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Did Mercury editor cross an ethical line testifying at a city council meeting?

On Sunday March 12, San Jose Mercury News Executive Editor Susan Goldberg published a front page editorial calling for more openess in San Jose's municipal government. On Tuesday night at the San Jose City Council meeting, Mercury News Editorial Page Editor Steve Wright addressed the council during the formal public hearing on proposals for a new "sunshine" regulation.

Wright's public testimony raised ethics questions for David Vossbrink, communications director
in the office of San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales:

"In my decades as a municipal public information officer, I have never encountered such a step by a representative of a major newspaper," Vossbrink wrote in an email.

Here's my take: It was perfectly appropriate, even laudable, for Mr. Wright to have testified.

Journalism's norms of objectivity would frown on a reporter testifying at a meeting she or he wascovering. How could such a reporter claim to be a neutral party?

But it's the job of the editorial page to take stands on important public issues. And open government is a fundamental public issue.

It may be unusual for an editorial page editor to testify at a public meeting. Obviously, such testimony is an effort to persuade the city council to adopt the Mercury News' model sunshine ordinance. But so are Mr. Wright's editorials.

News media are not forbidden to become part of the story. They are merely required to report on their involvement without fear or favor. If this were not so, the Mercury News could not report on one of the most important local stories of the day -- its sale, along with Knight Ridder's.

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...


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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


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