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Journalists quit in protest of newspapers’ policies

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
San Luis Obispo, Calif.

When Catholic tycoon David Weyrich decided to start community newspapers serving five California communities, he chose the motto “hometown journalism at its best.”

Now his editorial policy banning positive news about gays and pro-choice organizations has stirred up a hornet’s nest of controversy in this otherwise laid-back college town and its surrounding communities, where the weekly Gazettes have appeared in the mailboxes of 126,000 residents.

Fourteen writers and editors have resigned from Gazette papers to protest the ban on positive news about gays and pro-choice groups, as well as Weyrich’s initial refusal to acknowledge the policy in print. The San Luis Obispo City Council has withdrawn its ads from the papers, while journalism experts have labeled the policy unethical.

Weyrich, who was unavailable for comment, has vowed not to rescind the policy.

A major real estate developer, Weyrich is also an investor in Catholic Family Radio, a multi-million dollar enterprise with plans to establish a presence in every major market in the country. Touting family values as its mission, the network has stations in nine cities (NCR, Oct. 1, 1999).

The Gazettes began with a Paso Robles paper last July and expanded into nearby Atascadero and San Luis Obispo in October. First editions of The Five Cities Gazette and Beach Gazette appeared in mailboxes March 9.

According to Ron Bast, the former editor of The Atascadero Gazette, Weyrich issued an unwritten policy in late February requiring his papers to print only negative news concerning gays and abortion. “We were free to print whatever we wanted as long as it showed these issues in a bad light. Letters, articles and even community calendar items in support of gay and abortion issues were not allowed,” Bast said.

Weyrich’s wife, Mary Martin Weyrich, spoke about the controversy at a local Republican Women’s luncheon March 15. She said the couple just wanted to “raise the hometown spirit” and publish community newspapers that “your grandma and grandpa could read.”

“We’ve noticed the press has a lot of yucky things in it,” she told the group, “and David and I are committed to making a difference. We wanted this to be a nice paper, just local, with good community news. So much evil has crept into the newspapers - the high jump bar has slipped, and we need to bring it up.”

She said others have encouraged them to “use common sense” and soften the policy, but, she joked, “Dave and I have eight kids, so what do we know about common sense?”

The reporters, editors and columnists who have resigned see things differently.

At a recent meeting of the local chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays at the San Luis Obispo United Methodist Church, Bast said he and other employees were not told of the policy against positive news about gays and pro-choice organizations when they were hired.

“I specifically asked and was assured that the editorial side would be free from interference from the publishing/advertising side,” Bast said. “I was more concerned about possible conflicts that might ensue as a result of Weyrich’s development plans.”

Bast said he questioned an order to drop a Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays meeting announcement from his paper’s community calendar section and was told by publisher Steve Martin, who has also resigned, that the decision came “from on high.” Bast gathered several documents relating to journalistic ethics and met with Todd Hansen, the paper’s chief operating officer, to explain his concerns.

“Basically, I was told they had no intention of changing the policy and that they had every right to decide what to print,” Bast said. He then suggested that the Gazette publish a box on the front page explaining the policy to readers and advertisers. When that request was denied, he resigned.

“I feel the Gazette’s owners have violated the community trust. Believe me, I would be just as upset if they had a policy to exclude positive stories about Christians,” Bast said.

Experts say that as a legal matter, Weyrich can print whatever he wants. Tom Newton, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, told NCR that Weyrich has the right to control the content published in his papers.

Ethically, however, Weyrich may be on shakier ground. Fred Brown, chair of the ethics committee for the Society of Professional Journalists, told NCR that a policy against positive information about gays and pro-choice groups “is not in keeping with journalism’s most basic standard - to be objective.”

Other sections of the society’s code that Brown says the papers’ exclusionary policies violate include: to tell the diversity and magnitude of the human experience, even when it is unpopular to do so; to examine one’s own cultural values and avoid imposing them on others; to avoid stereotyping by race, gender, age, religion, ethnicity, geography, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance or social status; to support the open exchange of views, even views they find repugnant.

The only public comment from the Weyrichs came in a Feb. 24 statement published on the front page of the three Gazettes. Citing the papers’ statement of purpose - “seeking to inform, entertain, teach, improve thought and inspire achievement” - the couple defended their policy.

“This issue has everything to do with integrity and nothing to do with journalistic ethics. ... We strongly believe in the family, as God defines it, and we are strong supporters of the sanctity of life.”

“We are not against homosexuals,” the statement from David and Mary Weyrich reads. “We simply believe that lifestyle is an unnatural choice that we will not promote nor encourage. Abortion ... is not about choice, but a child’s life ... [and] we will not promote or encourage anything that takes a life.”

Hansen said the policy has resulted in hundreds of phone calls and e-mails to the newspaper offices from readers and advertisers, the vast majority supportive. He said approximately 500 readers have requested that their names be removed from the mailing list.

As for threats of lost advertising and criticism in the media, Hansen said: “We had our best week ever after this happened. [The local press] is just mad because we’re kicking their butts in terms of advertising revenue.” Hansen said he already has commitments from True Value Hardware and Longs Drugstore for advertising inserts in the Gazettes.

The San Luis Obispo City Council, acting on a recommendation from the local Human Relations Commission, has withdrawn its columns and advertising in the Gazettes.

Becky Jorgeson, local coordinator for the Parents and Friends chapter, said she and others plan to continue contacting advertisers to complain about the policy and to boycott their businesses and the Gazettes as well. She is also planning to write a letter to local church leaders to seek their support.

Hansen, however, made it clear that no change and no further discussion are in the offing. “Any time you start up a new operation, there are going to be bugs. We’re back up to full staffing now. Everyone’s clear about what we’re about, and we’re moving ahead.”

National Catholic Reporter, March 31, 2000