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Guest commentary

Sunshine, not censorship, will make the news media accountable

By Josh Wilson
Posted Aug. 23, 2004

Grade the News' reporting of political donations by employees of major Bay Area media outlets was intriguing and thought-provoking, but more so was the reaction of those outlets.

Make what you will of KGO-TV's indifference to Assignment Editor Glen Adams' $500 donation to the campaign of San Francisco district attorney candidate Bill Fazio -- at least it's honest. I must confess that, in terms of striking a blow against institutional bias, I am underwhelmed by the San Francisco Chronicle's reassignment of letters-page editor William Pates, a 35-year vet of the newspaper who donated $400 to John Kerry, to the night sports copy desk.

Rather than scapegoating the letters-page editor, it would be far more appropriate for the Chronicle to acknowledge that like its editors, publishers and parent company ... its rank-and-file newspaper staff also have opinions and urgent political concerns..

The issue is not the legality of censoring an employee's after-hours activities. Rather, it's the bias of the organization. Never forget that the Chronicle is a for-profit business, and the successive property of two privately held corporations -- first the de Young family's Chronicle Publishing Company, and now Hearst.

Then, as now, you can neither buy stock nor go to the shareholder meetings. And by its nature as a for-profit business, the newspaper has a perspective on the fundamental issues of our society, a set of presumptions about our economic, cultural and civic lives. As such, and unlike a nonprofit publication, the newspaper can endorse political candidates and ballot initiatives. Gavin Newsom, for example, rather than Matt Gonzalez for mayor. Love 'em or hate 'em, those candidates represent distinct visions for the city the Chronicle calls home. What does the newspaper's choice mean for its editorial decisions year-round? How much of the bias that informs those decisions is going to be on the table for all to consider?

Rather than scapegoating the letters-page editor, it would be far more appropriate for the Chronicle to acknowledge that like its editors, publishers and parent company -- Board Chairman George Hearst gave more than $10,000 to George Bush, the Republicans and a conservative political action committee this year -- its rank-and-file newspaper staff also have opinions and urgent political concerns.

Having more forthrightly addressed the appearance of bias by acknowledging that it exists, the newspaper is free either to fulfill the expectations of bias by simply shuffling staff and carrying on as usual, or to take aggressive steps to raise the bar and produce the very best journalism it can -- journalism that truly serves no political or economic master. Consider: Just because Ombudsman Daniel Okrent outed the New York Times as "liberal" on its very own editorial page, that doesn't mean the paper of record is no longer to be trusted. (You probably made up your own mind about that quite a long time ago.) It's just that they'll have to work harder to sustain, let alone extend, their editorial credibility. This kind of openness and honesty can only be a good thing for journalism.

It's to our advantage to be transparent about our motives, and to institutionalize mechanisms by which the audience can respond to and comment on our work.

At Newsdesk.org, we also wrestle with the twin devils of bias and objectivity, and as a nonprofit, we think the solution is acknowledgment, excellence and accountability. We publish a statement on "Bias & Objectivity" on our Web site that acknowledges our nature as a commercial-free, public interest news bureau, and boasts that we can rise above our emotional priorities by giving the readers the whole story. Living up to our words -- by exceeding the editorial limitations of our personal and institutional worldviews -- is the foundation of our credibility, and a constant aspiration. If we fail, the readers will hold us accountable, at the very least by virtue of market forces like declining Web site traffic and online donations.

In the Internet era, accountability means more than publishing retractions, corrections or apologies. On-line "knowledge co-ops," like wiki (HTML bulletin boards that enable anyone to post, link and comment) or blogging Web sites, are breaking down barriers between the audience and the newsroom, and enabling a more rigorous vetting of what is published. Thus, as an idealistic on-line news project working in the emerging hypertext medium, it's to our advantage to be transparent about our motives, and to institutionalize mechanisms by which the audience can respond to and comment on our work.

On May 26, we produced the San Francisco edition of the Associated Press Managing Editors Credibility Roundtable. The event was free, and enabled attendees to cross-examine editors from KQED news, the Oakland Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner, and the San Jose Mercury News. You can see the video on Newsdesk.org, and you'll note that despite everyone's candor, the conversation barely scratched the surface of credibility, accountability and bias.

The public dialogue and the candor must continue. Properly implemented, the "open source" methodology is a proven means of quality control. Journalists and editors are not omniscient. We welcome the feedback, and have no shortage of dilemmas. As we recently were reminded, for example, records of political donations are publicly available. Does this mean we should reveal our staff's political party affiliation to the readers? Or is that just a bit too voyeuristic, institutionalizing an invasion of privacy?

Newsdesk.org considers the bias issue unresolved and the ameliorative measures thus far to be limited in scope and effectiveness. Candid and responsive discourse on the matter can only be enlivening, enlightening, and ultimately in everyone's best interest.

Josh Wilson is the editor of Newsdesk.org, a nonprofit, public-interest news bureau in San Francisco. He previously was an editor at SFGate.com, the Chronicle's Internet portal.

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A project of the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at San Jose State University, Grade the News is affiliated with the Graduate Program in Journalism at Stanford University and KTEH, public television in Silicon Valley.

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Bay Area media advocates:

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Youth Media Council
Project Censored
New California Media
Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California chapter
National Writers Union Bay Area chapter

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