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COMMENTARY: CityBeat shoots itself in the foot ... twice

Tabloids thrive on salacious headlines like “Alien leader visits Obama at Camp David” or “Priest casts demons out of homosexuals.”

Most people snicker at the tabloids, heavily discounting the veracity of the stories that are published. Only the gullible believe what they read has any grain of truth.

Tabloids run by media mogul Rupert Murdoch are currently under investigation in the United Kingdom in an unfolding scandal that is spreading across the world. The FBI is looking into Murdoch’s business practices here in the U.S., and Australian authorities are investigating as well.

The scandal is unmasking the disreputable – perhaps illegal – tactics, methods and tools the tabloids use to report their stories.

Here in America’s Finest City, San Diego CityBeat is practicing the best of tabloid journalism these days. Oh, from time to time, CityBeat may publish a story that has journalistic integrity, but chances are that its writers are just shooting first, asking questions later. It is a mystery why CityBeat fails to practice basic journalism.

I bring this up because CityBeat has lobbed false allegations against San Diego Gay & Lesbian News, Publisher Johnathan Hale, former SDGLN contributor Arlon Staggs and myself.

The first blunder

On Tuesday, CityBeat posted a story about Staggs’ letter to the editor printed in CityBeat that raised serious questions and inconsistencies about San Diego mayoral candidate Nathan Fletcher’s position on LGBT issues. The salacious headline and innuendo-filled story accused a well-respected LGBT community leader of “plagiarism” while simultaneously accusing Hale of ghost-writing a letter to CityBeat.

Their source for their entire story? An email sent to them from Will Rodriquez-Kennedy, a Fletcher campaign worker who abruptly departed from a local LGBT group’s board under questions of financial misconduct – questions that CityBeat itself covered months ago. Instead of doing due diligence and contacting the subjects of their story, CityBeat ran with the allegation and presented it as fact.

Well, CityBeat had to take the entire story down – because Staggs fired off a well-documented retraction demand letter that irrefutably proved that he indeed wrote the letter to the editor without help or suggestion from anyone else.

Contacted by SDGLN, the community leader has raised the possibility of legal action against CityBeat.

The second blunder

Instead of admitting its mistake and learning from it, CityBeat posted another story – this time dragging me into the story and accusing me of violating my own firewall policy on editorial decisions at SDGLN.

CityBeat had gone from accusing Hale of attacking Fletcher, to accusing Hale of deciding not to publish a letter critical of Fletcher. You confused yet?

As with the author of the original letter, CityBeat failed to verify its facts before spouting off in the re-cast story.

Here are the facts: SDGLN is already running a weekly column by Staff Writer Esther Rubio-Sheffrey that examines politics whether local – including the mayoral race – or national. I rejected the Staggs letter because it didn’t meet my editorial standards. Hale had no say in that decision; he simply conveyed my decision to the author of the letter.

Second, while Hale is certainly free to share his personal thoughts in private settings and communications, he agrees wholeheartedly with me that SDGLN gives an equal platform for all political candidates in our coverage. And in stark contrast to the allegations made by CityBeat, a simple search on SDGLN shows that Councilmember DeMaio gets less coverage by SDGLN than any other LGBT officials.

I doubt that CityBeat will take down this second incarnation of their flip-flopped story, but the record deserved to be corrected somewhere.

The story behind the story

CityBeat may be sensitive about the letter to the editor regarding Fletcher’s position on LGBT issues for a simple reason: It jumped into bed with him without doing necessary fact-checking and due diligence.

Ironically, the letter in question was submitted to CityBeat in response to its editorial suggesting that it was “dating” Fletcher and could potentially support him for mayor.

That’s fine and fair, if you disclose that in all of your political coverage of the mayoral race. But the irony is that CityBeat has tried to tout its support for the LGBT community and purports to care about our issues. It would be logical to suggest they may have wanted to review Fletcher’s record on LGBT issues before writing a fawningly favorable editorial on him, especially when he has voted against many issues dear to the hearts of the LGBT community.

There’s always a chance CityBeat can change

Every city needs more reputable news outlets, not less, to keep our republic honest and to keep our citizens well-informed on the issues.

So in the interest of advancing quality journalism, here are some helpful tips to my friends at CityBeat:

1) Check your sources for truth and credibility. Try quoting them rather than hiding behind anonymous sources.

2) Verify your facts for accuracy.

3) Tell both sides of the story, not just your side.

4) Request comments from subjects before publishing.

5) Learn about the harm limitation principle.

6) Be accountable to your audience.

7) Worry about slander and libel. Get a good lawyer and follow his/her advice.

To read about the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, click HERE.

Ken Williams is Editor in Chief of SDGLN. He can be reached at ken@sdgln.com or by calling toll-free to (877) 727-5446, ext. 713.