Journalistic integrity is supposed to be one of those amusing oxymorons, like military intelligence or legal ethics. But at least in San Luis Obispo County, Calif., it's a reality for the Weyrich 12.
The 12 is a group of editors, reporters and one publisher who severed ties in mid-February with the fledgling Gazette chain of hometown newspapers after the management instituted a policy of not running positive stories on homosexuals or abortion rights. The 8-month-old enterprise of five weekly publications, which are direct-mailed free to every person in the county, was founded by former billboard magnate and Paso Robles resident David Weyrich.
Weyrich and his wife, Mary, co-owner of the Gazette papers, are by all accounts conservative Catholics with deep pockets and little experience in publishing. But when Weyrich started his Gazette papers in the summer of last year, he began hiring a number of experienced reporters and editors. Their mission: to cover local "upbeat" news and avoid controversy at all costs.
"I was happy to do that as long as I could still be honest with the reporting," says Kathy Johnston, who worked as a reporter for the San Luis Obispo and Atascadero Gazettes as well as the Weyrich-owned San Luis Obispo magazine. "But when it became clear that the definition of community the publications were supposed to follow was not the definition the community has established for itself, I couldn't do that anymore."
Johnston first learned of the paper's anti-gay, anti-abortion stance when her editor at the Atascadero paper, Ron Bast, went toe-to-toe with chief operating officer Todd Hansen over a calendar listing for Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. The meeting announcement had been running since November with no complaint, until Weyrich supposedly saw the notice and gave the order that it be pulled.
"I got a note from my publisher, Steve Martin, around Valentine's Day saying he had gotten word from the Weyrichs that we were to stop running the PFLAG announcement," explains Bast, a lifelong Atascadero resident. "I pulled the item and told him we needed to talk with Hansen. Hansen has no background in news at all -- neither do the Weyrichs. I assumed they didn't know they were crossing an ethical line. I didn't know at the time there was a really strong right-wing Christian thing going on.
"Todd Hansen came down and said that the way it's going to work is that we're not going to publish anything positive about gays or abortion. If we publish negative things, that's OK."
Bast says he then engaged in a surreal tit-for-tat with Hansen about what they could and could not cover. What about an AIDS bicycle ride that brought 10,000 people through town? Hansen said no. Could the paper publish a letter from PFLAG responding to the removal of their calendar listing? Again the answer was no. Say there's a local girl who gets an illegal abortion and dies? That would be acceptable because it portrays abortion negatively.
Seeking to have Hansen moderate his position, Bast gathered up codes of ethics from various news outlets such as the Associated Press, the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times to present to Hansen. But Hansen would have none of it, according to Bast:
Hansen said, "Look, I don't care what the AP or the Washington Post does. This is our newspaper and we'll run it exactly the way we want."
So I asked, "Will you publish your stand, saying 'We're a Christian newspaper dedicated to the values of heterosexual union and pro-life'?"
And he said, "No."
I asked, "Why not?"
He said, "Because its bad for business."
That's when I decided to bail.
Bast resigned on Feb 17th, not far behind publisher Steve Martin, who had given notice two days before. A slew of other resignations followed, and there could be 13 or 14 depending upon who you ask.
Hansen, the right-wing man's right hand, so to speak, regards the mass exodus from the Gazette chain as an emotional overreaction. Speaking for his elusive boss, Hansen can't seem to figure out what the problem is.
"We've chosen not to promote abortion or the gay-and-lesbian lifestyle," says Hansen, who has worked for Weyrich for almost 9 years. "We haven't created a big deal on this. The only people who have created a big deal on this are the people that've left."
Hansen says the charge that the Gazette's employees were not told of the chain's conservative stance is false.
"I think it's been a clear understanding from Day 1 of the philosophy, it just probably wasn't understood completely."
"You gotta remember, you're talking to the people who have left," Hansen explains. "Usually the people who've left don't have a very good feeling about the place they were at. Remember the context of where it's coming from."
Along these lines, Hansen says that there's no problem with the Gazette papers covering, say, an AIDS bicycle ride, since AIDS is "society's problem." In fact the Gazette editors and reporters are free to do any story they like as long as gays and lesbians are not portrayed positively and no one contradicts the view that "abortion is murder."
In any case, the Weyrichs finally came out of the closet with their "philosophy" on Feb. 24, after many of their employees had already jumped ship because they say they hadn't been told about it. Entitled "The Truth of the Matter," the statement presents the Weyrichs as well-meaning, misunderstood folks who just happen to see homosexuality as "unnatural" and abortion as "destroying a life."
"Call us old fashioned," it says. "But it hasn't been too many years since our professed beliefs were the accepted norm in America. Society has changed to the detriment, we believe, of us as a people. Truth does not change ... we have not changed."
What has changed is the chain's stealth conservatism. Martin admits he knew certain things were off limits, but claims he had been promised that the paper would present unbiased reporting.
"Part of the policy was that ad-wise, we would not run anything of an X-rated nature," says Martin. "And I respected their decision not to make money off of that. But the first question I asked when I was approached was, 'Will there be any control exerted over the editorial content of the newspaper?' The answer was, 'No.' When that turned out not to be the case, I decided to leave."
Similarly, San Luis Obispo Mayor Allen Settle, who has written articles for the San Luis Gazette as have members of the San Luis Obispo City Council, did not originally know of the Gazette's restrictions.
"It would have been appropriate for Mr. Weyrich to have indicated that his paper was going to reflect a point of view and restrict certain groups from having any references," says Mayor Settle. "Because he hasn't done that, some 12 people have resigned, some 500 people have refused to have the paper delivered and several advertisers, plus the city, the Performing Arts Center, the Downtown Association and Chambers of Commerce, have simply withheld further advertising so as to clarify this particular policy."
Mayor Settle grants that the city was not a major advertiser for the Gazette, but that it was important that it stay neutral in matters regarding conflicts of interest or possible discrimination. Council members are free to contribute or not contribute to the Gazette as they wish, he says. But three of the four council members have indicated they will no longer write for a section called "Perspective from Palm Street." Mayor Settle states that several articles he's written have yet to be published, but that he'll hold off writing any more until the paper's policy is clearer.
The mayor finds the ideological brouhaha that has swept the county "awkward and unfortunate."
"For the most part, the individual groups that Mr. Weyrich was making reference to have a very low visibility in our community," says Settle. "Most people don't pay much attention to this subject matter. But this action has accelerated that to the front page of the local papers. Not just locally -- but also in Los Angeles and San Francisco, where they've also picked this up."
Suddenly, this mostly quiet college town, which is also the county seat, is coming under scrutiny of the national press. The New York Times published a story about the Weyrich papers Sunday. Reporters and others are calling the mayor to find out if the religious right is taking over. He says he hardly thinks that's the case, but he laments the rise of an issue he regards as a diversion from the more pragmatic issues of city government.
According to Mike Stover, a reporter for the San Luis Obispo Tribune, the largest daily newspaper in the area, the Gazette controversy has divided the county.
"The reaction's been different in different places," says Stover, who's been following the story. "In the city of San Luis Obispo, I would say it's been more critical than in what we call the North County, which includes the cities of Paso Robles and Atascadero. That area tends to be more conservative and more supportive of Mr. Weyrich's position."
Stover says there have been protests by local gay and lesbian groups on the steps of the San Luis Obispo courthouse, and that the Tribune has received a number of letters to the editor, split 50-50 for and against Weyrich's position.
Just who is David Weyrich? Stover says that before Weyrich sold his billboard company, Martin Media, for $610 million, the portly 45-year-old winery owner and developer wasn't even on the Tribune's radar screen. After the sale, Weyrich and his wife went on a spending spree, buying up millions of dollars worth of county real estate, making eye-popping contributions to area schools totaling $2 million and starting a newspaper chain.
But Weyrich, a staunch Catholic and family man with eight children, has also been active in conservative causes. The New York Times reported in August that in addition to making donations to local candidates for county supervisor and Cal Poly's Republican Club, Weyrich was part of a group of wealthy Roman Catholic businessmen who started a radio network called Catholic Family Radio.
Sort of like Rush Limbaugh for Catholics, the all-talk format features politicians such as former California Attorney General Dan Lungren and offers a conservative melange of anti-tax, anti-abortion family values. Joining Weyrich in the venture were other wealthy conservative Catholics like Thomas Monaghan, former chairman of Domino's Pizza, and Peter Lynch, former money manager of the Fidelity Magellan Fund.
John Lynch, Catholic Family Radio's chief executive (no relation to Peter Lynch), told the Times, "We are trying to stealth evangelize, as opposed to the Christian evangelicals who do hitting over the head evangelizing."
Listeners can get Catholic Family Radio in cities such as Philadelphia, Chicago, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, San Francisco and others. According to the Times, the investors' goal is to own stations in "40 of the 50 top radio markets."
Could it be that Weyrich was using that same approach in founding the Gazette chain: creating a family newspaper that would eventually proselytize along the lines of Catholic Family Radio? It's an intriguing question, especially considering the fact that Weyrich's money could make him a media mogul outside the boundaries of San Luis Obispo County.
The Weyrichs "were talking about moving beyond the county borders," claims Bast. "In fact, they bought a building in Atascadero and have ordered a multimillion-dollar printing press to do the printing. It has the capacity to do far more than five little weekly newspapers."
"It's almost like there's way more going on here than just a little county thing with one guy who's got weird ideas about how to do newspapers. It starts to get scary at some point," Bast says.