We’re scratching our heads, again, and it’s Anaheim that’s causing our itch. Yesterday, the OC Register’s parent company Freedom Communications announced that it has signed a letter of intent with the City of Anaheim for the exclusive rights to solicit the naming rights from a corporate sponsor for the new Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center, a.k.a. “ARTIC.” The agreement, dated June 19, 2013 gives the Register one year to find a corporate sponsor. The details of the almost two-month old letter of intent have yet to be finalized into an actual contract which would have to be approved by the city council.
The Register reported yesterday:
Kushner declined to discuss the potential value of such a deal, nor how much Freedom would be paid if a sponsor is found.
“The basic logic is that we are the only significant media business in Orange County, and we want to use that to bring a sponsor to pay for a project that would otherwise be paid by taxpayers,” Kushner said.
A sponsorship deal would likely help the city pay off the 13.5-acre property it purchased last year from the Orange County Transportation Authority to build ARTIC, a 67,000-square-foot terminal that would provide access to Amtrak, Metrolink, buses, taxis and perhaps a high-speed railway. Anaheim agreed to purchase the land from the OCTA for $32.5 million.
Construction began last September on a $184.2 million facility on the land, which is expected to open in late 2014. That complex will be paid for by county, state and federal funds.
The agreement has ruffled a few feathers and raised concerns by from Mayor Tom Tait that such an agreement might influence the Register’s coverage of city business. Specifically there is concern that the Register could in effect become an “agent of the government” in conflict with its journalistic responsibility as a government watchdog.
Tait told Voice of OC; “Not only do I question the need for such an agreement, I have serious concerns about creating a financial partnership with our local newspaper, which also serves as a watchdog for the citizens over matters at City Hall.”
Kushner explained his point of view on the matter of conflict of interest in the Register story:
“Just because someone has a business relationship with the Register, it does not affect how the news side operates,” Kushner said. “If you can’t have a business relationship with someone you report on, then we wouldn’t have any advertisers in the paper.”
From the Voice of OC story yesterday:
While gaining praise for adding 175 newsroom staffers and expanding its news content at a time when most papers have been cutting back on coverage, he’s been hammered by critics for other business deals and what they claim are efforts to appease the political establishment.
Voice of OC revealed in February that the Register had changed its political ad policy after two Anaheim councilwomen complained to Register co-owner Eric Spitz about ads from a local activist that criticized their votes for a controversial hotel subsidy.
In the wake of that controversy, [Publisher Aaron] Kushner raised eyebrows in the media industry when he told newsroom staff that journalists shouldn’t abide by the long-held journalism credo of “afflicting the comfortable.”
From where we sit, such agreements create an appearance of conflict of interest, and we are suspicious that the line which Kushner claims is drawn between business relationships and news coverage, is more dotted than solid. We have seen before how coverage, particularly negative coverage of powerful political interests, is conveniently toned down, or buried, inside the “subscribers-only internet pages of the Register. To find an example we have to dig no deeper than the Register’s coverage of Tuesday’s contentious council meeting discussion over the continuation of a contract with the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce to manage Enterprise Zones, a program that expires by law on December 31, 2013.
The Register’s coverage, at least on their internet site, never made it to the politics and government section of the publication. It is found deep inside the barely noticeable “Cities” section. That coverage, barely scratched the surface of describing the level of conflict and animosity the mere discussion of the matter caused the Council. Absent any other sources on the story, Register readers are left with the impression that it was a simple matter of Mayor Tait and his council colleagues being out of sync in their thinking.
It took almost two months for public disclosure of the ARTIC letter of intent, and there has yet to be an actual contract established that specifies how much the sponsorship solicitation agreement will benefit the Register’s owners. Kushner has placed his publication in the unenviable position of having to take additional steps to show that their objectivity on Anaheim government matters. The proof will be shown over time in how they cover the city.
Fortunately, there are other media outlets, that can help hold their hypothetical feet to the fire. Be it the Voice of OC, Los Angeles Times, or local watchdog blogs, the truth will be published. We suspect that shortcomings in OC Register coverage, should they exist, will be exposed no matter how uncomfortable..