Journalists Quit in Protest of Newspapers' Policies
Johnston, Rosemary, National Catholic Reporter
Catholic owner bans positive coverage of gays, abortion rights
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 The San Luis Obispo City Council has withdrawn its ads from the papers, while journalism experts have labeled the policy unethical.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. …