Censorship -- or something else? - Page 2

Why did two Bay Area newsrooms dismiss Peter Byrne's story about conflicts of interest in UC investment deals?
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Intrigued, I squeezed the investigation that Spot.us had paid $7,000 to produce into a few paragraphs. Little did I know that Asimov and I would be expanding and cutting and tweaking this story for the next eight months, as publication was delayed again and again by foot-dragging editors.

But I was patient. Even after Metro Editor Audrey Cooper told me that Blum had "threatened" Chronicle editors if they ran the tale, I waited several more months before going public. It is my belief that journalists must as accountable for what we do not print as for what we do print.

When Elizabeth Lesly Stevens, a staff writer at the Bay Citizen, inquired about the delay in publishing the story, I told her what I knew and gave her dozens of emails between myself and Chronicle staff. Ironically, the Bay Citizen never ran the story about the story.

 

THE GORY DETAILS

It quickly became obvious that the complex financial story would not easily squeeze into a few paragraphs. But since the Hearst Corporation had cut the Chronicle's reportorial throat several years ago by laying off its investigative enterprise staff, there appeared to be no one left capable of editing it. Asimov had to constantly badger editors to work on the story.

Shortly before Thanksgiving 2010, Chronicle business reporter Tom Abate got involved. He sent me an outline indicating places where I should insert a "FIRE BREATHING QUOTE" and then a "QUOTE OF OUTRAGE." The idea of daily news writing, he told me, was "make the readers spit up their coffee." Okay! I dreamed that the streets of San Francisco would soon flow with rivers of regurgitated java.

By early January 2011, Asimov and I had worked up a coherent version, focusing on Blum and Wachter's conflicts of interest. On January 31, Assistant City Editor Terry Robertson emailed, "I'm aiming to get it in the paper by the end of the week." A few days later, he backtracked, "Well, I just found out that the story needs to be lawyered. That throws a bit of a wrench into the works. Sorry."

By mid-February, Robertson had evidently lost interest. Determined to see it in print, Asimov recruited a veteran Chronicle reporter, John Wildermuth, to edit it. He whipped it into shape at 1,600 words. Now it was time for Asimov to call Blum for comment, since he refuses to talk to me.

According to Asimov, Blum was "spitting nails." He called the allegations of conflicts of interest made by an array of ethics experts "obscene." He said, "Nobody has ever told me that we had to ask UC for an OK before we invested in something. I wouldn't be on the Board of Regents if I have to ask for permission to go to the bathroom." And I was told he threatened the Chronicle with legal action if the story was published.

In late March, the copy was again sent to Cooper. On April 11, she decided it needed yet more attention from the lawyers.

 

COOPER GETS MAD

On April 14, the Daily Nexus, which is the student newspaper at UC Santa Barbara, reported on a group of students who had gathered hundreds of signatures on a petition to the state Attorney General asking for an investigation based upon the conflicts of interest identified in the Spot.us investigation. In the article, UC scholar Gray Brechin opined that the Chronicle was failing to print my story due "to the political influence of Blum and Feinstein."

Shortly after the story was posted online, Cooper called Daily Nexus Editor Elliot Rosenfeld. She complained that Brechin's comment about the Chronicle was "libelous." The student editor removed the quote from the newspaper's website.