Censorship -- or something else?

Why did two Bay Area newsrooms dismiss Peter Byrne's story about conflicts of interest in UC investment deals?
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Project Censored highlight stories that didn't make the national mainstream news media. And in this issue, we've got a story that shows something about how news judgments are made in two of San Francisco's largest newsrooms.

Journalist Peter Byrne (who once worked at SF Weekly and wrote some critical stories about us) shares the tale of what happened to a story that the San Francisco Chronicle assigned him — but never published. The people at the Chron and the Bay Citizen (a nonprofit whose work runs in the New York Times) have different perspectives on what happened in this case — and whether powerful people like Richard Blum influence whether critical stories end up in print. Readers can decide for themselves how to see this situation.

But what was striking to us at the Guardian — and why we chose to print both Byrne's account and the final story that the Chronicle chose not to print below — was that the suppressed story was actually quite tame and well-balanced after Chronicle writers, editors, and lawyers spent months working on it (Bay Citizen also invested weeks of work and never published anything relating to the story).

It simply raised the issue of whether the University of California should be doing private equity investment deals that are overseen by wealthy, politically connected people like Blum, whose own funds were also involved. It ultimately wasn't a screaming indictment or accusation of illegal activity, but just a modest peek behind the curtain of an important institution whose focus has strayed from its core mission of serving college students.

We reviewed email exchanges that confirm the basic outline of Byrne's story, conducted some interviews that guided our editing of this story, and included responses from the Chronicle and Bay Citizen at the end of the story. Ultimately, whether this is a case of censorship or something else, we thought it deserved to find its way into print. (Steven T. Jones)

 

BlumGate

Why two Bay Area newsrooms dismissed my story about conflicts of interest in UC investment deals

 

By Peter Byrne

news@sfbg.com

In September 2010, the journalism website Spot.us published my investigative series, "The Investors Club: How University of California Regents Spin Public Money into Private Profit." It detailed how members of the UC Board of Regent's investment committee oversaw the investment of nearly $1.5 billion of UC's money into business deals in which they themselves held significant stakes.

One of the conflicted regents was Richard Blum, the financier husband of U.S. Sen., Dianne Feinstein (D-CA); another was Paul Wachter, a business partner of then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (who is also a regent).

The story caused a stir, particularly at a time when student groups were protesting draconian cuts and tuition hikes. Several newsweeklies published the series. The Los Angeles Times ran a story about my findings. And the investigation was honored with journalism awards by several local, state, and national organizations. So I was not surprised when Nanette Asimov, the higher education beat reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, called me last October.

"I know it's a Herculean task, but is it possible to charbroil your opus down to 800 words?" she asked. The paper offered to pay me $350 for the story.

Comments

The comment by me quoted in the UC Santa Barbara Nexus that earned Chronicle Metro Editor Audrey Cooper's ire was the following:

“Byrne previously investigated conflicts of interest between Regent
Richard Blum and his wife, Senator Dianne Feinstein,” Brechin said in an
e-mail. “Those articles, like his current work, never appeared in the
Blum/Feinstein home newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle. That hardly
surprises me since the couple is now one of the most powerful in the
United States. They move in the very highest of San Francisco’s
political and society circles.”

Bizarrely charging that my observation was libelous, Cooper leaned on Nexus editor Elliott Rosenfeld who quickly folded, deleting that statement from the online version of the story and, without contacting me, posting the following editorial note:

"The Daily Nexus pulled the article “UC Regents Face Ethics Allegations”
from its website last week, pending further editorial review. The article
was removed from the website due to editorial staff agreement that
concerns about a quote attributed to a UC visiting fellow merited further
review. After discussion the staff decided to repost the article sans the
quote in question, which we deemed not appropriately researched. The
Daily Nexus apologizes for this error. Further questions may directed to
eic@dailynexus.com"

In addition to running puff pieces on Dianne Feinstein and by Richard Blum, the Chronicle has since published exposes on how for-profit college corporations impoverish students at public expense without mentioning that Regent Blum has major interests in those corporations even as it sat on that information for months before spiking Byrne's article. The Nexus staff and Press Council stonewalled me when I attempted to find out why, under pressure and without contacting me, it impugned my scholarship about a factual statement that it charged was "not appropriately researched." Subsequent events have only proved the veracity of what I said.

Posted by Gray Brechin on Sep. 28, 2011 @ 9:48 am

Having recently come across this posting by Mr.Brechin, I have a few points to make:

When were you stonewalled by the Nexus staff? I spoke with you personally by phone and in no way prevented you from communicating with me. Moreover, our retraction statement, "not appropriately researched," referred to our own reporting. While I personally tend to believe the Feinstein and Blum are probably making shady investments and have undue influence in the Bay Area, the University of California Santa Barbara Daily Nexus had absolutely no evidence to back up your allegations that the Chronicle was swayed by the Blum/Feinstein duo. Additionally, you provided no further evidence except your own suspicions – which unfortunately does not meet my criteria for factual reporting. My mistake was to allow your quote print in the first place without having researched the topic further. Hence, our retraction statement.

This is not to say that you have an insignificant or non-intelligent viewpoint. Simply that we had no proof and therefore should not have moved forward with that statement in the first place without further evidence. I understand that the subject of Mr.Bryne’s article is quite intense and that Mr.Bryne is likely correct – but that does not and did not provide me with a feeling of validation about publishing something that I had nothing to back it up with.

Therefore, when your quote was brought to my attention (by the Chronicle's Metro editor), I agreed that, yes - we had absolutely no basis to publish that claim. Nor do I feel that our issuing of a retraction constituted "folding," but rather attempts at ensuring that one-sided comments were not allowed to continue. In all honesty, perhaps this situation would have been better remedied by publishing new articles on the subject, with a question-and-answer session from you, Mr.Bryne, the administration, Feinstein/Blum's camp and so forth. Unfortunately, the way things played out - with hostility circulating towards the Nexus from all sides (UC, yourself, Bryne, Chronicle), the thought did not occur to me at the time. That, I admit, was a mistake.

I do not mean to say that your position with Berkeley and your insight into Fein/Blum inner workings was false - rather simply that our original decision to publish your quote without conducting prior research on the basis for your statement was not a good choice. Which is why a retraction was issued. There was no stonewalling made, in any sense. I was available for contact at the Daily Nexus editor in chief address, as noted in our retraction, and was also available for contact on my cell phone. In fact, I spoke with Mr.Bryne, the UC administration, a Bay Area Guardian reporter, Chronicle Metro Editor Cooper and you by cell phone after our publication of the story in question.

Additionally, we made no effort to prevent you from writing a letter to the editor, or supplying information to back up your allegations.

To conclude, I would like to state that I still standby my decision to retract your quote as it stood in the story. As we originally reported it, the statement came out of left field and, while probably not libelous, was certainly suspect due to lack of cited evidence from our reporter. To publish the story in the first place was a mistake, because I had neglected to consider your quote in the editing process. A far more detailed investigation of the issue was merited but was not conducted by the Daily Nexus. For these mistakes I apologize.

However, the continued coverage of this incident has warped the topic. I disagree with your interpretation of how this played out and I frankly find some of your comments quite offensive. I understand that having your quote removed from our article may have been frustrating - however, childishly making statements about being "stonewalled" by Nexus staff comes across as unfit for someone of your intellectual reputation.

Happy to speak with you further at any point - as I have always made clear. My cell phone, as it has been since we spoke in 2011, is (415) 717 1234.

Posted by Elliott Rosenfeld on Apr. 27, 2012 @ 10:45 am

Having recently come across this posting by Mr.Brechin, I have a few points to make:

When were you stonewalled by the Nexus staff? I spoke with you personally by phone and in no way prevented you from communicating with me. Moreover, our retraction statement, "not appropriately researched," referred to our own reporting. While I personally tend to believe the Feinstein and Blum are probably making shady investments and have undue influence in the Bay Area, the University of California Santa Barbara Daily Nexus had absolutely no evidence to back up your allegations that the Chronicle was swayed by the Blum/Feinstein duo. Additionally, you provided no further evidence except your own suspicions – which unfortunately does not meet my criteria for factual reporting. My mistake was to allow your quote print in the first place without having researched the topic further. Hence, our retraction statement.

This is not to say that you have an insignificant or non-intelligent viewpoint. Simply that we had no proof and therefore should not have moved forward with that statement in the first place without further evidence. I understand that the subject of Mr.Bryne’s article is quite intense and that Mr.Bryne is likely correct – but that does not and did not provide me with a feeling of validation about publishing something that I had nothing to back it up with.

Therefore, when your quote was brought to my attention (by the Chronicle's Metro editor), I agreed that, yes - we had absolutely no basis to publish that claim. Nor do I feel that our issuing of a retraction constituted "folding," but rather attempts at ensuring that one-sided comments were not allowed to continue. In all honesty, perhaps this situation would have been better remedied by publishing new articles on the subject, with a question-and-answer session from you, Mr.Bryne, the administration, Feinstein/Blum's camp and so forth. Unfortunately, the way things played out - with hostility circulating towards the Nexus from all sides (UC, yourself, Bryne, Chronicle), the thought did not occur to me at the time. That, I admit, was a mistake.

I do not mean to say that your position with Berkeley and your insight into Fein/Blum inner workings was false - rather simply that our original decision to publish your quote without conducting prior research on the basis for your statement was not a good choice. Which is why a retraction was issued. There was no stonewalling made, in any sense. I was available for contact at the Daily Nexus editor in chief address, as noted in our retraction, and was also available for contact on my cell phone. In fact, I spoke with Mr.Bryne, the UC administration, a Bay Area Guardian reporter, Chronicle Metro Editor Cooper and you by cell phone after our publication of the story in question.

Additionally, we made no effort to prevent you from writing a letter to the editor, or supplying information to back up your allegations.

To conclude, I would like to state that I still standby my decision to retract your quote as it stood in the story. As we originally reported it, the statement came out of left field and, while probably not libelous, was certainly suspect due to lack of cited evidence from our reporter. To publish the story in the first place was a mistake, because I had neglected to consider your quote in the editing process. A far more detailed investigation of the issue was merited but was not conducted by the Daily Nexus. For these mistakes I apologize.

However, the continued coverage of this incident has warped the topic. I disagree with your interpretation of how this played out and I frankly find some of your comments quite offensive. I understand that having your quote removed from our article may have been frustrating - however, childishly making statements about being "stonewalled" by Nexus staff comes across as unfit for someone of your intellectual reputation.

Happy to speak with you further at any point - as I have always made clear. My cell phone, as it has been since we spoke in 2011, is (415) 717 1234.

Posted by Elliott Rosenfeld on Apr. 27, 2012 @ 10:47 am

The story was "censored" because it is total bullshit, poorly researched, and poorly written.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 29, 2011 @ 8:53 am

Two thoughts after reading Peter Byrne's piece:

1. I see certain Chronicle and Bay Citizen editors and reporters (none of whom are named Peter Byrne) have deployed a journalistic version of the recent Butt Guardian page rather than go about the messy business of afflicting the powerful.

2. Associating Richard Blum with a certain receptacle for human waste had never been a linkage I've had reason to make...until now.

Posted by Peter on Sep. 29, 2011 @ 3:06 pm

As the outgoing president of the graduate student body government at UC Davis, I stand by Peter Byrne and vouch for his integrity. Peter came to speak at one of our protest rallies at UC Davis last year and he gave an illuminating talk that was written about in our school paper. I've seen no evidence to doubt his integrity, and on the contrary, have every reason to support him in his work. Obviously, Richard Blum's days on the Board of Regents are numbered. We all know that, but he doesn't yet know that. He will know that soon.

--Brian Riley, Student Unity Movement
facebook.com/groups/studentunitymovement

Posted by Brian Riley on Oct. 01, 2011 @ 7:52 pm

As the outgoing president of the graduate student body government at UC Davis, I stand by Peter Byrne and vouch for his integrity. Peter came to speak at one of our protest rallies at UC Davis last year and he gave an illuminating talk that was written about in our school paper. I've seen no evidence to doubt his integrity, and on the contrary, have every reason to support him in his work. Obviously, Richard Blum's days on the Board of Regents are numbered. We all know that, but he doesn't yet know that. He will know that soon.

--Brian Riley, Student Unity Movement
facebook.com/groups/studentunitymovement

Posted by Brian Riley on Oct. 01, 2011 @ 7:53 pm

It has been said many times in the past that Dianne Feinstein is a corporation masquerading as a senator. To be fair, that can be said of several current senators, many far worse than DiFi.
That said, if as much as much vetting by the Chronicle had been done with official statements about our continuing endless participation in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, then we may have enjoyed some true breakaway "journalism of distinction" here. Or perhaps the Chron should be including disclaimers in every story about Roadblock Republican presidential candidates who continue to lie, obfuscate and disassemble in every column-inch of space they so generously receive.
It seems as if any moderately lefty idea or assertion must run up a ginormous legal bill before it can even hope to see the light of day. And these stories are not being produced by some upstart blogger with only an iPad and an idea either.
No, they are being written by people with known bona fides like Peter Byrne, who jump through all hoops, foreseen and unforeseen, but run afoul of a coterie of nattering editors and lawyers. It would likely be quite hard to get something published in such a sinkhole even if the Chronicle still had an I-team.
If this crop of Chronicle editors handled the Watergate story back in 1972, what little that would have been published about the "second-rate break-in" would have been relegated to the back of the paper, surrounded by truss ads.
– George Powell, a one-time Chronicle staffer

Posted by Guest on Oct. 03, 2011 @ 4:30 pm