Censorship -- or something else?

Why did two Bay Area newsrooms dismiss Peter Byrne's story about conflicts of interest in UC investment deals?
|
()

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.