Evaluating print and broadcast news in the San Francisco Bay Area from A to F.
E-mail to a friend | Printer-friendly version | Discuss story


Falluja is captured and the Mercury News is captivated

Which was the most important story on Sunday, Nov. 14?








Here are the lead stories presented by the New York Times and the San Jose Mercury News:


Army tanks and fighting vehicles blasted their way into the last main rebel stronghold in Falluja at sundown on Saturday after American warplanes and artillery prepared the way with a savage barrage on the district.


The Laci Peterson murder case has been many things as it played out the past 22 months. Tragic, lurid, chilling, heart-wrenching.

But undeniably, it's also been one other thing -- strangely captivating.

The New York Times focused on the battle for Falluja, at what may be a pivotal point in the Second Iraq War, for its top story. Above the fold it also examined the upcoming Palestinian election in the wake of Yasir Arafat's death, and how the drug giant Merck delayed alerting the public to the dangers of its multi-billion-dollar painkiller Vioxx.

It was Peterson weekend at the Mercury News

Although the verdict in the Peterson case was handed down on Friday and the Mercury News had run a "second coming" headline on Saturday proclaiming the Modesto fertilizer salesman "GUILTY. NEXT FOR KILLER: LIFE OR DEATH?" it reserved the top of its Sunday paper for two more stories about the case.

The Code of Ethics of the Society for Professional Journalists proclaims that journalism's primary duty is "public enlightenment ... the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy."

Which set of news judgments better advanced public enlightenment?

There's no question that the sensational aspects of the Peterson case have generated a great deal of public attention. But other than its value in selling newspapers and newscasts, what will we learn from Mr. Peterson's conviction -- or the coming stories speculating about whether he'll be a "survivor," or voted off the planet?

Mercury News reporter Mark Emmons implies that it will be a great deal. He concludes his commentary about the case's popularity by calling it the "Great American Tragedy."

New York Times reporters Dexter Filkins and Robert F. Worth make no such claim for their report on the upheaval in Iraq.

But they do describe enormous destruction in a city 300,000 people once called home. They recount house-to-house combat that claimed the lives of almost 40 American soldiers, hundreds of resistance fighters and untold numbers of civilians. They also report on the ominous collapse of Iraqi police forces and outbreaks by hundreds, or thousands, of insurgents rampaging across the northern half of the nation.

Their reporting and the pictures of gritty, exhausted Marines fill in a picture of Iraq in the midst of widespread rebellion that may be turning the tide against the occupation.

The implications for the lives of American service men and women, for the hope of spreading democracy in the Middle East, for the effort to diminish terrorism and its threat to Israel and the United States, not to mention the obligation of the U.S. Treasury to pay for the destruction and rebuilding of Iraq, are unmistakable.

Toward the end of his commentary about the Peterson case in the Mercury News, Mr. Emmons writes: "The media saturation of this case made it impossible to avoid. The Mercury News played a role." It's unclear whether this is a boast or a confession.

But when we look back at coverage of the Peterson case and of the second Iraq War, I wonder whether the emphasis on a single man's innocence or guilt compared to the agony of a nation will seem journalistically responsible.

Or will the Mercury News' captivation with empty sensation signal the decline of a great newspaper?

What do you think? Discuss it in The Coffeehouse.


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.

Monitoring the Bay Area's most popular news media:

Contra Costa Times

Knight Ridder

San Francisco Chronicle


San Jose Mercury News

Knight Ridder

KTVU, Oakland (FOX)

KTVU, Oakland (FOX)

KRON, San Francisco

KRON, San Francisco

KPIX, San Francisco (CBS)

KPIX, San Francisco (CBS)

KGO, San Francisco (ABC)

KGO, San Francisco (ABC)

KNTV, San Jose (NBC)

KNTV, San Jose (NBC)


Bay Area media advocates:

Media Alliance
Center for the Integration and Improvement of Journalism at SFSU
Maynard Institute
Youth Media Council
Project Censored
New California Media
Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California chapter
National Writers Union Bay Area chapter

Site highlights


The three-part series follows the rise of three Bay Area handouts:
• Part 1: At free dailies, advertisers sometimes call the shots
• Part 2: Free daily papers: more local but often superficial
• Part 3: Free papers' growth threatens traditional news
• See also: SF Examiner and Independent agree to end payola restaurant reviews
• And: The free tabloid that wasn't: East Bay's aborted Daily Flash


Lou Alexander started a firestorm with his original guest commentary predicting the company would be sold. Several other experts on newspapers have weighed in:
Newspapers can't cut their way back into Wall Street investors' hearts, by Stephen R. Lacy; Alexander responds
Humbler profits won't encourage buyouts, by John Morton; Alexander responds
Newspapers can't maintain monopoly profits because they've lost their monopolies, by Philip Meyer
Knight Ridder in grave jeopardy, by Lou Alexander...


Leakers and plumbers: There's no difference between a good leak and a bad leak? Journalists need a shield law. 11/22/05
Unintended consequences: How Craigslist and similar services are sucking revenue from faltering newspapers. 9/13/05
Is CPB irrelevant? As Congress moves to cut public broadcasting funds, has CPB become obsolete in the modern marketplace. 6/26/05
The paradox of news: There's more news available and its cheaper than ever before, but fewer young people are interested. 5/12/05


Most recent updatesHow the Bay Area's most popular media stack up.Talk about Bay Area journalism in our on-line discussion forum. A printable news scorecard you can use at home or in school. Raves and rants aimed at the local media. What would you do if you were the editor? Upcoming happenings and calls for public action. Let 'em know! Contact a local newsroom.Codes of ethics, local media advocates and journalism tools. Tip us off about the local media, or tell us how we're doing.Oops.A comprehensive list of past GTN exclusives.