NBC 7's Paul Krueger calls out media executives

Updated at 1:30 p.m. March 20, 2015

Nobody from the Del Mar City Manager’s Office or San Diego Police Department was present Thursday as a local journalist group named them winners of the inaugural Windows and Walls awards.

Voice of San Diego’s Lisa Halverstadt, local SPJ secretary, snaps a shot of SPJ President Matt Hall and the brick the group gave as a Wall Award. Ken Stone photo

But three TV newsmen honored at the group’s sixth annual Sunshine Awards did show up — while wishing they didn’t have to. They berated their bosses for not underwriting efforts for the public’s right to know.

“The people who should be here are [U-T San Diego publisher] Doug Manchester or [NBC 7 San Diego president and general manager] Dick Kelly” and other execs, said NBC 7 senior producer Paul Krueger, who had joined with J.W. August and CBS 8’s David Gotfredson to raise money for a legal bid to unseal warrants in the McStay family slayings.

Krueger, Gotfredson and August — formerly of KGTV-10News but now with NBC as an investigative producer — told the San Diego chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists how they laboriously contacted dozens of media outlets, raising $300 from each to pay for the discounted services of Kelly Aviles, an attorney with the First Amendment Coalition.

Despite collecting about $14,000 from local affiliates, national networks and even CNN, they failed to unseal the warrants.

But the threesome honored at a Hillcrest bar during Sunshine Week didn’t seal their lips when it came to discussing news media responsibilities.

Sunshine Award winners (from left) were Paul Krueger of NBC 7, J.W. August of NBC 7 and David Gotfredson of CBS8. Ken Stone photo

“The fact that it took us countless hours to cobble together a group of media outlets willing to put out $300 each — which is what media executives pay for lunch — is to me an embarrassment,” Krueger told the 35-person gathering at The T Lounge.

Gotfredson, an investigative producer, soon added: “It’s shameful that one media outlet couldn’t afford an attorney to challenge” San Bernardino County officials who balked at opening records in the McStay case.

Krueger, a former San Diego Union columnist, said that despite revenue challenges, local outlets “should have a commitment to the First Amendment that equals anything [else] they do.”

As night fell, he said “we’re in business because of the First Amendment,” and news media outlets have a responsibility “financially and in terms of what we write or broadcast” to further the cause of transparency in government.

The 108-member San Diego SPJ chapter thus hailed Windows award-winner Del Mar as the “pinnacle of open government” for immediately releasing a 10-minute video last year that showed a reserve sheriff’s deputy reacting angrily after a traffic stop by a city park ranger.

At the same time, the Wall Award (a heavy brick) went to the San Diego Police Department for its refusal to share police body-worn camera footage with the press and public.

San Diego SPJ President Matt Hall read a statement from police spokesman Lt. Scott Wahl defending the department’s policy, saying it protected evidence, privacy and fair-trial rights.

The brick says “SDPD” on one side and “SPJ” on the other, in Sharpie, and Hall said the ignoble prize will remain with the SPJ board.

“If anyone from SDPD would like it as a keepsake, we will gladly hand it over,” he said Friday. “But we feel we have already made our point, called attention to lingering questions about police body cameras and jumpstarted a broader conversation.”

SPJ will, however, deliver the Window Award to the city of Del Mar in the near future.

Other finalists for the Wall Award were District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis and Balboa Park Centennial official Gerry Braun (now with the City Attorney’s Office). Neither attended the SPJ event.

San Diego Councilman Mark Kersey (left) and County Water Authority spokesman Mike Lee were finalists for Windows Awards. Ken Stone photo

Present to receive their Windows finalist certificates, however, were 5th District Councilman Mark Kersey (for his open-data initiatives, which he said would “change the way the city does business”) and former U-T San Diego reporter Mike Lee, now a spokesman for the County Water Authority.

After the half-hour ceremony, Krueger told Times of San Diego that he didn’t expect Charles “Chase” Merritt, the suspect in the slayings of the four-member McStay family of Fallbrook, to be ready for his scheduled April 7 preliminary hearing.

Merritt, acting as his own defense attorney, will ask for additional time, Krueger predicted.

He said the trio of sometime rival journalists joined to seek records in the case because “the public ought to know how law enforcement identified Merritt as a suspect.”

“What did the San Bernardino County sheriff find when they found those bodies in the desert grave?” Krueger asked.

Such information could answer questions about law enforcement resources and conduct, he said, and “perhaps incompetence.”

Trying to end on a positive note, local SPJ leader Hall said of Sunshine Week: “Don’t let it end Saturday. Keep fighting for openness and transparency. … Keep at it. Keep the fight up.”

Inaugural Window Award, won by the city of Del Mar. Image via San Diego SPJ