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Seven years ago, a hotel magnate who insists on being called “Papa Doug” bought the San Diego Union-Tribune. He launched a brash and bumbling bid to transform the newly rebranded U-T San Diego into a right-wing mouthpiece devoted to his interests. The newsroom gasped, subscribers walked, and Doug Manchester eventually bailed out.
Now, Manchester’s peculiar turn as a newspaper publisher is coming back to haunt him. Manchester’s time at the U-T has become a #MeToo moment, and it’s threatening to pull the plug on his nomination from President Donald Trump to become ambassador to the Bahamas.
Manchester’s weekend from hell began with a startling U-T article published late Friday that said he’d apologized via a statement to The Washington Post “to any employee who felt uncomfortable or demeaned while employed at the UT San Diego during my tenure.”
The paper reported that questions had arisen about Manchester’s U-T tenure. Then, on Saturday, the Post published its own story titled “Trump ambassador nominee had unsettling management style, women say.”
Current and former U-T workers told the Post that “the atmosphere was retrograde and often disrespectful toward women.” There are reports of leering, overly enthusiastic hugging, a short-dress mandate and a private bedroom in the U-T’s Mission Valley building that Manchester defended — not entirely convincingly — as being merely an “executive suite” for visitors.
In the midst of the #MeToo movement, the article says, these revelations raise a question: “What is the level of tolerance for boorish or chauvinistic behavior?”
Here are five takeaways from this mess.
It hasn’t been clear until now how hostile the Mancheter-led U-T’s work environment was to women. Creepy behavior, sexism and touchy-feely nonsense seem to have permeated the paper.
We did know things were not good, however. Critics, including many U-T newsroom employees, were deeply appalled by the Manchester era for a variety of reasons. They despised the newspaper’s sharp turn to the right, its in-your-face advocacy for Manchester’s pet projects, and his snuffing of the daily North County Times.
There was also plenty of gossip about the private life of the “peacockish” Manchester, who admitted committing adultery in his first marriage. As the Post article notes, he “has at times surrounded himself with attractive young women.” Indeed, in 2012 he brought a former Playboy Playmate of the Month to a children’s charity event and, amazingly, a photo of them appeared in the U-T’s society section. (“Older men liking younger women is not a new story,” a former U-T HR executive explained helpfully to the Post.)
The company under Manchester embraced boorish behavior publicly via U-T TV, a local cable TV channel which was intended to be the center of a national TV network. It offered a frothy, amateurish and sometimes-head-splitingly-bizarre mix of news and lifestyle programming hosted by older men and younger women, including one described in a print U-T ad as bringing “sizzle” and “heat.”
The station forced viewers to “wade through a sea of blonde stereotypes and penis innuendo,” wrote Sara Libby, VOSD’s managing editor, in a blistering 2013 column.
Behind the scenes at U-T TV, “there was a lot of breaking out and crying, and yelling,” one employee recalled to the U-T. In general, the U-T “was a boys club, and the boys picked which women they wanted,” an unnamed former executive told the Post. A former editor added that “‘toxic’ is almost a pleasant way of thinking of those days.”
In a tweet, former U-T news editor Laura Wingard links to the U-T story and says it’s “pretty much how I remember life during Doug Manchester/John Lynch ownership of @sdut and U-T TV.” After purchasing the paper, Manchester installed Lynch as its CEO, until he was moved to a new role in 2014.
Veteran journalist Jeff Light, the editor and publisher of the U-T, has survived multiple newspaper owners over the last several years. Now, yet another one is on the way.
Light, who recently ordered his newspaper to cover the Manchester imbroglio, is boldly bashing his ex-boss. He told reporters for his own paper that Manchester “hired some people of low competence, and in some cases low character, I think, who damaged the U-T and damaged Manchester’s reputation and squandered the business opportunity.”
As for U-T TV, the Post quotes him as saying “the news staff was… repulsed by the sexist vibe of the programming,” and the U-T says he called it “distasteful.” However, Light allowed newsroom staffers to work closely with their colleagues at the TV channel, and an anonymous complaint accused him of ignoring reports of sexual harassment.
An investigation by Tronc, the current owner of the U-T “concluded that there was no case of misconduct by the current leadership of the Union-Tribune,” the U-T reported. Note the word “current.”
This is now Light’s first impression on the paper’s new owner, Los Angeles billionaire Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, who’s buying both the U-T and its sister paper, the L.A. Times.
Meanwhile, others who feel they were deeply mistreated at the paper, and there are at least a few, may be emboldened to sue.
Lynch, a radio executive whose namesake son is the San Francisco 49ers general manager, has always been a colorful figure, to say the least. In 2014, we compiled his most explosive quotes, including crude political jibes, threats to politicians, and his three-word statement to me (“Get a life”) when I reported on the paper’s failure to bother getting permits for an antique car museum it built in the U-T building.
The Post quotes Lynch as saying the paper paid a settlement to a laid-off U-T TV employee who alleged “through a lawyer that Lynch sent her inappropriate texts inviting her to a St. Patrick’s Day celebration and that Manchester offered unwanted hugs.” Lynch is quoted as saying there was an “effort to get some money and take advantage,” and he says the claims about a hostile environment were “completely fallacious,” the product of newspaper types who longed for the “good old days.”
U-T reporter Greg Moran responded via Twitter: “The notion that the disgust at his vandalizing the newsroom and attempts to pollute the news columns with his drool-stained ‘thoughts’ was bc ‘everybody wanted it like the good old days’ is offensive.”
The duo of Manchester and Lynch weaponized the U-T, bulldozing through the sacred-yet-often-permeable separation between the publisher’s office and the newsroom. And, if the allegations are true, they turned it into their own personal frathouse. This should not be surprising. They have a wider tradition of ignoring the rules, written or unwritten, in other ways, making the allegations against them even more plausible.
The unpermitted car museum was one example. There are others. Reporters have chronicled Manchester’s fight with FCC enforcers over unlicensed cell-phone-signal boosters erected to improve his Verizon reception, the massive code violations at his Carmel Valley hotel, and a helicopter pad built without permission.
Manchester is an ally of Donald Trump, who accidentally called him “Papa John” at a San Diego rally before the 2016 election, and the president nominated him to be ambassador to the Bahamas last May. Manchester was grilled about his anti-gay advocacy at a Senate hearing; he says he’s sorry and now supports same-sex marriage. Congress never got around to confirming him to the ambassador post to the nation of fewer than 400,000 people.
While Manchester has been renominated, he’ll now seek confirmation despite, among other things, this quote from the Post story, via a female employee: “it was just, like, you don’t want to get caught alone in the elevator with him.”
Still, Coronado native Manchester loves a brawl — this is the same guy who put editorials on the front page and tried to intimidate politicians — and so does the president. This may not be over.
Correction: This story initially said the Post reported that the paper paid a settlement to an employee who claimed sexual harassment by Lynch. In fact, the Post reported Lynch said the woman alleged that he “sent her inappropriate texts inviting her to a St. Patrick’s Day celebration and that Manchester offered unwanted hugs.”
Randy Dotinga is a freelance contributor to Voice of San Diego. He is also immediate past president of the 1,200-member American Society of Journalists and Authors (asja.org). Please contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/rdotinga.