Talks have broken down between The Orange County Register’s owners and the city of Anaheim regarding a controversial deal whereby Freedom Communications, the newspaper’s parent company, would act as the corporate sponsorships broker for a city transit depot, the newspaper reported Thursday afternoon.

“It didn’t look like we were going to put something together that would work well for the city and for Freedom, so discussions were put on hold,” said Aaron Kushner, Freedom’s co-owner and publisher of the Register.

Kushner drew heavy criticism from media watchdogs and Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait after Voice of OC reported on the proposed partnership in August. One media ethics expert questioned whether such a relationship would make the newspaper appear to be an “agent of government.”

A letter of intent obtained by Voice of OC stated that Freedom Communications would have the exclusive right for 12 months to solicit corporations for the opportunity to display their names on the Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center or ARTIC, a nearly $200-million structure that would house the city’s train station.

“Effectively, we are acting as an additional source of marketing muscle to try and bring private support to this project, because our mission, we believe, is to help Orange County grow,” Kushner said when questioned about the deal. “We believe this is an important project.”

Nonetheless, Kushner insisted the deal would have no impact on the newsroom’s ability to aggressively cover Anaheim.

Others say actions by Register ownership indicated otherwise.

Late last year, the newspaper began rejecting political ads submitted by Jason Young, a local activist who has targeted the council majority, after two councilwomen complained to the Register’s ownership. It was later revealed that the complaints from the councilwomen came around the same time city leaders were holding meetings with the Register regarding the possible naming rights deal.

Young, who first uncovered the letter of intent on the sponsorship agreement, said in a previous interview that it became clear to him why the Register responded the way it did to the pressure from the politicians.

“I knew something shady was going on, and here it is,” Young had said. “Of course, the Register is going to bow down to [Anaheim Councilwomen] Kris [Murray] and Gail [Eastman] to curtail my First Amendment rights, because they wanted this deal.”

Kushner strongly disputed that contention in a previous interview with Voice of OC, saying that the policy never changed. It was merely enforced after complaints about negative ads.

“Our policy has nothing to do with Anaheim,” he said. “It has to do with us being a private business and whether we do or do not want to accept personal attack ads. For the record, we have run negative ads from him, so long as they are not personal attack ads.”

In Thursday’s Register article Kushner indicated that the talks never went beyond the preliminary stage.

“There was no formal process to begin with, and no hard dates attached to this,” Kushner said. “I think both sides decided that it wasn’t worth continuing the conversation.”

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