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The Top Local Journalism of 2021 — Voice of San Diego

Local media outlets prepare to film a press conference in downtown San Diego. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

The pandemic hasn’t stopped the people in charge from failing us, as local and national reporters revealed over the past year. Here’s a look at the some of 2021’s most notable journalism about San Diego from other publications:

Home, Unsweet Home: Government Failures Galore

• The Washington Post introduced readers to an Imperial Beach woman who was struggling mightily to stay in her apartment with her kids as a series of landlords tried to evict her for not paying rent. Wait, weren’t there protections against evictions during the pandemic? Yes … and no. There were loopholes, and her apartment’s owners tried to sail right through them.

“Tears pushed into her eyes as she thought about the past year,” the Post reported. “The 45-year-old single mother had lost her job. Watched her savings drain. Counted as months of unpaid rent piled up — like millions of Americans ambushed by the economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic.”

• Thanks to the county, people with COVID-19 who couldn’t quarantine at home were supposed to be able to find a secure temporary home at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Mission Valley. However, inewsource found that problems first documented in 2020 lingered into 2021 and potentially threatened the public health: guests and employees said “the program is mismanaged, staff aren’t properly trained and security guards harass those who are under a public health order to isolate. It’s all causing some to leave the hotel before they’re supposed to.”

• County leaders wanted to spend $27 million in pandemic rental assistance to help low-income tenants across the region – but not those in cities like Chula Vista, El Cajon, and San Diego that had their own programs. How’d that go? Not well. inewsource found that “for reasons the county would not explain, staff went against the supervisors’ stated wishes and created a standard that ultimately allowed residents in those cities to qualify for the program.” But residents in other cities like Escondido and National City were left out of the bounty.

• The Union-Tribune found evidence that “top commanders in the San Diego Sheriff’s Department directed their subordinates to enforce some evictions during the past year while others languished for months.” In one case, an eviction in a house across the street from Sheriff Bill Gore’s home was expedited.

• KPBS explored the “hidden history of racism in San Diego deeds” – the restrictive covenants that kept minorities out of neighborhoods and still impact where we live today. And the NY Times highlighted the changes afoot in a 1950s-era “California fantasy” – a Clairemont housing subdivision that promised “careful planning and intelligent design.” Now, “it’s part of a push across California and the nation to encourage density in suburban neighborhoods by allowing people to subdivide single-family houses and build new units in their backyards.”

Surveillance State: Who’s Watching Whom?

• A secretive Border Patrol unit “routinely used the country’s most sensitive databases to obtain the travel records and financial and personal information of journalists, government officials, congressional members and their staff, NGO workers and others,” Yahoo news reports. An agent at the center of allegations against the Border Patrol now runs a coffeehouse in Barrio Logan while continuing to work for the agency. He denies allegations: “​​I’m being accused of blackmailing a journalist and trying to sign her up as an FBI informant, which is what’s being plastered all around San Diego at the moment because of misinformation reported by the news media.”

• The online magazine Slate digs into the drone-happy habits of the Chula Vista Police Department, which launches drones “almost every time someone calls 911”: “Chula Vista’s willingness to use drones for anything and everything is a major departure from the way police have been talking about, and using, drones in the past few years…. we shouldn’t accept that the constant presence of surveillance technology, from drones to facial-recognition cameras to license plate readers, is the price that our communities must pay to avoid police violence.”

• A prosecutor and a cop “secretly planted four electronic listening devices in the holding area inside an empty Vista courtroom” in order to record a murder defendant, the Union-Tribune reported. The revelation of this subterfuge didn’t go over well with the defendant’s defense team, which says the taping was unconstitutional. The team also claimed prosecutors were engaged in a cover-up, but the district attorney’s office said it acted legally.

Behind Bars: Donovan Prison’s Catastrophic COVID Toll

 • inewsource discovered that San Diego’s Donovan State Prison has one of the highest COVID-19 death tolls in the state, and families often weren’t told that their loved ones were ill until they’d died. In some cases, inmates were found dead in their cells. inewsource also reported that inmate deaths from COVID-19 weren’t being properly reported, including some who died in local hospitals. “When deaths are not accurately and promptly captured and assigned to the place where the illness occurred, experts who monitor inmate fatalities say it complicates disease management, can cause resources to be misdirected, and puts inmates, staff and the public at risk,” the news outlet reported.

• NBC 7 discovered that a second San Diegan was wrongly committed to a state hospital for decades. The first man, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, was released in January 2021 after nearly 24 years in confinement “as the result of a sequence of trickle-down oversights starting at the top, with the state of California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and Board of Parole Hearings, all the way down to the local level with the San Diego County District Attorney’s office and Public Defender’s office.”

Poor Kids Got Stuck with More Virtual Learning  

In the first year of the pandemic, some local schoolkids – like those in San Diego and Chula Vista – were forced to spend the entire year taking classes via computer. But a few, like those in the upscale communities of Encinitas, Rancho Santa Fe, and Del Mar, kept going to class in classrooms from 90 percent to 100 percent of the time.

Turns out, as the Union-Tribune discovered to no one’s surprise, that kids in rich neighborhoods fared better: “Generally districts that serve few low-income students provided the most in-person instruction time, while districts that had a majority of low-income students spent the most time in distance learning, according to school reopening data.”

As the story notes, poorer neighborhoods have had higher rates of COVID-19.

Crisis: Inside the ‘Breakdown’ in Local Mental Health

• NBC 7 launched an ambitious series of news stories about the “breakdown” in local mental health care. Among the findings: the sheriff’s department has become the county’s largest mental health provider, and Kaiser Permanente’s services are facing criticism.

• The Union-Tribune is also tracking the local mental health crisis. A moving story chronicled how the parents of a mentally ill and homeless 30-year-old man “struggled for years to find help for their son, attempting to navigate a complex mental health system that has an increasingly sturdy safety net for aiding homeless individuals, but not for homeless people with serious mental health disorders.”

Probe Potpourri: Who’s Being Investigated Today?

The Union-Tribune uncovered a federal grand jury investigation into Doug “Papa Doug” Manchester, the local hotel magnate, right-wing Trump supporter, and former publisher of the U-T itself. The case, which revolves around his failed bid to become ambassador to the Bahamas, “appears to focus on the Republican National Committee and its two senior leaders, and possibly members of Congress.”

Manchester’s bid for ambassador foundered amid accusations that he presided over a sexist and toxic work environment at the newspaper.

• A former dean at Cal State San Marcos who “racked up tens of thousands of dollars in improper travel billings” is facing a criminal investigation, the U-T revealed.

The Catholic Who Didn’t Wait for Priestly Permission

The Catholic Church doesn’t allow female priests, and anyone who tries to become one is automatically excommunicated. San Diego’s Jane Via, a former prosecutor, tells the New Yorker magazine that this upset her. But she went through with a ceremony and now leads a “thriving congregation” founded to serve “disenfranchised Catholics: driven-away Catholics, like my husband; fallen-away Catholics, like my children; divorced-and-remarried-without-annulment Catholics, like my colleagues in my office; L.G.B.T.Q. Catholics; and people like me, who have no place in the Catholic Church to worship with integrity anymore.”

One of her teenage sons, meanwhile, had an idea to get around the church’s restriction on allowing her to be buried in sacred ground: “if she agreed to be cremated he’d put her ashes in his pocket, cut a hole in it, and walk through a Catholic cemetery.”

‘I’m Right Here. I Love You. You’re OK.’

A 12-year-old Oceanside boy named Connor can ride a bike and stick his feet in the sea. But he can’t talk or feed himself, and seizures strike him several times a day. As the Union-Tribune reported, it’s all because of a genetic disease so rare that he’s the only person in the world to have it. So how can he get treated? A local nonprofit is hoping to come to the rescue of Connor and kids like him. For now, though, the seizures keep coming, and Connor’s mom keeps comforting: “‘I’m right here. I love you. You’re OK.’”

On the Lighter Side: That Sure Ain’t Chicken Feed

• The San Diego Chicken – aka Ted Giannoulas –  “altered the [baseball] mascot universe,” the Washington Post recalls. “The Chicken’s shtick was far more elaborate and edgy than previous mascots; sportswriter Jack Murphy once called it “an embryonic Charles Chaplin in chicken feathers.”

The sports website fanbuzz.com, meanwhile, reports that baseball mascots make a lot more money than you might assume. Giannoulas once told a reporter that he made as much as $40,000 a game before retirement.