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Would Duke Cunningham Get Away With It Today?

Not long ago, I wrote in this space about the discouraging fact that no Ohio newspapers had taken the minimal time needed to uncover the FBI’s investigation I stumbled across into highly suspect campaign contributions from employees of a Canton company to a Republican congressman and Senate candidate in Ohio. The Columbia Journalism Review followed up with a fuller report on this same question, which laid bare just how devastated Ohio’s papers have been by newsroom cuts—the Akron Beacon Journal, for one, has lost its entire State House bureau in Columbus and seen its overall newsroom head count slashed by two-thirds.

Today comes another, even more disconcerting example of the cost of the decline of regional papers for political accountability. David Carr writes in The New York Times of the 2011 takeover of the San Diego Union-Tribune by Douglas Manchester, a conservative local developer and hotelier who has been unabashed about using the newspaper—now renamed The U-T San Diego—in the country’s eighth largest city to advance his business and political agenda:

Mr. Manchester is anti-big government, anti-tax and anti-gay marriage. And he’s in favor of a remade San Diego centered around a new downtown waterfront stadium and arena.

Public agencies that have not gotten the hint have found themselves investigated in the news pages of The U-T. A sports columnist who was skeptical of the plans found himself out of a job, and the newspaper has published front-page editorials and wraparound sections to promote political allies who share its agenda. According to several employees at the paper, a feature called “Making a Difference” has included flattering profiles of many of Mr. Manchester’s associates.

The oddest part? Mr. Manchester and the chief executive, John T. Lynch, who also owns part of the paper, are completely open about their motives.

“We make no apologies,” Mr. Lynch said by telephone on Friday. “We are doing what a newspaper ought to do, which is to take positions. We are very consistent — pro-conservative, pro-business, pro-military — and we are trying to make a newspaper that gets people excited about this city and its future.”...

The reporters and others have pointed to the frantic level of promotion for various political candidates as over-the-top and damaging to the paper’s credibility. For instance, The U-T presented a wraparound of a sample ballot for the conservative, pro-development candidates it endorsed on the Sunday before the election and again last Tuesday, the day of the election. On Monday, there was a front-page editorial in support of Carl DeMaio, the candidate for mayor that Mr. Manchester supports.

As Carr notes, this is to a certain extent a matter of journalism heading back to the future—back in the “yellow journalism” days, many newspaper publishers were blatantly carrying water for their own or their cronies’ interests. But back then, a city as large as San Diego would also have more than one daily paper, making it more likely that gaps of self-interest would be covered one way or another. (The city today also has an alt-weekly and a respected but small online outlet, the Voice of San Diego.)

What seems worth noting here, which Carr does not mention, is that the U-T, under its previous owner, the Copley News Service, played a leading role in exposing Duke Cunningham, the Republican congressman who resigned from the House in 2005 after pleading guilty to taking $2.4 million in bribes, including from a defense contractor who relied on Cunningham’s support in Congress. Cunningham was sentenced to eight years in prison and ordered to pay $1.8 million in restitution. From the Columbia Journalism Review’s 2006 account of the story, which earned the U-T and Copley News Service a Pulitzer and a George Polk Award:

Last May, Stern was exploring two trips the eight-term congressman had taken to Saudi Arabia when he noticed a discrepancy in the purchase and selling prices of Cunningham's Del Mar Heights house in San Diego County. The reporter conducted a “lifestyle audit,” a technique that compares living expenses with reported income, and found that the decorated Vietnam War veteran sold his home for $1.675 million in November 2003. The new owner put the house up for sale almost immediately for approximately the same price. Despite a relatively thriving real-estate market, it sat for more than eight months before selling for a $700,000 loss. Meanwhile, Cunningham used the proceeds to buy a $2.55 million mansion in nearby Rancho Santa Fe.
Searching Nexis property records, Stern learned that Cunningham had sold his Del Mar home to “1523 New Hampshire Ave., LLC,” an address, not a person. Another search revealed that this address was the name of a Nevada company that listed Wade as its only officer. Stern then discovered that Wade had registered a second company in Nevada, a defense contracting company named MZM Inc. A Google search turned up a Washington, D.C., address on MZM’s Web site: 1523 New Hampshire Ave. NW. The site boasted about MZM’s recent influx of federal contracts. Languishing previously, the company began receiving tens of millions of dollars in contracts from the Pentagon around the time of the Del Mar house sale.
Thirty-two days after the article appeared in the Union-Tribune, Cunningham announced that he would not seek reelection. The FBI and the IRS launched an investigation, and Stern and other reporters who picked up on the story further disclosed a web of co-conspirators, ornate gifts and acts of corruption. Cunningham resigned and pleaded guilty to bribery and tax evasion in a November plea agreement. He was sentenced March 3 to eight years and four months in prison.
“Without Marc Stern's story there might not have been a Cunningham case,” says Halpern, one of the lead prosecutors, who considers Stern the “genesis of the investigation. [He] was responsible for the criminal prosecution. This is the first time in my [25-year] career I have predicated a case upon a news story.”
Copley Washington Bureau Chief George Condon says Stern's story calls attention to the importance of regional reporters at a time of staff downsizing and declining government coverage. “You can't expect national news organizations to catch a Duke Cunningham,” Condon says. “And you certainly aren't going to get stories like this from the blogs. Amid all the gloom about newspapers, a reminder like this is timely.”

No, you're not going to get the national news organizations to catch Cunningham. But Stern, the reporter, is now at a national organization—ProPublica, the nonprofit investigative news site based in New York. And his former paper is now owned by a conservative businessman who has explicitly turned the paper into a tool of his personal and political agenda. If Duke Cunningham could have just held on another few years...

Follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis