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Rocky relations: Rocky, newspapers at loggerheads

The day after the 2002 Olympics began, Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson called Deseret Morning News Editor John Hughes at home to complain about his newspaper's coverage — as Anderson often does to news outlets.

"I felt that their coverage had deleted the host city and its mayor. It (the phone call) wasn't about me. I wasn't calling for myself," Anderson says.

Hughes, in contrast, says, "He said he — Rocky — was chagrined at the coverage that he had gotten." He says he told Anderson, "We did have the president of the United States in town, and rightly or wrongly depending on how you see it, that's a pretty big story for us — and that was the focus of our attention."

Hughes says Anderson "went on a long rant" that included accusing the newspaper and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns it, of a conspiracy "to downplay his role and not accord him the respect and attention that he deserved," which Hughes says he told Anderson was ridiculous.

Anderson denies saying that then. But he does assert that the Morning News "is the most divisive force in the community" and that it unfairly accuses him of being anti-Mormon and twists its news coverage and uses religion to attack him and his work.

The incident is one of many battles Anderson has waged with local news media to correct what he says is sloppy reporting that hurts the city. Critics say it is bullying that seeks to improve coverage of him personally or even remove or intimidate reporters who write critical stories.

Regardless who is right, it may show that Anderson is the state's most vigorous media basher ever.

Rocky's views on press

"There's so little of the truth being told to our public either locally or nationally," Anderson says about the press, adding that it is too often "dishonest," "nasty" and "divisive."

Josh Ewing, a former communications director for Anderson, says, "He's an attorney by trade and very committed to truth to the minute detail. . . . It gets under his skin when he reads something that slants things in a way different than what he sees."

But Dave Owen, another former communications director for Anderson, who is now an outspoken critic, says, "He absolutely can't tolerate anyone who dissents from his opinion, including the media. It can be a just fairly innocuous, slight departure from the party line" that will draw his full wrath.

Anderson says, "If I see a reporter conveying less than the truth to readers, I am going to point it out. I don't do that just when it relates to me."

Rocky vs. S.L. Tribune

Such feelings led Anderson to an organized complaint campaign last year against the Salt Lake Tribune and its City Hall reporter, Heather May. (May declined comment for this story.) Anderson had Ewing compile what became a 142-page packet outlining their gripes.

Ewing said they focused on the Tribune "because it is bigger and read by more of his constituents than any other paper and was the one that had been getting under his skin the most at the time."

The packet included analysis of why the mayor's office felt 36 stories in 2002 and 2003 were wrong or misleading. It even quoted portions of the code of ethics adhered to by the Society of Professional Journalists. The analysis contended the ethics code had been violated by each story in question.

One example is a story by May saying the City Council chairman criticized Anderson for a "flip-flop" on whether to allow Nordstrom to move to The Gateway, which originally was designed to be a no-department-store zone to help protect Main Street.

The mayor's staff wrote that characterizing Anderson's position change as a flip- flop "is unfair and misleading. A flip-flop is when someone changes positions for no reason or for some dishonest motive." However, Webster's Collegiate Dictionary contains no such definition. It defines flip-flop simply as "a sudden reversal of direction or point of view."

The packet also contains seven examples of stories that it said the Tribune missed or gave short shrift. Among the examples were Deseret Morning News clips about national environmental awards won by Anderson.

Anderson's review also complained the Tribune ignored a mayor-hosted opening of an ice cream store on Main Street but the next day covered a press conference held nearby by Anderson's mayoral opponent, Frank Pignanelli, in which he charged that Anderson is doing too little to save Main Street.

Anderson says that when he took the packet and talked to Tribune editors, "They conceded that in certain instances, yes indeed, there was a serious problem. But more often than not, the then-editor (Jay Shelledy) . . . would shrug his shoulders and say nobody cares about it."

Tribune editors remember it differently. Shelledy, who has since left the Tribune, said, "I don't think Heather May was doing a bad job at all." He says he told Anderson, "I don't think people are reading this the same way as you, and I do not think you are being attacked at all. . . . When all is said and done, people won't remember that particular quote anyway."

Shelledy adds, "Rocky is a person who believes passionately in what he is doing and trying to accomplish. That is an endearing feature, but it sometimes blinds him to the virtue of objective reporting of those undertakings. Just going out and getting somebody who disagrees with what Rocky is doing for a quote is annoying" to him.

Current Tribune Editor Nancy Conway adds the Tribune made no changes in its coverage of City Hall and did not reassign May. She adds she has not heard further complaints from the mayor in a long time — although he visited her with a group of merchants who complained that coverage of downtown issues was too negative.

Anderson says he is disappointed in the Tribune's response to his complaints. "What I have seen in response, as a whole, has not been professional concern about truth and integrity. It's been a circling of the wagons and incredible defensiveness."

The Morning News filed a request under state open records laws for any files the mayor kept about other reporters or newspapers, similar to the one he developed (and provided) about the Tribune and May. He said he has no similar files on others.

Rocky vs. City Weekly

City Weekly, a free alternative newspaper, was the first to publicly report about the file Anderson developed on the Tribune and May — and it helped diminish what had been generally friendly relations between itself and the mayor. Anderson was a lawyer for that newspaper before he became a politician.

Anderson says about its coverage of the report on May, "The City Weekly, in characteristic fashion, termed it a dossier, which it was not. It was simply an analysis."

He adds, "I was frankly surprised at City Weekly. It used to pride itself as sort of taking on the establishment and particularly the mainstream media. All of a sudden, it uncritically came to the defense of the Salt Lake Tribune and its reporter rather than taking a look at the merits of what we had to say because we gathered some very serious questions."

John Saltas, founder of City Weekly and its executive editor, says when it runs stories critical of Anderson, the mayor has complained to him, "Why does so-and-so hate me? I am trying to do a great thing, and you are undermining my work."

He adds, "Conversely, whenever you are writing good things about him, you are on his Christmas Card A-list." Saltas says he and his newspaper praise Anderson when he deserves it and criticize him when merited — and Saltas criticized Anderson in columns several times in recent months for such things as crossing a picket line at a mayors' convention.

That prompted Anderson to say, "John Saltas, for some reason, in his columns the last few months seems to have some bone to pick with me, which really bothers me since I consider him to be a good friend of many years. . . . I think he's probably hanging out with the likes of (Anderson critic) Dave Owen or something. I like Saltas a lot. I feel very badly."

Saltas responded, "My opinions aren't shaped by Dave Owen or anyone," and he said that was a cheap shot. "You still have to print what you feel, friendships aside. We're reporters and opinionmakers. If he does something objectionable, we have to comment on it."

Rocky vs. TV news?

While Anderson often calls newspapers to complain, he says, "I think all the TV folks do a really good job." He says he has never called them to complain. Then he adds with a laugh, "Of course, I don't watch TV, which may be part of it, and I do read our newspapers."

News directors at local TV stations generally back up Anderson. Con Psarras at KSL-TV remembers only one complaint call from the mayor over the past four years. Steve Chalier at KUTV remembers only one call in the past three years. News directors at Fox 13 and ABC 4 say they do not remember any complaint calls from the mayor.

Ewing, Anderson's former communications director, said Anderson complains less to TV stations for two reasons:

"A.) He reads the newspapers. B.) They have a mechanism for correction," Ewing says. "In a 30-second TV report, there's a little less time to make technical errors. So he's a little more forgiving. He knows they have to generalize."

Rocky vs. Morning News

Anderson reserves his most scathing criticism for the Deseret Morning News. He not only accuses it of sloppy reporting but also of manipulating letters to the editor and columns against him — and using religion to divide the community and attack him.

First, as an example of his assertions of sloppy reporting, Anderson even cut off all communications for a time this year with Morning News City Hall reporter Brady Snyder — asserting he made errors too often.

Anderson points to a story that raised questions about whether his use of city e-mail for campaign purposes was legal. The story said the e-mails raised the eyebrows of City Council Chairwoman Jill Remington Love and said she instructed her staff to look into what is allowable. Anderson said Love called him to say she had been misquoted.

"She called me and said, 'I have had it with Brady.' It was the day she was going in for a C-section. . . . I said let's talk about this after you have had your baby." But Anderson sent word to Snyder that he would no longer talk to him until he ran a correction and apologized for the story.

Snyder wrote a follow story about how the mayor himself asked the district attorney to investigate whether action should be taken against him for use of city e-mail for campaign purposes. It mentioned the mayor refused to talk to him unless he apologized for the earlier story — and said that Love says "she was not misquoted in the article."

Love said she doesn't think she used quite the words that Anderson says, but, "I initiated the call to the mayor that morning. I felt that my comments had been unfairly characterized. What Brady had in quote marks was accurate. . . . But people I talked to that morning thought that we were somehow investigating the mayor. That was a mischaracterization. My request was to see what the law is. We as a council wanted to know that for our own needs."

Anderson and Snyder eventually had a meeting to clear the air, and Anderson is again talking to Snyder. Hughes says Snyder has done a good job covering Anderson and that he will not remove him from the City Hall beat. He said Anderson has complained at various times about all Deseret News reporters who covered that beat.

Letters to the editor

Anderson complains even more vigorously about the Morning News opinion pages. He charges that the paper manipulates which letters to the editors it publishes to make it appear that more people disagree with him than really do — and says it allows charges to be published that it knows are false, or that it should question.

Anderson says, "Given the discretion that the 'letters to the editors' editor has about what is printed and what isn't, I find it really shameful that the Deseret News has published letters that added nothing to the public dialogue but that were incredibly cruel."

Editorial page editor Jay Evensen says, "Part of the purpose of a letters to the editorial page is to have a free flow of ideas" — so he runs letters of all types and viewpoints. In that free-for-all — including some from people who say radical things — he says readers can sift and find the truth.

He says an overwhelming ratio of letters about the mayor that the News receives criticize him. He said the newspaper actually publishes a higher ratio of positive letters about Anderson than it receives.

Anderson says he doubts that. He notes that when a letter writer said she supported Anderson's opponent because "he is married and has a wife and a family," Anderson's son, Lucas, wrote a letter to the editor. It said his dad "is the best father any son could have," even though he is divorced. Lucas had hoped it would be a surprise to his father when it ran.

"It never ran," the mayor complains. When his son told him about it later, he wrote the Morning News to ask what happened.

Jerry Johnston, who handles letters to the editor, wrote back saying the newspaper runs few letters from out-of-state writers about local politics. He was busy, saw that it was from New York (where Lucas Anderson is attending college) and discarded it. Johnston apologized to the mayor, writing, "If I'd taken a few minutes to realize who had written it, I certainly would have put it on the pages."

Anderson asked that the letter run even belatedly. But Johnston says it did not, in part because it was then so much later than when the original critical letter ran — and in part because it was meant by his son as a surprise birthday present for Anderson.

"By then his birthday was past. And we're not Hallmark for birthday greetings, we're a newspaper," Johnston says.

Anderson blasted such moves in a letter to Evensen, writing, "Heaven forbid I should disagree — because you will no doubt have the last word as you devote huge amounts of ink misrepresenting in the most fundamental ways who I am — sometimes in the most vile, slanderous ways — to your readers."

Evensen says his editorial page sometimes praises Anderson when deserved, and criticizes him when warranted. He says he also allows Anderson to speak his mind on that page, even when Evensen strongly disagrees with him — such as when Anderson wrote a guest column saying the Morning News "is the greatest instrument of divisiveness in this community, constantly driving a wedge between members of the LDS Church and those who are not members."

Religion as a wedge?

Anderson's most serious attack on the Morning News is that it and its parent LDS Church use religion to divide the community and to attack the mayor.

News editors strongly disagree and say the mayor is the one who has utilized religious divisions for political gain — such as when he accused City Council members who voted against allowing Nordstrom to move of doing so because they are LDS.

One incident illustrating the contention arose when Anderson met with the Morning News editorial board.

Anderson's version is, "I rather flippantly said I'd like to get rid of smoking everywhere. . . . I didn't say I was going to be proposing a new policy to get rid of smoking everywhere in the city."

News Editor Hughes says, "Absolute lie." He adds that the mayor said his proposal for a total smoking ban was serious. "He was asked again in the meeting, and again by Brady (Snyder) after the meeting: Are you serious? He said yes."

Anderson traveled to India shortly afterward, but Hughes said Anderson's press aide continued to insist to the newspaper that the proposal was serious. So the newspaper did a story.

Anderson says that when he returned from abroad, "I was just astounded that in my absence they would do these articles saying I wanted to get rid of it (smoking) on city streets, parks, everywhere."

Hughes says, "He came back and realized he wasn't going to go anywhere with it politically." He says when Anderson was asked about the ban by a broadcast reporter, he denied making the proposal and said " 'the Deseret News always gets it wrong, and they lied about that.' He's absolutely dead wrong about that, and we've got the tape."

Anderson, however, said that was among attempts by the newspaper to drive a wedge between him and faithful LDS Church members (who do not smoke).

Anderson says the perception he is anti-Mormon wounds him. "Anyone who knows me knows that I grew up LDS, that I come from a long and proud tradition of LDS families."

Does he consider himself LDS now? "I don't consider myself anything, although my name's still on the (LDS) records." He noted that the late LDS apostle Neal A. Maxwell told him after he was elected that he had looked up those records. "He smiled at me and said, 'You're still a member — but I won't blow your cover.' I loved Elder Maxwell."

Anderson says another instance when the News and church fueled the perception he was anti-Mormon came on the controversy over whether to allow Nordstrom to move from downtown to The Gateway.

"I was staying very firm about keeping Nordstrom in the historic Main Street area of downtown. Church officials came to me and said, 'Stick to your guns on this,' " Anderson says. But he says the church-owned newspaper, meanwhile, ran several "mean and personally nasty" editorials and columns attacking that.

He said he raised that with church officials. "They said it won't happen again," he says, adding that it did anyway.

"After the other editorial came out, I was actually invited to meet with the (LDS) First Presidency. And President (Gordon B.) Hinckley apologized. He said he didn't know how that happened over there, and they wanted to make sure it never happened again. Well, it did happen again," he says.

(LDS Church spokesman Dale Bills says the church declines comment on that meeting and about its relationship with the Morning News.)

When the LDS Church bought the mall where Nordstrom was located, Anderson said the Deseret Morning News then took his old position that Nordstrom should stay. But Anderson said he was then convinced by new data that Nordstrom should be allowed to move. "And then the imputation was, well, I changed my position because now the church had bought the Crossroads Mall," saying he was being accused of being anti-Mormon.

Anderson insists that the Morning News opinion pages take marching orders from the church, at least, "they used to — until the lawsuit" by former owners of the Tribune contending the News conspired with the Tribune's new owners in the takeover of that newspaper.

Hughes, who is the first non-Mormon to become Morning News editor, said, "I have never by any church official been asked to run a story, not run a story or skew a story."

However, he said in his early years, the editorial editors would fax over to the church offices copies of its house editorials — but said he received few comments on them. "It's absolutely true that at some stage during the legal fracas, we got word from over there: 'Don't bother to send the editorials over.' So for several years, the editorials have not gone over. There has been no interference on the news side," Hughes said.

Final analysis

Richard Davis, a political science professor at Brigham Young University who has a research specialty in media and politics, says it is unusual — but not unique — for a local politician to have a relationship as combative with the press as does Anderson.

"What's the old saying, never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel?" he says. He adds that the vast majority of the nation's local politicians follow that rule, at least usually.

"It is true that there are other examples of mayors who have tumultuous relationships with local press. Ed Koch, the former mayor of New York, was sort of like Rocky. Everything was personal, and he had a pretty thin skin and was not willing to take criticism from press — and was quite willing to tell them," Davis says.

He adds, "Most politicians expect to get some bad reporting to some extent. If the mayor is trying to correct all of these all the time, it is more than just correction. It is clearly seeking a spin that is positive in his direction."

But Deeda Seed, Anderson's current communications director, sees Anderson's fights with the press as a result of passionate people acting with vigor.

"When people are passionate about their work, it shows. John Hughes is passionate about putting out a good newspaper. Rocky is passionate about having a good city. When those two things come in conflict, there is a great clash," she says.

Diane Urbani, who covered Anderson for the Morning News but now works in Tacoma, Wash., says, "The thing is, Rocky likes all the media attention. He just wants to control it." She adds, "Rocky has that messianic zeal — not just for remaking the culture of Salt Lake City, but also for showing everybody in Utah his idea of enlightened leadership."

Trouble is, the media often see their job as looking critically at him, his zeal and his work. So the mayor continually returns the favor.


E-mail: lee@desnews.com