Who is watching the Watchdog? The San Diego U-T “disappears” its own reporting by moving it

by on August 1, 2011 · 5 comments

in Media, San Diego

For those of us who read the news and analysis of the news online, it is not uncommon to find a correction appended to an article or some part of the original text struck through, but still visible, with a modification following it.   Online material is uniquely adaptable to quick corrections and updates in the interests of getting a story “right.”

Removing a story, scrubbing it from the site’s archives and replacing it with a completely new version is a jaw dropping breach of journalistic integrity and responsibility.  The U-T did precisely that when it wrote that it had “moved” an article written by Wendy Fry on July 25 about the presence of paid “activists” at a series of Chula Vista city council meetings in which rent control in mobile home parks was being deliberated.

I had found Fry’s initial post extremely interesting and wrote about it here.  The link that I provided however to Fry’s July 25 article now pulls up a page that says that the story was moved to the Watchdog section and we are invited to read it there.

It is impossible to read that story there because it is not posted there.  Instead, there is a rewrite, a total do over dated July 28.  It is also authored by Fry but the topic receives a new title and substantively different treatment from the original.  This new story was not presented as a correction, update or retraction and the original article has disappeared from the signon archives (Read it here from a non U-T source.) leaving only the reader comments.

It is worth asking why Fry’s South Bay report on a topic that is not a particularly “hot” issue would even merit this kind of treatment.  What entity (or entities) was disturbed by the content of the original and capable of exerting sufficient power upon the U-T to receive a rewrite?  Who is really involved in this story and to what extent?

The bare bones story presented in both articles is that the Chula Vista city council held two public meetings on an agenda item about current rent control law as it applies to mobile home parks.  An overflow crowd of interested parties, a significant number of whom were allegedly compensated by an individual or organization associated with the Republican Party, was able to weigh in on whether to continue rent control for residents or to let that law sunset, and “decontrol” rents with all new tenants.  Those compensated individuals were there to oppose the continuance of rent control.  The city council voted 4-0 to enable mobile home park owners to increase rent whenever a mobile home is sold, signaling the end of rent control.

If the bare bones of the story were not altered, what did change and why?  Fry’s original article used the terms “activists’ and “seat savers” when referring to those who were paid to attend.  Both of those terms disappeared completely from her rewrite.  Attendees were simply “paid,” provided with “financial incentives” or “compensated,” which creates a significant change in tone from presenting the unusual to the unremarkable. The number of people provided with financial incentives also changed from “about 100” in the original to “at least 50,” which alters the degree of relevance of those compensated.

The question of who was doing the paying has been substantively reworked.  She writes in her original article —“In the crowd July 12, a large group of young people wore green ‘Yes on Vacancy Decontrol’ stickers in support of the changes.  Some of those attendees told other audience member they were with ‘the Young Republicans of El Cajon’ and that they were each paid $20 to attend.”  Yet all allusions to this group as well as to the San Diego County Young Republicans, also quoted, disappear in the subsequent article. Why is that?

In Fry’s second shot at this, she presents a statement from Derrick Roach, the secretary for the Republican Party of San Diego  “Roach, a Chula Vista resident, confirmed he helped recruit and pay 50 mobile-home residents to attend the meeting and gave McMurty $40 cash.”  These 50 residents were the “seat savers” in Fry’s original article.

Fry goes on to write “Chairman Tony Krvaric said the Republican Party of San Diego County was not responsible for compensating people at the meeting.” This leaves the reader with the mystifying feeling that Krvaric, president, and Roach, secretary of the Republican Party, have never met each other, let alone spoken to each other.  When Kravic outrageously responds to her question about who provided the cash behind the handout with “’What do you think? Who had the financial interest in the item? What was the issue being pushed and probably the people pushing the payments,’” and she lets go of that bald contradiction to Roach’s admission, you know it’s all over for the U-T’s reporting. Roach admitted to providing the money and he represents the obvious financial interest. Is Krvaric really trying to obfuscate that fact and why did Fry let him get away with it?

Roach is the fall guy in all this—the rewritten title states “GOP officer paid people to attend council meeting” and his picture is prominently displayed; Krvaric is obviously a person of influence; and it remains unclear whether the “South Bay campaign consultant who runs the politically involved San Diego Group” is a significant player; and there were no interviews in either of the articles of the actual mobile park owners who have a great deal at stake in the issue.

Ray McMurty, age 62 and living on social security disability is grateful for the forty bucks he was paid by the Republican Party and which helped out with his weekly groceries.  He publicly states he sees no problem in attending those city council meetings, wearing a sticker in support of “decontrol,” even though he lives in one of the affected mobile home parks.  His statements, one of the few included in both articles, provide a transparency lacking in the other interviews.  We can assume that he is not the entity which has exerted the power over the U-T for a rewrite.

I do not understand why Fry was given a second chance to “get it right.”  It strikes me as an odd opportunity for journalistic redemption, tantamount to writing “I was bad and will never be bad again” on the blackboard 100 times, yet the rewrite still stirs up the soup.

The U-T Watchdog wants us to know that it stands for “Journalism that upholds the public trust, regularly.”  The cavalier acts of rewriting its own news and expunging all evidence to the contrary exemplifies an appalling disregard of what constitutes upholding that trust—and the very basis for reporting the news.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Ricky Young August 1, 2011 at 7:27 am

Anna,

Thanks for bringing this issue up. We may not have handled it well, but it’s not what you seem to think. Please feel free to contact me whenever you have questions about our Watchdog coverage.

Wendy’s original story was posted as a community story, and it was going to appear in the Local section of the newspaper. At night, in editing for that section, an editor for the print newspaper raised two important questions: 1) Shouldn’t this be a Watchdog story and 2) Is everything in here fully substantiated?

We decided the answers were 1) Yes and 2) No.

The story remained online during much of this process, although we did think to take it down after a day or so with a note saying, “This story has been removed for further reporting.”

Wendy worked very hard and fully substantiated most everything in her original story, but we limited the final version to things that were confirmed by someone who was willing to be named in the newspaper. There was no interference by powerful interests, although people obviously influenced the story with what they were willing to say.

When we re-posted her story in the Watchdog section, we left a note on the old one with a link to the new story. But we were not as transparent as we should have been about what happened. It was a very unusual situation, and we don’t have a policy on how to handle it. This morning, I have added slightly more information on what happened, with a link to your blog post for details. I did this on the old story and the new one.

We have overall standards for our organization, including online. But the truth is, for many reasons having to do with the media involved, more people edit stories for the print newspaper than for online. Sometimes (no, often) they raise issues the person editing for online didn’t think of. How to handle that, when the items have already been online for hours (sometimes even days) is challenging for us as an organization. Many of us probably think of the print product as our true archive, and the Web as something more immediate and changeable. Many of our online stories change, as we update them, all day long. No one needs the old versions of those, really.

This story was different. You were right to set us straight.

Ricky

Reply

avatar annagrace August 1, 2011 at 11:07 am

Ricky, thank you for your response and the additional information you provided on the link to Fry’s article.

Your response has frankly surprised me with the distinction you draw between your print and online coverage. While many of you “probably think of the print product as our true archive,” those of us who do not subscribe to the print version or are unwilling to keep our own U-T paper morgue assume that the online and the print versions correspond to each other in an essential way. Readers assume that each has a permanent existence. That is apparently not the case.
I do not believe that the industry standard is to view online content as malleable. As I stated, articles are routinely corrected and updated, but the source content remains untouched. While I agree that the Web is “something more immediate” I question the circumstances in which it is deemed “changeable.” That is one slippery slope. I urge you to re-post Fry’s original article and maintain it in your online archives. And you are correct about the need to have an in-house policy on this kind of issue. Your credibility depends upon it.

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avatar annagrace August 1, 2011 at 11:12 am

I meant to sign off of the annagrace comment with my full name, Anna Daniels. Sorry for the omission.

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avatar anonymous August 1, 2011 at 8:47 am

“Many of our online stories change, as we update them, all day long. No one needs the old versions of those, really.”

No, not if you think that a news gathering organization’s main job is to set the agenda for what its readers/viewers are to think about and consider important. But for me, and I believe for most other discerning news consumers, how something’s covered is at least as important as the intended topic of coverage. To obscure that information, or worse, to send it down the memory hole, speaks volumes about a news outlet’s lack of integrity.

But this comes as no shock to those familiar with the U-T’s track record over the decades.

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avatar thinking out loud August 1, 2011 at 6:36 pm

Thank you Mr. Young for being upfront on the issue.

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