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Bay Area papers accused of rigging 'best-of' survey to favor advertisers

The company that runs the Oakland Tribune and its sister papers published fraudulent "best of" listings by substituting the winners of reader surveys with current and potential advertisers, a former ad executive for the company charges in a court case filed last week.

When presented with news of the case by an ANG reporter on Thursday, editors of the Tribune would not print the story, newsroom employees said.

David Marin, who was fired from his job as director of advertising in March 2003, filed a lawsuit in Alameda County Superior Court alleging that the Tribune's parent company, ANG newspapers, committed a "massive hoax" on readers, advertisers and the general public by ignoring survey results and hand-picking the names of businesses to receive awards.

In the suit, Mr. Marin says that before he took over the department in June 2002, another manager "would take the true poll results into a room by herself and alter the results, emerging with a new set of 'winners.'" A call to the home of the woman named in the suit was not returned.

Kevin Keane, vice president and executive editor of the newspaper group since March, said he would defer comment to the publisher, John Schueler, who was hired two weeks ago. Mr. Schueler also did not return a call for comment Thursday.

Credibility at stake

Officers of the Newspaper Guild, the union representing journalists at the papers, said that falsifying reader surveys would be a "scandal."

"I hope it's not true," said Sean Holstege, the Tribune's transportation reporter and chair of the ANG bargaining unit of the Guild. "My attitude is, if proven true, it undermines the credibility and trustworthiness of the newspaper, and that's all we have."

The suit asks the court for, among other things, punitive damages against the company, a class-action refund to subscribers and an award for "consumers who mistakenly patronized establishments based on false 'Best Of' showings." It also asks the court to require the chain to publish the true winners of the contest and to refrain from future deceptions.

In the lawsuit, Mr. Marin contends that the fraud continued for years. He claims that his repudiation of the survey's manipulation eventually cost him his job. He says that a high-ranking executive, who is no longer working there, penalized him by cutting his responsibilities in half, and when he complained, false statements were added to his personnel file, forcing him out of his job.

Mr. Marin's lawyer, David A. Hosilyk of Half Moon Bay, said neither he nor his client would say publicly how long the practice went on or disclose any evidence. As the case progresses, he may file an amended complaint as more information is discovered through legal mechanisms, he said.

No story on suit

Two employees of ANG said that a staff writer discovered the lawsuit in the course of a routine search for newsworthy case records at the Alameda County courthouse. The reporter brought this to the attention of an editor, who said the paper was not interested in publishing it, the employees said.

Mr. Keane said he was not aware of that exchange, but did say that the paper had no immediate plans to publish a story about the lawsuit. He added that the paper would "certainly consider" writing about it.

This is not the first time ANG has encountered the issue of deception in advertising and news. Last summer Grade the News examined ANG's real-estate inserts, finding that one section, which was not labeled as advertising, included on the cover every week a paid ad that looked like news. On the inside of the section corporate public-relations text was laid out alongside legitimate journalistic housing stories from Newsday, The Boston Globe and Scripps-Howard news service.

In April, asked about another example of advertising masquerading as news -- an eight-page section paid for by the Oakland A's that had the look and feel of a staff-written baseball supplement -- a newly hired management team that included Mr. Keane said the practice would end. Future advertising copy would be labeled clearly as such, Mr. Keane said.

Mr. Marin's suit did not specify which newspapers in the group printed the false reader surveys. ANG, owned by Denver-based MediaNews Group, includes the Tribune, Alameda Times-Star, Hayward Daily Review, Fremont Argus, Tri-Valley Herald and San Mateo County Times. The combined daily circulation of the group is more than 200,000 papers.

Read the San Francisco Chronicle story on the same topic, Aug. 6, 2004.

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A project of the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at San Jose State University, Grade the News is affiliated with the Graduate Program in Journalism at Stanford University and KTEH, public television in Silicon Valley.

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