Paper Chase : Media: The Sacramento Union is trying to attract readers and advertisers by billing itself as 'pro-American,' 'pro-life' and 'pro-business.'


When Marybeth Bizjak moved from the San Francisco Chronicle to the Sacramento Union as feature editor a year ago, she thought she was supposed to "liven up the features--to put a little punch into that part of the paper."

But 10 weeks later she was out of a job after running a story on the AIDS Memorial Quilt--a series of panels dedicated to those who have died of AIDS that has been traveling around the country.

"My editor told me, 'You don't understand. The owner (Sacramento developer Danny Benvenuti Jr.) is a fundamentalist Christian. He doesn't want to see this kind of thing in the paper,' " Bizjak said recently. "They never told me why they let me go, but I assumed it was that story and a few other stories, and the fact that I wasn't much of a bower and scraper."

Bizjak is not the only journalist to run afoul of the political and religious conservatives who have been running the Sacramento Union for two years.

The paper, first published in 1851, calls itself "the oldest daily in the West" and boasts of having employed Mark Twain for a few months in 1866. A bust of Twain stands in the building lobby.

For at least 25 years, however, the Union has been losing money. In an effort to reverse that trend, new owner Benvenuti and his editors are publishing what they call a "pro-business," "pro-American," "pro-life" newspaper that stresses "family values."

So far, the results are not promising.

Publisher James H. Smith and editor Joseph Farah say daily circulation has been climbing slowly in recent months and has almost reached 60,000. But the Union did not report any official figures to the Audit Bureau of Circulation for the six-month period ending March 31 so the figure cannot be verified. And 60,000 is more than 200,000 behind the Sacramento Bee, the dominant paper in the state capital. What's more, the Union also trails badly in advertising linage.

In an interview, Farah said the Union lost about $5 million last year but now is "close to breaking even," but others close to the paper report that the first quarter 1991 loss was $750,000. (Benvenuti is reported to be seeking a new buyer for the paper, or other wealthy conservative investors to share the financial burden, so far without success.)

The Union's reverses continue despite the best efforts of a "prayer committee" of local residents that Benvenuti established shortly after taking control.

The committee's task is "to pray for and with you and to lift up the Union to God," the new owner said. "I also believe that it is important that other Christians recognize just what is at stake and what it will take if a newspaper with a Christian philosophy is to succeed."

As Farah, who became editor last July, and others have carried out this new philosophy, there have been many clashes with staff members.

Book editor and feature writer Sue Gilmore quit after 13 years at the paper, when Farah sharply criticized her for running a favorable review of a book about Jane Fonda.

"He said Jane Fonda was a traitor to our country and we shouldn't have reviewed the book," said Gilmore, who now works as a copy editor for the Contra Costa Times. "There had been some other incidents, but after that one I just decided it wasn't a healthy place to work anymore . . . the atmosphere was really oppressive."

Farah said he objected to the review because "it was a defense of Jane Fonda and Jane Fonda's politics. It would be suicidal for this newspaper to run exclusively that kind of material over a long period of time. We've got a readership that's totally at odds with that point of view."

Farah has described those who left as disgruntled former employees but some reporters and editors still working at the Union have the same complaints, though they are cautious about voicing them publicly.

Reporter Rocky Rushing decided he had seen enough last summer when Farah changed a local news story to describe the National Organization for Women as a "radical feminist group."

"I had been involved in meddling in the past but nothing to that extent," said Rushing, who joined the Contra Costa Times as a reporter. "That was one for the journalism textbooks."

That same story also described former U.S. Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan as having "consistently struck down all legal protections of the unborn."

These two editing changes, in a single story, immediately established Farah's credentials as not only politically conservative but also aggressively anti-abortion rights. Today, however, Farah seems ambivalent about the move.

"I'm not going to tell you I'm sorry I did it," he said. "I don't think there was anything wrong with that story. NOW, by its own definition, is a radical feminist group and the description of Brennan was totally accurate. But I wouldn't expect to see that happen in this paper again."

Benvenuti set the tone for the new Sacramento Union with a "statement of guiding principles," he issued after buying the paper in September, 1989.

The "principles" extol the virtues of capitalism; warn against big government; assert that "all legitimate and inalienable rights are endowed by the Creator", and admonish that "it is wrong to murder the innocent," including the "preborn."

Benvenuti, who refused to be interviewed for this story, has been a generous contributor to the Capital Christian Center, a 6,000-member fundamentalist, evangelical church in Sacramento.

Publisher Smith insisted, "We are not the captive of any particular church." But sources who were present during the negotiations leading to Benvenuti's purchase of the paper from Pittsburgh millionaire Richard Mellon Scaife, said Pastor Glen Cole sat in on many of the meetings.

Cole denied participating in those meetings but praised the new Union as "a tremendous contribution to the community--it provides a conservative viewpoint that we don't find in the other papers (i.e., the Sacramento Bee)."

For the first six months or so of Benvenuti's ownership, his staunchly conservative political and religious views were largely confined to the editorial page and to the writings of a stable of conservative columnists.

But several former reporters and editors said Benvenuti lieutenant Jay Baggett--who was also active at the Capital Christian Center and also refused to be interviewed for this story--sought to extend these opinions to the news columns. Editor Jim Vesely, thwarted most of these initial efforts, according to the former employees.

"Jim fought the battle everybody was worried about long before it started showing up in the newsroom," said Jerry Eagan, a former city editor who left the Union in disgust last June and now works for the Sacramento Bee.

Eventually these confrontations took their toll, however, and Vesely departed last July, replaced the same day by Farah.

Joseph Farah had been executive news editor at the now-closed Los Angeles Herald Examiner for six years. In addition to his job at the Union, Farah, 36, edits "Between the Lines," a bi-weekly newsletter that concentrates on alleged left-wing influence in the entertainment industry and the news media.

Farah describes himself as a "very liberal" student who once was arrested for protesting the Vietnam War but who converted to conservatism in the early 1980s, impressed by former President Ronald Reagan's "tough stance" in foreign policy and by the "success of 'supply side' economics." He shares many of Benvenuti's opinions, especially his fervent opposition to abortion.

Farah sometimes has carried his anti-abortion crusade beyond the pages of the Union. Last January he spoke to an anti-abortion rights rally at the state Capitol, and in March he was involved in a physical confrontation at a Sacramento abortion clinic.

"I think it's appropriate for me, as editor of a newspaper, to have a point of view and to express it," Farah said.

The physical encounter came about, the editor said, when he visited the clinic "as a journalist," to see if anti-abortion demonstrators were being harassed, as they had claimed.

Farah was "punched in the mouth by one of the vicious pro-abortion demonstrators who were confident law enforcement authorities would take no action against them," he wrote in the Feb. 11 issue of "Between the Lines."

Later, Farah filed assault and battery charges against his alleged assailant, a young woman who was escorting patients into the clinic. The case is scheduled to be heard soon in Sacramento Municipal Court.

Farah persuaded conservative radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh to write a daily column, which runs on Page One.

Limbaugh regularly flails away at such targets as racial quotas, "environmental wackos" and "militant vegetarians" in a column that he more or less writes.

The new editor also has made some style changes. The paper refers to homosexuals, not gays and to semi-automatic rifles, not assault weapons. Pro-choice and pro-life have given way to pro-abortion and anti-abortion.

The paper covers abortion, homosexuality and pornography extensively, but does not have a regular court reporter.

"It's not so much altering stories as in story assigning," said former assistant city editor Rod Boyce, who now works for the Anchorage Times.

In their determination to make a profit, Farah and publisher Smith have cut the staff to the bone. Wave after wave of layoffs have left the paper with only 18 reporters, 22 editors and a total editorial staff of about 60. The Bee has nine reporters in its Capitol bureau alone, part of a total editorial force of more than 260.

"There's no way we can keep up reporting, story by story, what the Bee is doing," Farah said. "I don't care about doing that. All I care about doing is coming up with enough good, interesting, enterprising stories in our paper that makes us indispensable reading in this marketplace."

Occasionally, the Union comes up with such material--recently the paper published several stories, based on Department of Education leaks, that indicate that state Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig has been instrumental in the success of the Quality Education Project, a "parent involvement" program run by Honig's wife. Other stories have pointed out that some legislative employees who left with lucrative "golden handshake" deals as a result of Proposition 140 layoffs, moved immediately to other well-paid state jobs.

Most of the time, however, there aren't enough reporters to follow up good leads or even to cover important ongoing news.

In their attempts to trim expenses, Smith and Farah have cut the paper's use of newsprint by 35% to 40%, have eliminated most circulation outside the city limits and have limited the number of papers available in street news racks.

Salaries for editors and reporters are much lower than those at the Bee, past and present staff members say, and expense accounts are virtually nonexistent.

For a few weeks recently--a time Farah said was "as tight as I've ever been through"--reporters were required to supply their own notebooks.

Money has been so tight lately that the Union has not paid the company that maintains its copying machines, the janitorial service that cleans the building, or the telephone company, among other creditors.

Publisher Smith acknowledged that some recent bills have not been paid but said, "we've put all these people on a schedule. We've been able to satisfy them that they'll get their money."

Both Smith and Farah say that the worst is over, there will be no more staff reductions and the paper will begin to make money soon.

But there are few hopeful signs.

In addition to the great gap in circulation, executives at McClatchy Newspapers, which publishes the Bee, say their paper carries 86% of the daily newspaper advertising in the Sacramento area, a claim the Union does not dispute.

"The most important step conservatives can take to reshape the media in this country and reclaim it is to help the Union flourish and survive," Farah wrote in "Between the Lines." "Only the Union is attempting to win the battle in the marketplace with circulation and advertising dollars, rather than huge subsidies from churches or ideologically inspired sugar daddies."

But so far, this message is not selling and Washington media analyst John Morton doubts that it will.

"Most advertisers don't care much about politics or ideology," Morton said. "They spend their money where they think they'll get the best return. These guys are businessmen and most of them are operating on low profit margins. They can't afford to spend money on things that give them a warm glow in their glands."

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