KPBS and other news outlets “kind of dropped the ball” in their election coverage of a “far right-wing candidate” for Superior Court judge, its top news executive said Wednesday night.
“It’s no excuse,” said Mark Sauer, senior news editor of San Diego’s public broadcasting station. “We won’t let that happen again.”
Sauer told the La Mesa-Foothills Democratic Club that Gary Kreep, elected judge in June, deserved more media scrutiny.
Sauer admitted “failure” in KPBS not telling its radio and TV audiences (and website readers) about Kreep’s background, which included representing the birther movement as it challenged President Obama’s U.S. citizenship.
The San Diego County Bar Association gave Kreep, a Ramona lawyer, its lowest rating—“lacking qualifications,” Sauer noted.
Kreep defeated deputy district attorney Garland Peed 50 percent to 49.6 percent for judge office 34—winning by 1,739 votes out of 407,209 cast.
As the featured speaker at the club’s holiday potluck meeting at the La Mesa Community Center, Sauer told about KPBS—showing a 2-minute video—and charted the decline of the newspaper now called U-T San Diego.
“We’re really the only radio news in San Diego,” said Sauer, who came to KPBS in 2010 after taking a buyout from the U-T, where he had been an award-winning reporter for 27 years.
But despite what he depicted as lackluster coverage of the June primary election, KPBS did much better in November—deftly working around the presidential concession and victory speeches and staying on the air a half-hour longer than scheduled, he said.
At the U-T, Sauer teamed with reporter John Wilkens to reveal flaws in the Escondido Police Department’s probe of the Stephanie Crowe murder and the district attorney’s case. This led to her brother and two friends being freed after being charged in the 12-year-old’s 1998 slaying.
Sauer also covered the case of Dale Akiki, wrongly accused in the early 1990s of “ritual sexual abuse” involving preschool children at Faith Chapel in Spring Valley. After being jailed for 30 months, Akiki was acquitted in 1993 after the longest trial in San Diego County history.
Sauer noted that the U-T newsroom boasted 285 people at its peak about seven years ago. Today, he said, he’d be surprised if 80 worked in the newsroom.
“The revenue model for newspapers is broken,” he told an audience of more than 100. “I don’t see that enterprise coming back.”
As a result of the “terrible loss” of many respected reporters such as environmental writer Mike Lee—now a “flak for the Water Authority”—the U-T can’t do the kind of reporting necessary to keep readers informed on democratic institutions, he said.
He said the U-T under current publisher Doug Manchester probably wouldn’t expose the kind of bribery case that led to Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham being convicted—which won the paper a Pulitzer Prize.
Sauer said he hasn’t watched U-T TV for more than 10 minutes at a time, and “they’re not doing an objective newscast.”
KPBS—with an audience of 350,000 a day—has a half-dozen reporters who do investigations, Sauer said, and also teams with Investigative News Source run by former U-T editor Lorie Hearn.
But “we don’t do nearly enough,” he said, calling broadcast news coverage “a mile wide and an inch deep.”
Replying to an audience question, Sauer expressed surprise about Mitt Romney’s debate remark that he’d end federal subsidies for public broadcasting and effectively kill Big Bird.
“I’m not a political consultant,” Sauer said, “but I can’t imagine why he’d say that.”
As one of the “flagship stations” of public broadcasting, KPBS gets only 9 percent of its funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, he said. Local donors and sponsors make up much of the rest.
But many other stations, especially in rural America, would close without federal aid, he said, and that would lead to much higher costs at KPBS for shows produced outside San Diego.
That prompted former club president Larry Howe to urge the room of mostly middle-aged and older Democrats to become members of KPBS.
Donate to the SDSU-based stations, Howe said, “to scare the living hell out of the right.”