Guest commentary

Bonds hits 715; news media strike out

By Richard Knee
Posted May 31, 2006

Barry's 715th displaced harder-hitting stories in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Some noteworthy events took place on Sunday, May 28.

The death toll from a devastating earthquake in Indonesia shot past 4,300. Violence left hundreds dead or wounded in East Timor and Somalia. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist defended the FBI's seizure of records and cash from Rep. William J. Jefferson's office. Hints surfaced of an attempted cover-up in the alleged slayings by U.S. Marines of 24 civilians in Haditha, Iraq. The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories and the University of California said they might build a bio-defense lab near Tracy, where experiments with deadly microbes would be conducted.

Any of those would have been good front-page material for Monday's papers. Most were shoved to the inside in the Bay Area's largest dailies -- if they appeared at all.

What occurrence was so momentous that editors at the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News decided it should occupy upward of 60% of their front-page news holes? Barry Bonds' 715th home run.

Granted, it was a milestone and it had the local interest element. So above-the-fold placement on page one wasn't out of line (in my opinion, anyway). But to devote so much front-page space and assign multiple reporters to something that amounted to nil in the larger scheme of things -- and that was old news to most local residents by Monday morning -- was inexcusable.

The Contra Costa Times did only slightly better, with the Bonds story occupying about 40 percent of the front page.

... and in the San Jose Mercury News.

The Oakland Tribune was exemplary, teasing the Bonds story just below the page-one flag and otherwise filling page one with some stories that were, well, harder-hitting.

Then there's the number itself -- 715 --printed in boldface type, two inches or taller in the Chronicle, the Mercury and the Tribune. I'd like to see the papers give the same treatment to more meaningful events -- such as every 100th death stemming from the violence in Darfur or Iraq.

The one TV newscast I caught on Sunday, KTVU's 10 p.m. edition, devoted its first seven or eight minutes to the Bonds story. It's an hourlong show, but commercials cut the actual news portion to about 44 minutes. On TV and radio, anything above 20 seconds is considered a long time. Spending seven minutes out of 44, reliving Bonds' big moment was, simply, overkill. The at-the-top placement in the newscast made it all the worse.

Richard Knee

This isn't the first instance of media doting on a local team or athlete. And I doubt it will be the last. Revisiting sports triumphs sells papers and draws viewers. And it's much, much easier than offering real news.

Every so often, I raise the issue with editors at journalists' gatherings. Some pay lip service to agreeing with me. Their typical line: "We've been looking at it, and we're going to make some changes. It won't happen over night, but you'll begin to notice it."

I won't hold my breath.

Richard Knee is a freelance journalist in San Francisco and a member of the GradetheNews.org Community Advisory Board. E-mail him at rak0408 (AT) earthlink.net.