 2012 state ballot measure that would have barred unions from using payroll dues for political purposes.
U-T San Diego endorsed the measure, which failed at the ballot box.
Inewsource and KPBS found that a campaign committee supporting the measure, Small Business Action Committee, bought at least 20 full-page ads in the newspaper during the fall campaign, reporting that it paid $26,000 for print ads (with no mention of what publication or publications were paid) on its state disclosure forms.
According to the report, none of the campaigns that received the allegedly discounted ads disclosed them as in-kind contributions from either the U-T San Diego or Manchester.
U-T San Diego CEO John Lynch did not respond to Media Matters' request for comment Monday. But he sent this statement to inewsource and KPBS, according to their report:
All political ads were paid as part of a bundle option used to attract political advertising and consistent with how we sell generally. The bundle was available to all campaigns interested in advertising.
The KPBS/inewsource report said Lynch declined to provide a copy of the bundle option or explain why the ads varied in cost.
Gary Winuk, chief of the Enforcement Division of the California Fair Political Practices Commission, confirmed to Media Matters in an email that the U-T San Diego practices were under review, adding "we are reviewing it proactively based off media reports."