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Conflicted Interests 

Observer publisher knee-deep in campaigns

It's becoming increasingly difficult to tell if Charlotte Observer publisher Ann Caulkins is running a campaign or a newspaper or both.

Caulkins is knee-deep in the campaigns against the repeal of the half-cent sales tax for mass transit and for the school bond package that will go on the ballot this fall. So knee-deep, in fact, that one might wonder where the Observer ends and the campaigns for both issues begin.

Caulkins sits on the boards of directors of the Charlotte Center City Partners and the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce.

On Aug. 23, Caulkins voted with the rest of the Charlotte Center City Partners board for a resolution against the repeal of the half-cent sales tax.

Maybe it is just coincidence that the resolution reads like a list of the Charlotte Observer's talking points on the mass transit tax from its recent articles. Or maybe it isn't.

Caulkins is also a director at the Chamber, which is currently running what promises to be high-dollar campaigns in favor of the bonds and against the repeal of the transit tax.

But Caulkins, the top boss at the Observer, the woman to whom the paper's editor answers, wants to assure you that despite appearances, the paper is in no way biased on those topics. Nope, not biased at all.

In an e-mail exchange last week with Charlotte Attorney Tom Ashcraft, a transit skeptic, Caulkins actually claimed she wasn't involved in the paper's news coverage.

"I am a director of the Charlotte City Center Partners (sic) and the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce," Caulkins wrote. "Both organizations have passed resolutions to oppose the repeal of the mass transit system. I have recused myself from the Editorial Board on this issue, and I don't oversee the newsroom. I also don't make the determinations on what news is published in the newspaper. This is the job of Rick Thames our executive editor. Thank you for your interest in this matter, and I hope you continue to read the excellent stories we are doing on the subject."

It's a pretty incredible claim for the top boss at a newspaper to make, considering publishers are responsible for everything that goes into the paper.

"Aren't you at least responsible for the personnel who occupy positions of executive editor, managing editor, editorial page editor, etc.?" Ashcraft wrote back. "Or are you telling your readers that, as far as McClatchy is concerned, the Charlotte Observer is completely on auto-pilot?"

Ironically, for two years the paper's reporters have been obsessed with the fact that school board member Larry Gauvreau is also the publisher of the Rhinoceros Times. It's something the Observer's writers have disparaged Gauvreau for and have pointed out nearly a dozen times in print. So you've got to wonder when the newsroom planned to get around to mentioning Caulkins' extracurricular activities to readers.

Since the transit tax repeal campaign was launched by transit opponents, the Observer has turned the lives of those involved upside down and obsessively questioned their affiliations, their motives and where their funds came from.

Earlier this year, the paper targeted transit tax opponent Jay Morrison for contributing half the cost of the tax repeal petition signature campaign.

The Observer gave Morrison the equivalent of a full rectal exam, photographing him in front of his home and splashing details of his sordid credit history across the front page. Morrison's credit history was shady, but the Observer failed to prove he broke any laws. Still, this somehow merited front-page coverage.

If the paper applied this level of scrutiny across the board to other campaigns and candidates -- which I would welcome -- the political environment in this city would undoubtedly be the cleanest on the East Coast.

But a search of Lexis-Nexis shows that the Observer's shredding of Morrison was by far the most in-depth look the paper has taken in more than a decade into the funding sources behind a ballot-issue campaign. Big business-backed campaigns for the arena and for school bonds have rarely rated more than a single short article in the paper, even when banks and developers who stood to profit from them donated tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

By the time the paper was done with Morrison, he was shamed into resigning from the school board race.

It's time for the paper to shine the same light on Caulkins. If the Observer's coverage of the bonds and the tax repeal campaign is to be taken seriously in the future, readers deserve the truth and some kind of explanation from Caulkins.

And if the Observer has a shred of journalistic integrity left -- which I seriously doubt -- Caulkins will either resign from the paper or from the two groups immediately.

Speaking of 3.75000

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