What We Learned This Week - Voice of San Diego

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What We Learned This Week

The editorial page of a major American newspaper consistently and frequently refuses to … editorialize.
Copies of The San Diego Union-Tribune sit on the racks outside the Paras Newsstand in North Park. / Photo by Sam Hodgson

This piece has been updated.

When I moved to San Diego in 2012, one of the first big civic controversies I encountered was when the Union-Tribune – then owned by Doug Manchester – published a front-page editorial encouraging readers to vote for Carl DeMaio.

The editorial ignited many concerns: People worried Manchester was exerting improper influence over the staff, and the placement of the editorial on the front page – rather than in the opinion section where such content typically appears – irked people. And, of course, people who disliked DeMaio objected to the argument that he was the right candidate for the job of mayor.

Though people questioned virtually everything surrounding the piece – its placement, the candidate it was backing, whether the ed board was inappropriately coerced into writing it – one thing nobody questioned was whether the editorial board had any business arguing in favor of a candidate. That’s because the editorial board of a newspaper exists to do just that: to take the incredible reporting generated by its staff of journalists and to move it forward by making considered recommendations about the biggest issues we face – who to vote for, solutions to improve our lives and our city.

In the years since, the U-T has taken a much different approach to the editorial page. It often declines to articulate a preference for any type of policy, issue or candidate.

That’s right. The editorial page of a major American newspaper consistently and frequently refuses to … editorialize.

It’s a change I believe diminishes the paper and abdicates an important responsibility.

Friday’s editorial, timed to coincide with the anniversary of the Columbine shooting, was given front-page billing on the website. Though it had the noble and unobjectionable goal of recognizing victims of school violence, it didn’t urge a single policy solution. Instead, it offered an enormous cop-out: People should contact their representatives. What, exactly, they should urge them to do is unclear. Should we call guns “schmuns” in order to minimize their appeal? Should we close all public schools and homeschool kids to protect them? The U-T sure doesn’t shed any light, despite devoting its most precious digital real estate to the issue.

And this is far from a onetime occurrence but rather a perfect example of something that happens regularly about issues of monumental importance.

Take a 2016 editorial about the future of the Citizen’s Review Board, a group tasked with police oversight – an undertaking that literally involves life and death. The U-T acknowledged it was a critical question, yet refused to do the brave and bold work of answering it.

Editorial Director Matt Hall’s approach prioritizes the means, not the end, meaning that prompting a debate – some debate, any debate – is more important than the quality of the debate and whether it results in any progress whatsoever.

Here’s another, an editorial on Poway’s Measure A that left members of the community begging for the opinion page to state its opinion.

Another: This editorial celebrates the fact that some politicians had decided to challenge other politicians in an upcoming election. The piece merely celebrates the fact that “a debate” will take place.

Much of the focus of late on the demise of local journalism has focused on wealthy owners decimating the papers they own from the outside. The demise of the U-T’s editorial pages, though, is a problem entirely of its own making.

I realize this is a sharply negative view of the editorial page under Hall, so I want to make clear that this is not a personal attack – in my limited interactions with him, he’s always been kind and gracious, and I admire the work he did as a reporter. Nor is this a shot at the U-T as a whole. The paper has produced stellar reporting on Duncan Hunter’s misdeeds, illuminated what’s happening with the San Onofre plant and Michael Smolens has been providing consistently smart political analysis.

But imagine if The Old Globe, one of the finest performance venues in the world, decided to stop curating its own world-class performances and instead simply thrust open its doors and allowed anyone – birthday clowns, third graders, the guy from your office who makes crude jokes – to stroll on stage and do as they pleased. Imagine if it did so while insisting that so long as some warm body was doing something performative, they were succeeding.

There’s an old scene from “The Simpsons” that still cracks me up. The family and the rest of their church congregation discover that a blizzard raging during the sermon has trapped them inside the sanctuary. Scared, Lisa begins to pray. But Bart cuts her off, saying, “Lisa, please, this is neither the time nor the place.”

Hall seems to be doing the same thing, only it’s not a joke: He’s suggesting that a forum whose sole purpose is to articulate fearless and forceful arguments is no place for argument at all.

What VOSD Learned This Week

We’re continuing to learn more about educators who harass, abuse or otherwise exert power over their students in inappropriate ways – and who often get to keep their jobs, for a while anyway.

This week, we delved into two more of those stories, which involve students ranging from elementary school to college.

Christy Heiskala’s young daughter was abused by her teacher in Carlsbad. The teacher eventually went to jail – but prosecutors initially told Heiskala that they couldn’t move forward with the case based on her daughter’s account alone. They had to wait until more children were abused until law enforcement pressed a case against him. The experience has fueled Heiskala toward a career educating schools and parents how to spot predatory behavior and take action.

Over at SDSU, a professor is on leave following an investigation into a sexual relationship he had with a student. VOSD’s Kinsee Morlan found several other students who said the same professor bullied and humiliated them, including some who said they were discriminated against on the basis of their religion or a disability.

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It’s amazing how untethered from the facts the discussion about the Trump-California fight over so-called “sanctuary policies” has become. But Maya Srikrishnan has got facts for ya: She wrote a good explanation of the two lesser-known laws the administration is suing the state over.

We also brought the facts on this week’s podcast, where we parsed the county supervisors’ odd statements justifying their decision to jump into the fight.

The candidates running to replace Ron Roberts on the Board of Supes have all said they disagree with the decision to join the Trump suit. One of those candidates is Omar Passons. Lisa Halverstadt took a deeper look this week into his track record on community activism efforts.

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The city is supposed to conduct tests in homes across San Diego to ensure people aren’t drinking lead-contaminated water. It does conduct tests, but it often relies on city employees to test their own homes. Meanwhile, some entire neighborhoods go years without any testing.

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The fight over who should lead the Neighborhood Market Association, a powerful trade group that represents local corner stores, is as crazy as ever – the group’s former leader wrote in court filings that the court-appointed receiver is part of an “Iraqi style coupe d’etat harkening one back to the days of Saddam.”

What I’m Reading

Line of the Week

“We’re also not going to require certain outfits like a suit … the baby will be able to wear whatever the baby wants to wear.” – Sen. Amy Klobuchar, describing the Senate’s efforts to accommodate Sen. Tammy Duckworth, who recently became the first sitting senator to give birth. (Just to be safe, when Duckworth appeared on the Senate floor later in the week, her newborn daughter wore a tiny baby blazer.)

Correction: I’ve removed a line that suggested the Union-Tribune editorial board did not endorse a candidate in the mayor’s race and school board race. They endorsed candidates in those races in later, separate editorials.

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