The Voice of San Diego is the cleanest play I have ever participated in. Pure news reporting. No sponsor, no advertising, no boardmembers who want to dictate anything to anybody.
— Neil Morgan, senior editor, columnist, and boardmember, Voice of San Diego
When the Voice of San Diego (www.voiceofsandiego.org), a daily online newspaper, was launched in February, many local news junkies believed it would provide a balance to the Union-Tribune's reporting, which some critics contend has been influenced by heavy-handed editorial oversight. But the recent dismissal of an education columnist at the behest of the Voice's board chairman and major underwriter, Buzz Woolley, has raised questions about how independent the Voice really is.
Les "Topper" Birdsall, described by the Voice as "an education expert who has been involved in federal, state and local (district and school) improvement initiatives for 40 years," was informed on October 26 that his weekly education columns were no longer desired:
We have decided to seek and feature other columnists in an attempt to broaden our content and audience. While you are welcome to submit occasional items to Voice, they will be published on a case-by-case basis. Voice will no longer run your column every Monday. Thank you for your efforts on Voice's behalf.
- Glenn Rabinowitz
- Editor in Chief
- Voice of San Diego
Birdsall says he suspects that he rubbed the Voice's wealthy underwriter the wrong way. Woolley has long had an interest in education, donating, through his Girard Foundation, several hundred thousand dollars annually to reform-based education programs. Woolley confirms that he wanted Birdsall out, saying his columns demonstrated a "lack of understanding of education issues."
"There is too much woolly-headed thinking at the Voice of San Diego," quips Steve Erie, professor of political science and director of the Urban Studies and Planning Program at UC San Diego. Erie has known Birdsall for almost four decades and calls him "one of the top educational consultants and advisors in California." Erie and Birdsall went to graduate school together. "Les's writing ratcheted up the quality of the education debate in San Diego," says Erie. Woolley's role in axing Birdsall demonstrates that "San Diego's disease is small-town, small-minded hypocrisy."
The Voice of San Diego, unlike news outlets owned by corporations or individuals, is a nonprofit, tax-exempt corporation. It is precluded from political advocacy or endorsing candidates or ballot measures.
Woolley founded the Voice, he says, because "this town has had relatively little competition in news and breadth of opinion, especially in investigative views." After Neil Morgan left the Union-Tribune in April 2004, he recalls that Woolley mentioned his concerns about local journalism, saying the "old U-T doomed San Diego to a provincial status." The Voice website says that "the impelling need for more insightful and honest news and information in San Diego inspired Buzz to provide startup funding for Voice of San Diego and to enlist the help of Neil Morgan and the rest of the team." The start-up funding, according to Woolley, was "slightly less than" $400,000.
Working out of shabby offices on the fringes of downtown, the Voice's handful of twentysomething reporters have supplied remarkably in-depth coverage of city hall. While the Voice has a few salaried employees, Woolley says most of its contributing columnists, including Birdsall, are unpaid.
Is Birdsall qualified to write about education issues? The Los Angeles Times has printed his commentary on education five times, most recently in 2001. Four of those articles ran on the front page of the paper's Sunday opinion section.
Erie says that Birdsall is "nationally known" in education reform circles. Birdsall, who's 66 and was nicknamed "Topper" as an infant after ventriloquist Edgar Bergen gave his father a Charlie McCarthy (Bergen's dummy) top hat that fit the baby perfectly, first got involved in California education issues when he advocated for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. His four decades of work in education were capped by serving as an advisor to Genethia Hudley-Hayes, boardmember of the Los Angeles Unified School District from 1998 to 2002. According to his résumé, Birdsall has lectured on education issues at UCSD, UCLA, UC Davis, Stanford, and UC Berkeley. He moved to San Diego in 2004. Erie notes that Birdsall, who has worked in more than 100 schools aiding principals, faculty, and parents, also "ran a prep school [Westside Preparatory School] for disadvantaged kids in Los Angeles."
Birdsall began writing for the Voice of San Diego not long after it was established. He says he approached its first editor in chief, Barbara Bry, sending her "a series of columns" and asking if she would be interested in his contributing regularly. "We would love to run your stuff," he says she told him.
But Birdsall soon started to receive questions, such as whether he was "for or against [Alan] Bersin." Birdsall says he replied, "I am neither for nor against him, although I think he was very committed to reform but was not successful." Bersin was the controversial superintendent of San Diego City Schools until July, when he left to become Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's education secretary.
Birdsall wrote three stories for the Voice in February. But when he submitted a piece on charter schools, it was rejected. "Barbara said she did not want me to write about charter schools" because Voice education columnist Marsha Sutton already did.
At that point, Birdsall stopped writing for the Voice. But in July, he offered Bry a scoop on San Diego Unified's new superintendent. Birdsall said he figured out that it would be Carl Cohn by process of elimination and by "talking to other superintendents" he knows. His July 22 article announced Cohn's hiring before any other news organization reported it.
At the beginning of August, former San Bernardino Sun editor Glenn Rabinowitz replaced Bry as the editor in chief, and later that month the Voice published a follow-up article by Birdsall on Cohn. Rabinowitz invited Birdsall to his office to talk about writing more columns. On the day they met, September 8, Birdsall witnessed an incident that presaged his own experience. "Glenn gets a phone call -- I think it was from Woolley -- and gets his ass reamed for 25 minutes about a column which ran that day criticizing President Bush," Birdsall said. "Glenn was defending his columnist, but it was clear there was an inverse power relationship."
The day they met, the Voice ran two columns critical of President Bush. Woolley confirms that he called Rabinowitz about the anti-Bush columns but said, "Glenn and I talked about that some of the columnists write more about national affairs, and we are not a national-affairs site." A review of the Voice archives shows it has run pieces by other columnists discussing national politics and even one on Middle East peace issues.
Once Woolley finished bending Rabinowitz's ear, Rabinowitz, according to Birdsall, "offered for me to write a weekly column. After what I had just heard," Birdsall had some concerns. But he said Rabinowitz told him, "You write what you want to write about."
Birdsall's first Monday column appeared on September 12. On September 19, he penned "The School Board: An Eight Month Status Report," an article mildly critical of the Bersin era.
The next day Rabinowitz sent Birdsall this e-mail:
I've gotten some inquiries regarding your qualifications. While I am confident you know what you are writing about, your tagline is really vague. Could you send me a resume or a bio outlining your experience in education?
Birdsall believes that the column probably "sent a shot across the Buzz, et al., bow" and probably led to Woolley and Bersin's supporters saying "he's not one of us. I did not intend it," said Birdsall. "I was just writing as honestly as I could."
Birdsall sent Rabinowitz his lengthy résumé and continued to write his weekly column.
The story that was apparently the last straw for Woolley, "Voters Face Two State Education Ballot Propositions in November Election," was published on October 24. The article bashed California ballot propositions 74 and 76, the two "education reform" measures sponsored by Schwarzenegger. The column also criticized the governor:
"When Californians elected Arnold Schwarzenegger they assumed he shared their hopes and fears. For decades voters identified improved school performance as their top public policy priority. Candidate Schwarzenegger intimated his agreement but Gov. Schwarzenegger ignored the issue."
Three days later, the Voice published two stories written by supporters of Props 74 and 76. But running a response to Birdsall's views was apparently not enough for Woolley. He says he discussed the columnist with Rabinowitz, and Rabinowitz cashiered Birdsall. "I personally spoke to Glenn," said Woolley. Birdsall's articles were "so far below the quality of the other writers. We will have people with a heck of a lot more knowledge." Woolley said he had received "numerous complaints from many education experts" criticizing the "quality and accuracy" of Birdsall's columns. He said the callers told him "how poorly and inaccurately they are written." When asked for names of individuals who could be contacted about their concerns about Birdsall, Woolley said that they would "want to remain anonymous." (Rabinowitz did not respond to requests for comment for this article.)
"I wrote political analysis that did not adhere to the Bersin line," says Birdsall. "The editorial news sources in this town, with only a few exceptions, carried the Bersin line even when it was suspect." Birdsall believes that Woolley's wealth is also a factor in the criticism.
"People who have been wealthy a long time, they are used to people kissing their ass," says Birdsall. "I assume that he [Woolley] has very good motives but that he just assumes his motives and opinions are pure and he's offended by ideas that are different."
When Neil Morgan, a senior editor at the Voice, was asked the reason the Voice had stopped running Birdsall's column, he said, "I think that was a board decision which indicated his quality was not holding up." But Morgan declined to comment on the "quality of a fellow columnist." Besides Morgan and Woolley, the board includes veteran journalist Bob Page and longtime public relations guru Gail Stoorza-Gill.
Was Birdsall's work discussed at a board meeting? "I am not aware of it," Morgan admitted, indicating that his senior-editor title does not mean he has had hands-on involvement with the Voice's content or columnists. "I've had very little input on such things."
UCSD's Erie, who has praised the political reporters of the young online paper, now refers to it as "the not-so-independent Voice of San Diego." Erie said he and another Voice contributor, UC Irvine professor Mike Davis, plan to "resign in protest" over the Birdsall incident.
Will the Voice fulfill its promise of being a venue for a diversity of views, or will the political views of its financial backer dampen this goal? Says Morgan, "We do better when others don't tell us what not to write."