Pasadena residents didn’t get to read about the exploits of local celebrity Dr. Robert Nelson, who, besides being a Jet Propulsion Lab photo analyst who helped present those dramatic photos of Saturn’s rings and moons, also gave the lie to White House claims that the bulge seen on Bush’s back during the presidential debates was “just a wrinkle.”
They didn’t get to read Nelson’s account of how his photo analysis of Bush’s jacket—a story that would have increased speculation that the president was wearing a hearing device during the debates—almost made it into the New York Times before being killed by top editor Bill Keller (Extra!, 1-2/05).
They didn’t read all this in their local daily, the Pasadena Star-News, because senior editors at that paper killed the story on Saturday, April 30, right before publication in the Sunday edition—apparently for political, not journalistic, reasons.
The Star-News is the oldest holding of MediaNews Group, a newspaper and television station chain owned and run by William Dean Singleton, one of the U.S.’s more conservative media moguls. Singleton was singled out by Editor & Publisher (1/26/04) as one of several newspaper chain owners who contributed money to the Bush/Cheney re-election campaign last year. MediaNews Group also owns the Denver Post and the L.A. Daily News.
What role, if any, Singleton and his politics had in the killing of Star-News reporter Gary Scott’s story on Nelson and the Bush bulge is unclear. What is known is that the story was filed, edited and set to run, that a photographer had been assigned and had taken pictures of Nelson at home with his photo analysis equipment, and that it was killed at the last minute.
Several sources confirm that the story was axed—and immediately wiped from the paper’s computer system—on orders of Star-News executive editor Talmadge Campbell, who oversees the operations of the Star-News and two other papers, the San Gabriel Valley Tribune and the Whittier Daily News, from an office in San Gabriel. Sources say that Campbell, a former Texan and outspoken Bush supporter, does not normally get involved in day-to-day decisions like what features run—or don’t run—in the Pasadena paper.
Star-News editor Larry Wilson described Scott as a “fantastic” reporter. Asked if it was true that Scott’s story was killed for political reasons by Campbell, Wilson did not offer a denial, saying only that the Star-News, “like most good newspapers, will not discuss stories that had been in production unless they appear in the paper.”
Executive editor Campbell confirmed that he killed Scott’s Nelson story, but he declined to give an explanation for what he conceded was a rare interference in the paper’s daily operation. “It’s entirely an internal matter. In doesn’t involve anyone in New York, Mother Jones or you especially,” he told Extra!.
Said an obviously frustrated Nelson, “The scientific community last November produced very credible evidence suggesting the president may have been cheating in the debates. Responsible reporters at the New York Times and the Star-News have attempted to report this news to their readers but their efforts were quashed by upper management. The founders of this nation understood the importance of an informed public, but given what has just happened, one is tempted to ask: Does the term ‘free press’ apply only to those who can afford to own one?”