Why Doug Manchester's Purchase of the San Diego Union-Tribune Is Worrisome

02/08/2012 12:35 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

In November 2011 it was reported that a local entrepreneur had agreed to buy San Diego's Union-Tribune newspaper for $110 million. The fact that San Diego's 144-year-old, sole daily newspaper was changing hands would not ordinarily have been newsworthy, but it was in this instance because of who was buying it. The Union-Tribune's new owner is Doug Manchester, the same Doug Manchester who helped bankroll 2008's "Yes on 8" campaign, which successfully passed Proposition 8 and banned same-sex marriage in California.

Manchester's purchase comes at an interesting time in local politics. While California is generally regarded as a liberal state, like most it can be divided into liberal metropolitan areas and less liberal rural communities. San Diego is an exception to that rule, however. Perhaps due to the large Naval and Marine facilities based here, coupled with what is arguably the country's best climate, large numbers of veterans choose to retire here. This has had the effect of artificially increasing the number of local conservative voters.

In spite of this, however, the number of locally registered Democrats recently surpassed the number of registered Republicans, by 519,248 to 512,270. It's still a close race, however, and that means that politically, San Diego is very much in play. Given this knife-edge state of affairs, the purchase of San Diego's leading newspaper by someone with Doug Manchester's track record concerns me.

Manchester's $125,000 donation to "Yes on 8" in the summer of 2008 supported a campaign that stripped gay Californians of the right to marry, a right afforded to them by the California Supreme Court. "Yes on 8" went on to wage a campaign based on fear, misinformation, and, at times, outright homophobia. In response, fellow Huffington Post blogger Fred Karger founded Californian's Against Hate in July 2008, which went on to lead a boycott of Doug Manchester's hotels following disclosure of his donation. The boycott included San Diego's Manchester Grand Hyatt. When I spoke to Fred in connection with this article, he had this to say:

"From day one, I told Doug Manchester that if he was willing to give $125,000 to the "No on 8" campaign, I would call off the boycott. His people said that was impossible and told me to take a hike. When they finally did call to negotiate, a couple of weeks into the boycott, his finance director threatened us by saying that Doug might give a million dollars to the "Yes on 8" campaign if we didn't settle."

Fred says he couldn't reach a compromise, and the boycott continued. It wasn't until many months later that he discovered just how effective his boycott had been. He says that a chance meeting with the Manchester Grand Hyatt's Marketing Director revealed that the boycott had cost the hotel about $9 million alone in lost convention business in its first nine months. Not long after Karger made this figure public, Manchester hired a PR company to craft what was viewed by some as an apology to the gay community, but which was viewed by Karger and others as a damage-limitation exercise.

"They offered to give $25,000 in cash to a gay organization and $100,000 in credit," explains Karger. "Of course, the latter meant people would have had to cross our picket line to go into a Doug Manchester hotel. GOProud were the only ones who ended up taking his offer. I think they ended up getting $16,000 and some free rooms. They were the only organisation that would take his offer."

Karger is unaware of any other payouts under Manchester's "apology." As such, Karger's experience with Manchester contrasts greatly with his dealings with two other "Yes on 8" sponsors. Both Bolthouse Farms and Garff Automotive met with equality activists and have since initiated corporate nondiscrimination policies and made equal or larger donations to LGBT charities than those they made to "Yes on 8."

"Doug Manchester never regretted his contribution," says Karger. "He came up with about 10 different reasons for why he did it: his faith; his family; his friends; God called him to do it. He had all these different excuses until this thing was losing him $1 million a month. Then he decided he'd better do something, but he never apologized. I've offered to sit down and negotiate a settlement like I've done with others, but he's refused."

Like me, Karger is worried about the kind of influence Manchester might exert at the Union-Tribune and is potentially considering a boycott of the newspaper now that Manchester owns it. That would appear to be one of the few options left for activists looking to boycott Manchester businesses, now that he has sold both the Manchester Grand Hyatt and neighbouring Marriott Marquis & Marina.

Long-term, I am a strong believer in print media being a dying business. Newspapers the world-over seem to me to be in a state of perpetual circulation decline. For me the future is in online media platforms. Nevertheless, in the short term at least, newspapers can still be used as tools to spread their proprietors' political agenda. That Manchester may have purchased the Union-Tribune less than 12 months before the 2012 election with just such an intention worries me.