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Actions, Not Words

Observer publisher flap continues

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It's highly controversial, and people all over the county are talking about it.

But don't look for the Charlotte Observer to get around to covering it before the November election. The buzz I'm referring to has to do with the ongoing brawl between Observer publisher Ann Caulkins and mass transit tax detractors.

As I reported a few weeks ago, when Caulkins isn't overseeing the operation of the paper, she's knee-deep in the campaigns against the repeal of the half-cent sales tax for mass transit and for the school bond package, both of which will be voted on Nov. 6. So knee-deep, in fact, that one might wonder where the Observer ends and the campaigns for both issues begin.

Caulkins sits on the boards of directors of the Charlotte Center City Partners and the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce. On Aug. 23, Caulkins voted with the rest of the Charlotte Center City Partners board for a resolution against the repeal of the half-cent sales tax. Caulkins is also a director at the Chamber, which is currently running high-dollar campaigns in favor of the bonds and against the repeal of the transit tax.

In an initial e-mail exchange a few weeks ago on which most of Charlotte's reporters and politicos were copied, Caulkins, the top boss at the Observer, the woman to whom the paper's editor answers, assured her critics that despite appearances, the paper is in no way biased on those topics.

Then last week, Gary B. Pruitt, the CEO of The McClatchy Company, which owns the Observer, weighed in on the debate. In a preachy letter to Charlotte attorney Tom Ashcraft and copied to Caulkins and e-mailed to half the free world, Pruitt declined to directly address Caulkins' extra-curricular activities or the debate surrounding them. Instead, he assured readers that the Observer's coverage is "independent, fair and accurate" and that the paper has a "well-deserved reputation for integrity and independence."

Then, in a telling twist a paragraph later, Pruitt wrote that he expected the paper's deliberations on these issues to "play out in accordance with the paper's tradition of evenhanded advocacy in the public interest."

Evenhanded advocacy? Is that an oxymoron? How can a newspaper be "independent, fair and accurate" while engaging in "evenhanded advocacy"? How are readers supposed to feel about "evenhanded advocacy" that involves Caulkins actively supporting the causes her paper then claims to cover "independently"?

Pruitt didn't say. But the ongoing controversy has been a hot topic around Charlotte. The subject has lit up the lines on talk radio, been blogged about and it has been covered by at least three news outlets. So far though, the Observer won't budge. As far as the folks over there are concerned, this just isn't newsworthy.

But as I've pointed out before, the intimate details of the lives and motives of others involved in the effort to repeal the tax apparently are.

Earlier this year, the paper targeted transit tax opponent Jay Morrison for contributing half the cost of the tax repeal petition signature campaign. Morrison got the equivalent of a full rectal exam from the Observer, which photographed him in front of his home and detailed his sordid credit history on the front page. The paper trashed mass transit tax opponents for hiring an out-of-town firm to collect signatures, but so far has only briefly mentioned that the consultants running the Chamber's campaign to keep the tax are from out of town. And who is funding the school bond campaign? Probably the usual cabal of banks and developers who stand to profit from school construction. So far though, the paper has shown zero intellectual curiosity about the sources of the funds for the pro-bond or pro-transit campaigns. Sure, those campaigns don't have to report their sources until just before the election. But transit tax opposition doesn't have to report the sources of their funds by law either, and the paper has obsessed over where that money came from.

The creepy, drink-the-Kool-Aid, Chamberesque advocacy of which Pruitt speaks has long been a part of the paper, but it has taken a more vicious, campaign-like edge under Caulkins' leadership.

Take mayoral candidate Beverly Earle, for instance. It is well known in political circles that while Earle has been useful in the past to the Chamber crowd Caulkins runs with, the hit is out on Earle because she isn't an insider and thus can't be allowed to be elected mayor. The paper hadn't spent more than 1,000 words total introducing Earle to readers before it began an assassination campaign eerily similar to the one conducted on Morrison. Where does Earle stand on the issues? The paper has printed very little. What has she been doing for the last decade in the legislature? Apparently that's not important. Her financial past? That has been smeared across the paper's pages and is already being mocked in cartoons on its editorial pages.

If the paper applied this level of scrutiny across the board to other campaigns and candidates, not just those the hit squad at the Chamber has it out for, I'd be sitting in the paper's cheering section. Instead, we're apparently supposed to read what the paper says and ignore what its leaders do.

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