My first job out of college was not at a specific news agency but at a syndicate – we had a stable of (mostly conservative, white, old, male) op-ed writers who would turn in columns to us, and we’d edit them and distribute them to the newspapers across the country that published them each week.

It took me longer than I’d like to admit to realize that the assistants who were turning in the columns and addressing my edits each week were often the ones actually writing them.

The light bulb finally turned on in one particularly egregious incident involving a well-known conservative commentator – for privacy’s sake let’s call him Shmoliver Shmorth – when the second half of that week’s column devolved into several paragraphs of effusive praise for his assistant’s new book.

I bring this up because of all the crazy revelations in the SANDAG investigation (more on that below) there was also a good reminder that many politicians don’t write the op-ed pieces to which their names are attached.

The report includes this explanation of an op-ed written by Ron Roberts, board chairman of SANDAG, that Voice of San Diego published in January:

When asked about the editorial, Roberts said that he took full responsibility for the final draft, but did not write the original and had no personal knowledge of the details. David Hicks, Communications Manager at SANDAG, wrote the original draft of the editorial, and said that, in doing so, he had researched what happened with the Measure A forecasting error.

There have been instances in the past in which we’ve rejected op-eds because they were very clearly not written by the person whose name appeared on the byline. But we don’t always explicitly ask people, “You wrote this thing that has your name on it, right?”


We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

After this, though, I will look into ways to ensure the expectation that people are doing their own writing of op-eds that appear on VOSD is much more explicit.

Here’s an excerpt from a piece on the phenomenon of ghostwritten bylines:

Op-ed pieces that run under the bylines of famous politicians, celebrities and business people are almost never written by those people, just as they rarely author their autobiographies. They don’t have time. Their staffers and PR people, or paid ghostwriters in the case of books, do the research and writing for them.

Sometimes, the “author” is blindsided by what he or she “wrote.”

People have so, so many reasons right now to be wary of the media. That many politicians or other people in power sometimes don’t even read – let alone write – pieces they claim to have written just adds more fuel to the fire.

After all, as the author of the piece on ghostwritten bylines points out, if we’d flunk a student for turning in someone else’s work, why would we accept it of powerful people who should know better?

What VOSD Learned This Week

What a week. I can’t remember the last time we had so many big, high-impact stories back to back to back.

An SDPD officer gave false testimony under oath in order to stick a homeless man with an infraction. After the man was convicted, body camera footage surfaced backing up the man’s account and directly contradicting the officer. City officials, by the way, are contemplating zones where homeless people can convene without fear of being cited.

Meanwhile, an undocumented couple was placed in federal custody and could be facing deportation as a direct result of Sheriff’s deputies calling Border Patrol on the couple. Yet, though some insane verbal gymnastics, the Sheriff’s Department insists it did not violate a policy barring officers from immigration enforcement.

At the state level, the effort to have cops enter data on who they stop is moving forward – but it will require some guesswork by officers.

♦♦♦

Then there’s the big SANDAG report. Whoa.

The investigation by law firm Hueston Hennigan didn’t just confirm what Andy Keatts has been reporting for months, it included some bombshells of its own, namely that the agency tried to hide and delete documents after Keatts’ first stories came out to avoid having to turn over further info to him under the California Public Records Act.

Keatts also spelled out the other big revelations in the report, and he and Scott Lewis broke down the whole thing in a way you can follow on this week’s podcast.

♦♦♦

The insanely high cost of housing in California has had a residual effect you might not have thought about: a big drop in private school attendance.

As for public schools, ex Poway Superintendent John Collins isn’t allowed to teach in or manage them anymore.

What I’m Reading

 Meet the world’s first abortion refugee. (Splinter)

 The fire emoji was invented precisely for pieces like this blazing critique of Republicans’ failure to act as a  check on President Donald Trump – written by a sitting Republican senator. (Remember, though, that Sen. Jeff Flake still voted to strip millions of people of their health care, in line with Trump’s agenda.) (Politico Magazine)

 This is a visually stunning feature on soccer and the pursuit of meaning inside one of the world’s largest refugee camps. (SB Nation)

 Instead of moving to new cities for better opportunities, many Americans are stuck anchored in place. (Wall Street Journal)

 In December 2015, Gwen Woods joined the grim club of mothers of young black men killed by police. This is what the next year of her life was like. (California Sunday)

 Big data centers for companies like Facebook and Amazon are transforming tiny, rural Prineville, Ore. (Outside)

Line of the Week

“Nineteen hyenas and a broken vacuum cleaner control the White House, and ice is becoming extinct.”

— It’s rare to find a piece of writing that makes you laugh with lines like this, but also makes you cry because it articulates your core values so clearly and powerfully. What a treasure Lindy West is.

    This article relates to: News, What We Learned This Week

    Written by Sara Libby

    Sara Libby is VOSD’s managing editor. She oversees VOSD’s newsroom and its content. You can reach her at sara.libby@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0526.

    3 comments
    Gayle Falkenthal APR
    Gayle Falkenthal APR subscriber

    Sara, why is it perfectly acceptable for elected officials and business leaders to work with speechwriters to craft their thoughts into spoken words, but not acceptable to have assistance to do the same in written form? It is well known that Peggy Noonan wrote Ronald Reagan's beautifully delivered speech after the Challenger disaster, but it didn't take away from the end result. Likewise, Ted Sorenson wrote most of John F. Kennedy's speeches and wrote the first draft of what would become JFK's Pulitzer Prize winning book "Profiles in Courage."

    philip piel
    philip piel subscriber

    I keep hearing how "millions will be stripped of their health coverage" or how they'll "lose" coverage under proposed legislation. I wonder, if driver's licenses were no longer required to drive would the millions that chose to not renew their license "lose" or "be stripped of" their license?  

    michael-leonard
    michael-leonard subscriber

    But we don’t always explicitly ask people, “You wrote this thing that has your name on it, right?”

    Perhaps it's time for a VoSD policy that asks writers of opinion pieces to confirm they have at least read the work before it is posted. something similar to the video declaration that a candidate "approve[s] this message".