Police Action: 'San Diego Trib' Pressured By LAPD

 Since the sale of the newspaper to a private-equity firm in March, the editorial board of the San Diego Union-Tribune has come under pressure from one of its investors, the public safety association representing Los Angeles police officers.

 

The group wants to muzzle op-ed contributors who are critical of the role played by public employees' unions in the budget process. The pressure tactics, first reported by the Los Angeles Times, could be a harbinger of similar attempts to suborn newspapers' editorial integrity, using their financial distress as leverage.

The San Diego Union-Tribune was first put up for sale in July 2008, but seemed destined to linger on the auction block as investors grew leery of the newspaper industry, beset by revenue declines in every major ad category. It was finally purchased for an undisclosed sum by Platinum Equity, which included a $30 million investment from the pension fund for Los Angeles police officers, under the management of the Los Angeles Police Protective League.

At present, public attention has been focused on the dysfunctional finances of virtually every major municipal government in the state of California, with Los Angeles leading the way.

In Los Angeles, much of the debate centers on the prominent role of union-style associations, representing public employees such as police, teachers and firefighters, in drawing up the public budget. Fiscal conservatives are criticizing their tactics as obstructionist and even "bullying." The editorial page of the Union-Tribune, a traditionally conservative paper, has been especially strident in denouncing public employee unions.

In response, the Protective League has used its new partial ownership of the newspaper to put pressure on editorial bosses to either stop publishing critical op-ed pieces, or simply fire the offending columnists. While the Los Angeles Police Protective League is not directly responsible for San Diego police, which have their own union, the move is part of a wider public relations battle in California between unions and their critics.

Sergeant Paul M. Weber, the Police Protective League president, complained in a public letter posted on the League's Web site that the San Diego Union-Tribune "has one of the most virulently anti-public safety employee editorial sections of any newspaper in California, if not the country. It consistently calls for the wages and benefits of public employees, including police officers and firefighters, to be frozen and pension benefits to be drastically cut."

He said the editorials appear at least weekly, "with one coming just days after Platinum Equity II purchased the paper." And in a letter delivered to Tom Gores, the president and CEO of Platinum Equity, Weber wrote: "Since the very public employees they continually criticize are now their owners, we strongly believe that those who currently run the editorial pages should be replaced."

For the time being, Platinum Equity appears to be resisting the pressure; however, with large numbers of private-equity firms taking stakes in media companies over the last couple years, investors may be emboldened to try similar tactics at other news outlets.

In December 2008, it was revealed that former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, now on trial for corruption, tried to force the Tribune Co. to fire columnists who were critical of his plutocratic administration. To pressure Tribune boss Sam Zell into agreement, Blagojevich threatened to hold up the proposed sale of Wrigley Field (part of the Chicago Cubs property) to the Illinois State Finance Authority, an idea first suggested by Zell in the summer of 2008.

Although Blagojevich believed at one point that Zell would comply with his demands, the columnists were never fired. A few months later, the back-channel negotiations were brought to light after Blagojevich's arrest, when federal investigators released incriminating transcripts of wiretaps on Blagojevich's phones.

The failure to sell Wrigley Field was a factor in forcing Tribune to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

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