Commentary

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

By John McManus
Posted Mar. 23, 2006

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.