Forget yellow journalism, The Sacramento Bee has resorted to green journalism, clumsily selling out its editorial cred to run a puff piece on a high profile local real estate mogul under criminal investigation for placing video cameras in the bedrooms and bathrooms of his local McMansion and vacation retreats. An article in the Bee on Friday lionized the CEO of Lyon Real Estate, one of California’s largest independently owned real estate companies, publishing an article that looked like it was written by CEO Michael Lyon’s high paid PR firm, not a veteran journalist.
In the controversial article, headlined “Michael Lyon Has Impressed and Inspired in Realty Career,” Bee reporter Loretta Kalb leads off as follows:
“Michael Lyon, 54, has been the consummate businessman, the man who guided the growth of a small real estate firm into a multimillion-dollar operation, the area’s largest with 950 agents.
“He is described as always upbeat, ready with a smile, confident, hard-driving, passionate and smart. In a 1997 interview with The Bee, he prided himself on family values and integrity.”
While typically an opener like this would be a set up for an O. Henry style twist, the family values guy secretly videotaping and spying on his houseguests during their most intimate and private moments, Kalb’s article never falters from touting Michael Lyon as the Dale Carnegie of Sacramento, a man who has contributed copious amounts of time and money to local charities and earned the loyalty of his devoted staff. The only thing missing was a Photoshopped picture of Lyon wearing a cape, despite the fact Kalb painted Lyon as a boy wonder who took over his father’s much smaller real estate kingdom when he was only 20 and transformed it into a dynasty.
The Sacramento Bee article also curiously omitted Lyon’s history as a long-time Boy Scout leader – perhaps sensitive to possible future allegations that some minors could have been videotaped – a biographical fact that is usually included in stories that describe Lyon’s community activities.
As if one puff piece weren’t enough, the Bee published another article the same day, this one written by Bob Shallit, a long-time business reporter. Shallit’s piece also focused on Lyon’s sunny side, highlighting the loyalty of his agents and employees:
” ‘In this week’s meetings with staffers, employees have been mostly upbeat,’ she (company president Jean Li) said.
“‘It really touched my heart,’ she said. ‘The agents were so supportive … They asked how (Lyon) is doing. How is the family doing.'”
Shallit’s aricle also contained hints that one of the television stations in town was overzealous in dredging up dirt on Lyon to attract more viewers (unlike The Sacramento Bee, which appears to be more concerned with buttering up an advertising client than writing credible stories).
Even the very first article in the Bee concerning the Lyon videotaping scandal, which ran the day after the story broke about Lyon being investigated by local law enforcement, implied the whole kerfuffle was related to an acrimonious divorce between Michael Lyon and his wife, Kim, despite the fact that no one has yet denied the presence of the videotaping equipment in the bedrooms and bathrooms of several Lyon-owned homes.
Pages of comments on the Bee’s website revealed that most readers were disappointed, if not disgusted, by what they saw as a new low in journalism for the financially beleaguered Bee, a struggling daily newspaper that has lain off many ethical, award-winning reporters in the past few years.
Most comments in the forum were harshly critical. A few samples:
– “Wow. How much and whom does one have to pay for an infomercial like this with no mention at all of the reason he’s in the news in the first place?”
– “It also smacks of favoritism for the wealthy. One might ask when the Bee ever did such a positive PR piece for an ordinary person in the community being investigated for similar conduct. I was looking for the note at the bottom that says, ‘This ad was paid for by….'”
– “This article is an embarrassment to good journalism. When I first saw it – on a page historically reserved for obituaries – I thought it was an obit on a member of the Lyon family. But nobody died. Instead Michael Lyon is the target of a criminal investigation and the Bee appears to have decided to run a puff piece on one of its biggest advertisers.”
As of 2007, Lyon Real Estate had a million dollar advertising contract with The Sacramento Bee, but in an article in The Sacramento Business Journal that year, Michael Lyon told a reporter his firm was cutting back on its advertising with the Bee to focus more on Internet advertising. Still, even if Lyon is forking over half that amount, it’s enough to keep the lights on in the building for another month or two.
Adulation of business leaders such as Michael Lyon is nothing new on the local media scene. In 2006, Sacramento Magazine named Lyon one of the 50 Most Powerful People in Sacramento. “Smart developers make pilgrimages to Lyon before they start to build their communities to discuss pricing, proximity and partnerships,” the magazine said. “What they really want to do is make sure they’ll be on Lyon’s radar.” Little did Sac Mag know then that these developers might not only be on Lyon’s radar, but also on his secret videotapes.
Until recently, The Sacramento Bee had a reputation for being less business friendly than the local business and lifestyle publications. In fact, the Bee was lambasted by its more conservative critics in the Sacramento area for being an anti-business liberal rag, if not Northern California’s version of Pravda. Far from being anti-business, the Bee is now genuflecting before a darling of the local business community, willing to trade its journalistic integrity for a few shillings of ad space. It is doubtful that former conservative readers will come flocking back to the Bee. More likely, the daily newspaper will lose some of its few remaining readers, a loyal group that is increasingly having trouble distinguishing its editorial from advertorial.
Author’s disclosure: I freelanced for The Sacramento Bee for about five years in the late 80’s and early 90’s. I no longer have a business relationship with the newspaper except for being one of its remaining subscribers. I also bought a house from a very professional and ethical Lyon real estate agent, but have never met nor been spied on by Michael Lyon (to my knowledge).