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Dissenting voices help make papers strong

December 12, 2004|David Shaw

For 13 years, James Goldsborough was a popular, at times controversial columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Liberal readers in particular found his columns attacking President Bush, especially over the war in Iraq, a provocative and comforting antidote to the steadfastly Republican perspective of the paper's editorial page.

But Friday was Goldsborough's last day at the Union-Tribune.

Last month, David Copley -- the publisher of the paper and the president and chairman of its parent company, Copley Press Inc. -- killed one of Goldsborough's columns, and Goldsborough says he felt he had no choice but to resign in protest. The incident has triggered heated debate in San Diego media circles.

Goldsborough's columns appeared twice a week on the editorial and/or Op-Ed pages. The spiked column consisted largely of a pre-election, dinner-table exchange between Goldsborough and an old friend -- a professor of political economy -- about whether significant numbers of Jews would vote for President Bush in the Nov. 2 election.

Goldsborough's friend, a Jew, essentially argued, "It's impossible Jews could ever vote for Bush." Goldsborough disagreed but -- writing his column after the election -- he noted that the Jewish vote ran 74% for John Kerry to 25% for Bush, compared with 79% for Al Gore to 19% for Bush in 2000.

"Bush's pandering, his Iraq war and complete abandonment of ten years of progress toward Middle East peace picked up some Jewish votes for him," Goldsborough wrote. "But if my friend ... is right, the strong Jewish vote for Kerry indicates a hunger among them not just for peace and justice in the Middle East but for the same thing at home."

According to Harold Fuson, vice president and chief legal officer for Copley Press, the publisher killed that column because he thought it might offend some in the Jewish community.

I'm Jewish. I read the column, and I was not the least bit offended. Nor were many San Diego Jews who e-mailed Goldsborough their support and/or signed on to a local website,, which posted the spiked column.

But some members of the Jewish community had been very critical of some of Goldsborough's previous columns on Mideast issues, and Copley may have been reluctant to risk offending them anew.

Goldsborough thinks there's more to it than that. He says Copley had been "upset for a long time about a lot of my anti-Bush columns, and this was payback," part of what Goldsborough calls a broader effort to rid the paper of "independent, anti-establishment, moderate and liberal views."

He cited the relatively recent departures -- one voluntary, one not -- of two longtime Union-Tribune colleagues as evidence of that "purge." I spoke with both men, and while they agreed with Goldsborough, I didn't find any of their arguments terribly persuasive. And Fuson, whom I know from his days many years ago as an in-house counsel at The Times, denied the charge and told me the paper is "actively looking for someone to fill Jim's spot" on the ideological spectrum.

Besides, Copley didn't fire Goldsborough. Goldsborough quit. And when Goldsborough e-mailed Copley to tell him he'd quit, the publisher e-mailed back to urge him to reconsider, Goldsborough says. "He said we'd disagreed in the past and gotten beyond those disagreements and we could get beyond this too," Goldsborough told me.

Goldsborough didn't think that was possible.

"I've never had a column killed before," he said. "You don't do that without discussing it. I couldn't continue as a columnist, worrying every time about what I would have to do to get my column past David Copley."

Copley's not talking

What does Copley have to say about all this? I don't know. When I called his office, his secretary asked what I was calling about, and when I told her, she said Copley was on medical leave and wouldn't respond to my questions.

He has had serious health problems this year, but they did not keep him from reading and killing Goldsborough's column, and I thought I could avoid taxing him too greatly with my questions. No chance, she said.

I also tried to reach Karin Winner, the editor of the Union-Tribune and the person who both showed Goldsborough's column to Copley and then told Goldsborough of Copley's rejection. But she didn't return my phone calls.

Fuson, however, said he'd spoken with Copley -- whose health seems to fluctuate depending on who wants to talk to him -- and he was happy to defend him and, on his behalf, to reject Goldsborough's theory of why his column had been killed.

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