Will Kyle Palmer Ride Again in San Diego?

“[Kyle] Palmer was nothing if not consistent. He had been the kingmaker of Republican politics in California since the 1930s. Short, cynical, curly haired, bow tied, and pushing sixty in 1950, he was known by friends and enemies alike as Mr. Republican or the Little Governor. When candidates came by… to pay him a visit, it was known as 'going to kiss Kyle’s ring.’ He felt that telling candidates what to do was improper, but he expected them to follow his 'advice.’ Asked what happened when they didn’t, he replied, 'they got into trouble… political trouble.’ Palmer once advised Richard Nixon to smile when he clobbered an opponent—and apparently Nixon took the instruction to heart.”

So writes Greg Mitchell in his fine book Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady: Richard Nixon vs Helen Gahagan Douglas—Sexual Politics and the Red Scare, 1950. If your hair has not yet turned gray, you have likely guessed Kyle Palmer was a paid political consultant or strategist. Your guess would be only half right. Palmer was indeed paid but his employer was the Los Angeles Times. As political editor there, he wrote articles, columns, and editorials to make or break candidates according to the dictates of the Times’ GOP political agenda.

California has not seen Palmer’s like in journalism for many years, but in San Diego the clock is being turned back.

The paper that used to be the Union-Tribune but that now is brutally called U-T San Diego will be hosting a September 11 invitation-only event to advise Republican candidates how to present themselves to the media and secure the paper’s endorsement. (A spokesman for U-T San Diego told Politico a more sparsely attended event will later be held for Democrats.)

Democrats may be excused wondering whether they have been invited to lunch or to be lunch, because it is clear that Doug Manchester, the developer who bought the declining paper last year (to which he has now added the North County Times), is taking it boldly into the past. He uses its pages to tout his development plans with front-page editorials, bully local officials who don’t support his efforts to grab taxpayer dollars for himself and the local pro football franchise, and trumpet far-right views and candidates. On the U-T website you will find a page, Seeing Red, of right-wing commentary, including a U-T editorial predicting a second Obama term will lead to U.S. abandonment of Israel, Medicare death panels, and removal of “In God We Trust” from coins. A search for a comparable See Blue page yields the following image:

How U-T sees blue

Nonetheless, by the standards of Palmer and the newspapers publishers of the last century, including Joseph Knowland of the Oakland Tribune and George Cameron of the San Francisco Chronicle, Manchester and his rag are still minor league.

Palmer recruited candidates, taught them what positions to take and how to take them, wrote their speeches and radio scripts, and tore down their opponents. The publishers in Oakland and San Francisco were GOP kingmakers in the north state. I was made editorial page editor of the Oakland Tribune shortly after it had passed from the Knowland family to the Gannett chain. During my long march of conducting endorsements interviews of local candidates, old-timers would tease me that I was doing it all wrong. In the Knowland days, they explained to me, the publisher would pick the candidates he wanted to run for each local office. The paper would then forget to cover their rivals. This procedure saddened reporters and editors wishing to do serious journalism but gave them much more time to drown their sorrow at the bar next door.

Palmer, according to Mitchell, was more generous with the unanointed. In the 1950 U.S. Senate campaign between Nixon and Douglas “Palmer’s idea of balanced coverage was reflected in his public explanation that even though his newspaper opposed Helen Douglas 'from time to time, as space allows, news accounts of what she has to say and what she is doing will be published.’”

Many people will have no problem with a form of journalism that returns from professional to partisan—just look at the rise of Fox News. Those in San Diego who want to look at the world through open eyes are lucky to have an online alternative, Voice of San Diego, which has already replaced the self-destructing U-T as that city's most reliable and interesting source of local news and commentary. If you don't want to see the return of Kyle Palmer, you might consider sending some dollars their way.