From a weekly front-page column to frequent photo features, the Greenleaf Guardian’s focus on Mayor Joe Vinatieri has been consistent.
Since its inaugural issue in November of 2019, the Greenleaf Guardian, a newcomer in Whittier’s news desert, has featured Whittier Mayor Joe Vinatieri‘s self-authored column on nearly every front page.
Is the Greenleaf Guardian too close to the mayor? At least three of its founders are connected with Vinatieri’s 2020 reelection campaign.
The Greenleaf Guardian is published by owners Ross Gile, Jennifer DeKay, and Jeffrey Ball. The owners sit on the newspaper’s advisory board with Chris Hardeman, Andrew Pryor, David Gonzales, Jr., and editor Eric Pierce.
The newspaper’s Facebook page describes the organization’s mission: “The Greenleaf Guardian strives to be your comprehensive source for Whittier news by producing quality, trusted and unbiased journalism.”
Gile is the president of DigiCal Web Designs based in Whittier. Ball is the founder and CEO of Whittier’s Friendly Hills Bank. These two founders of the Greenleaf Guardian are affiliated with Vinatieri’s reelection campaign, the results of which will be announced March 3rd – the date emphasized by their newspaper countdown.
Gile is the only Greenleaf Guardian founder to publicly work with Vinatieri’s reelection campaign, through his role as a paid web designer: Gile’s company DigiCal Web Designs received payout from Vinatieri’s campaign on two occasions, and he has worn a Vinatieri press ID at public events. This alone does not necessarily make Gile an active member of Vinatieri’s re-election team. However, Gile has expressed public support for Vinatieri’s reelection campaign by listing himself as a supporter on the campaign website joev4whittier.com. Both Gile and Ball have also donated to Vinatieri’s campaign, according to the campaign’s current Monetary Contributions Report.
Also linking the Greenleaf Guardian to Vinatieri’s reelection campaign is the newspaper’s Advisory Board Member Chris Hardeman. Hardeman listed himself as a supporter of Vinatieri on the campaign website and donated to Vinatieri’s campaign.
While connections between news publications and political campaigns are legal, such organizations may be expected to be transparent about them to readers.
Sustainable City News approached Anita Varma, Assistant Director, Journalism & Media Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University for a comment on the apparent bias of the Greenleaf Guardian. “It is less of an issue of bias, many newspapers have bias, but the bigger issue is of conflict of interest,” she said. “As a newspaper, the publication serves the public, but publishing the mayor or aligning themselves publicly with [Vinatieri’s] interests may work against that goal.”
Los Angeles-based journalist and editor Sophia Kercher, who is also the Editorial Director at Los Angeleno, agreed with Varma’s statement. “I think that the newspaper has a responsibility to disclose its ties with the mayor’s election, so the readers are informed of any potential biases,” she said.
Sustainable City, as a nonprofit organization, by mission and by law, cannot support or oppose candidates for election. In pursuit of this mission, and to remove any conflict of interest, our former board treasurer, Louis Reyes, stepped down from the board when he decided to run for mayor in this election.
To clarify, it is not illegal for the Greenleaf Guardian to disproportionately cover a specific political figure. For-profit newspapers routinely endorse candidates for office. It is also perfectly legal for newspaper leaders to support a political candidate publicly in their own personal time. Expert commentators suggested, however, that conflicts of interest may be unethical.
Sustainable City News reached out to owners Jeff Ball and Ross Gile for comment. They each referred us to Greenleaf Guardian Editor Eric Pierce. Pierce said he declined to comment. We also reached out to Advisory Board Member Andrew Pryor, who referred us to Pierce and DeKay.
To this date, three members of the Greenleaf Guardian’s advisory board have supported Whittier mayor Vinatieri’s reelection campaign either publicly or through donations. However, the Guardian has failed to disclose its ties to the mayor and his reelection campaign in print.
Thus far, the Greenleaf Guardian’s coverage of the 2020 City Council election has been limited to one story covering the January 22 forum hosted by the Chamber of Commerce, which featured candidates for Whittier City Council.
However, since its inaugural issue, the Greenleaf Guardian has published a front page weekly column that Mayor Vinatieri writes himself. The column covers content from city council decisions, like in December sixth’s “Our plan to count the homeless,” to holiday greetings, such as those expressed by December twenty-seventh’s “Tips to burn off those extra holiday calories” and November eighth’s “Let’s never forget the sacrifices of our veterans.” The column has been published in twelve of the Greenleaf Guardians’ fourteen issues as of February 18. Eleven out of twelve times the column has been published it has been featured on the front page.
Despite the column’s lack of explicit campaign advertising for Vinatieri, the Greenleaf Guardian has not published any articles authored by any other members of the Whittier City Council nor any candidates for mayor.
Additionally, the paper has published more pictures of Vinatieri than other candidates or even members of city council, with 17 of Vinatieri, 1 of all candidates, and 3 of city council members (one including the mayor.)
Mayor Vinatieri and District 3 representative Cathy Warner lead the Whittier city council in mentions throughout the Greenleaf Guardian, with nine references to the two city council members respectively in both articles and event reminders for their campaigns. The only other reminder for a campaign event was for mayoral candidate Christine Singer-Luna.
In the event that the Greenleaf Guardian responds to our request for comment, we will provide a follow-up to this story. We welcome your feedback in the comments below.
Today marks less than two weeks until the Municipal and Primary Election Day that will elect Whittier’s mayor. Voting takes place February 22 through March 3 at vote centers throughout Los Angeles County. Voters may register to vote at any vote center up to and on Election Day, Tuesday, March 3rd.
For more information regarding voting, please see the Sustainable City News article, “Ready, Set, Vote: Radical Changes to Voting Rules in 2020,” published online at SustainableCity.co.