by Pat Flannery / Blog of San Diego / March 26, 2009
I recently got dramatic proof of this shortly after joining a team of young journalists at San Diego News Network, SDNN, a new online news journal. I was supposed to become its political analyst and columnist. I was looking forward to probing the underbelly of San Diego politics with young idealistic journalists. Unfortunately it was not to be.
Unbelievably, the Mayor, through his Police Chief, refused them press credentials until they “prove themselves”. He has put them on a six months probation! After six months of reporting the news to his satisfaction, he may extend press credentials to them. SDNN acquiesced. I quietly withdrew.
In a way, I am not surprised. I was already aware of the control the Mayor and the police have over the local media. They are used to it. There has been only one real training ground for print journalists in San Diego for decades and that has been the Copley press. Many Mayoral and City Council staff are ex-UT people, all nurtured in the same symbiotic coziness. They tear up anybody, like Mike Aguirre, who will not be cozy with them.
What surprised me was how quickly these young SDNN people, barely out of journalism school, accepted it all. How are San Diegans ever going to learn the truth about their city government if the police department, directly under the Mayor’s control, licenses all who may ask questions at city press conferences? Should a journalist be foolish enough to displease somebody important at City Hall (e.g. by asking “impertinent” questions) an editor will quickly assign somebody else to kiss up to the offended potentate.
New ownership at the U-T will not bring change and SDNN is not about to challenge the established order. That became painfully obvious this week. The faceless manipulators at City Hall will still exert their enormous power.
As I said, this is not new. A good example of how journalists become pawns of City Hall is what happened at South Eastern Development Corporation (SEDC) last year is. Will Carless, a journalist with Voice of San Diego, in answering a question from Tom Fudge on the KPBS radio program “These Days” in June 2008, revealed how it works. Fudge asked Carless why he started investigating certain bonus payments paid to SEDC’s President, Carolyn Smith. Carless revealed that he had received an insider tip.
Voice of San Diego then put Carless on the story full time for months. He doggedly pursued what were undoubtedly unauthorized payments to Smith, who was subsequently fired in disgrace. But was that the whole story? I doubt it. I had uncovered a dubious land deal involving SEDC’s chairman, “Chip” Owen and Jim Waring, the Mayor’s land use Czar at the time.
For all the months the Voice of San Diego doggedly pursued the Carolyn Smith story they just as doggedly refused to pursue the Owen/Waring land deal story, despite my urging them to do so. Read my July 2008 blog explaining this dubious land deal. Surely it too warranted investigation. But it was easier for the Voice to look where it was told to look and claim credit for having “discovered” a story. They have since denied receiving a tip. Listen again to the full KPBS tape – Carless clearly admits receiving a tip.
So, my 2008 predictions seem to be coming true in 2009: the Mayor recently announced (and the City Attorney reversed himself in order to agree) that SEDC and CCDC should be retained, with the Mayor having the power to hire and fire the heads of both corporations. That’s what the Carolyn Smith investigation was all about. Somebody wanted rid of her. Her position was too valuable and she had become too independent of City Hall.
Wherever that Voice of San Diego tip came from, it was well placed. The plan worked. Carolyn Smith is gone. Media investigations into shady land deals by insider developers do not happen and two very lucrative city jobs are at the disposal of the Mayor – for faithful services rendered.
When the police license the media, you have a police state.