Bee transparent: Why is this city's daily paper being so quiet about recent firings?

Newspaper folks like to talk about the importance of openness and transparency in powerful institutions. They don’t always like to walk the talk when it comes to their own organizations.

When Bites heard another half-dozen people had been laid off at The Sacramento Bee last month, it seemed reasonable to call the Bee’s communications shop to ask what was up. The Bee has generally answered at least basic questions about layoffs in the past, and even run their own stories about cuts. This time, however, silence.

No comment,” said spokesperson Pam Dinsmore. Then, realizing that was a ridiculous thing for a spokesperson at a newspaper to say, she came back with with, “Like any businesses in our community, our workforce changes from time to time. We share that with our readers when it is significant.”

Bites imagines each job lost is significant to somebody. Some are pretty significant to the Bee’s readers, too. For example, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Tom Knudson is among the Bee’s recently departed. Knudson had been working out of the Tahoe area, where he lives. He told media watcher Jim Romenesko that “after more than two decades of in-depth, prize-winning reporting from the field, they wanted me to return to the newsroom to focus more narrowly on environmental news in and around Sacramento—and generate a lot more of it. I declined.”

Knudson was listed in the Bee staff box as part of the investigations team, and he had only a handful of stories appear in the Bee over the past year. Another member of the investigations team writes only about the Bay Bridge. Was the Bee trying to get more investigative bang for its buck? Is there an investigative team anymore? Dinsmore wouldn’t say, other than, “We did give [Knudson] the opportunity to continue his work in Sacramento.”

More mysterious is the departure of the Bee editorial writer Pia Lopez. On August 6, publisher Cheryl Dell told readers the Bee had “parted ways” with Lopez because of activities related to her husband Jim Read’s Congressional campaign. Earlier this year, Read made an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination to take on Michele Bachmann in Minnesota (Lopez came to Sacramento from a similar job in Duluth, Minn.). Lopez took a leave of absence in the spring to help with her husband’s campaign, and in May she returned to work.

But according to publisher Dell, Lopez inappropriately used her Bee email account to discuss her husband’s campaign before she went on leave. “She also failed to notify her supervisor of potential conflicts of interest between topics addressed by the [editorial] board and campaigns donations and support in here Sacramento area,” Dell wrote.

The firing came months after the fact. But Dell’s note makes it sound serious, and potentially damaging to Lopez’s reputation. Whatever happened, it was bad enough that Lopez got fired for it.

What really did happen? Dell’s note is actually quite vague. Lopez didn’t respond to Bites’ request for an interview. One of her friends, retired Sacramento State communications professor Barbara O’Connor, says Lopez was careful and conscientious about potential conflicts. Everything she did related to the Read campaign—including the leave of absence and attending a Sacramento fundraiser for Read’s campaign—was approved by her bosses at the Bee.

“I don’t think she ever perceived herself as doing anything unethical,” O’Connor said, adding that she believes there was no real conflict of interest. At worst, it was the appearance of one. “There were many options besides firing,” she added.

Political ethics is one of the running themes of this column. Journalists should be held accountable, just like politicians. Lopez certainly paid a price for her mistakes, whatever they were. But is the Bee truly being accountable to readers?

“The Bee did not alter its editorial positions during this period,” Dell wrote. “But appearances matter, as does any public perception that the favor of the editorial board depended on political contributions to Read’s Minnesota race. It did not, and we apologize if anyone felt otherwise.”

Did someone feel there was such favoritism? Was there really a conflict of interest or not? Did Lopez actually try to get away with something or not?

In the past, when serious and embarrassing ethical lapses have occurred at the Bee—when reporters have plagiarized or even made up stories—the paper has named names and laid out the facts. Here, they’ve named the names but kept the facts to themselves.

If Lopez really crossed some line, the Bee ought to tell readers what happened. If she merely made a mistake, if this is all about appearances and potential conflicts of interest, the Bee should be clear about that, too. Neither explanation would be any more damaging—to Lopez’s reputation or the Bee’s credibility—than Dell’s murky note from August 6. Appearances do matter, and something here doesn’t look right.