Is Journalism Going to the Dogs

commentary by John McManus

Quick, off the top of your head:

  • What profession was shared by both Robert Noel and Marjorie Knoller, custodians of the two massive dogs that attacked and killed Diane Whipple 14 months ago? (No, inmate is not a profession!)
  • What were the dogs’ names? (No, not Nedra!)
  • What kind of dogs were they? (No, they were not bichon frises!)
  • What was the nickname of Paul Schneider, the Pelican Bay prison inmate, adopted son, the dogs’ owner, and intended marriage partner of Ms. Knoller and Mr. Noel?

OK, good. Now try these.

Hmmmmm!!

Of course I don’t know how you scored (answers are below). But I’m guessing you got more correct answers in the first group than the second.

And why wouldn’t you?

Despite its whopping price tag and its grand aim to protect California’s drinking water, buy and renew city parks and recreation areas, keep pristine beaches from development, purchase historically significant sites across the state to preserve our cultural heritage, Prop 40 merited only seven articles this year in the San Francisco Chronicle compared to 73 stories about the dog-mauling incident. The San Jose Mercury News devoted 10 articles to Prop. 40, compared to 48 about the Whipple murder over the same 12 weeks.

In fact, between the beginning of the year and last weekend, the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News--the Bay Area’s two best news organizations--both published more than one-and-a-half times as many stories about this single year-old murder than all six state ballot measures. Combined.

The Chronicle’s  73 dog-mauling stories and editorials compared to 45 articles about all six propositions. The Mercury’s 48 stories about the Whipple murder compared to 31 for all state ballot measures.

The analysis was conducted on each paper’s electronic archives. I called up all stories about each proposition separately and subtracted the duplications and letters to the editor. Ditto for the dog-mauling case using the keywords “Knoller” or  “Whipple” and eliminating any unrelated stories.

What's important?

Which set of stories do you think had more lasting importance for Bay Area readers? Which articles helped us act as intelligent citizens?

Only the jury got to vote on the guilt or innocence of attorneys Robert Noel and Marjorie Knoller. Every citizen, on the other hand, had a civic obligation to vote on the ballot initiatives.

Still, the dog mauling case is not bereft of importance. It serves notice on owners of aggressive dogs and sets a legal precedent. The sympathy generated for Diane Whipple’s partner may help gay partners establish survivor’s rights. There was something to be learned here.

But even though we have seen and read about every aspect of the brutal attack in the year since it first seized the headlines and opening segments of local newscasts, the Bay Area’s two biggest dailies not only reported the trial day by day, but covered jury selection, profiled the lawyers, even staffed the deaths of Hera and Bane, the two prognathous Presa Canarios.

Flashing breasts

The papers dutifully alerted us to the love triangle/adoption between Ms. Knoller, Mr. Noel and lifer Paul “Cornfed” Schneider. They kept us abreast of Ms. Knoller flashing hers in photos sent to Mr. Schneider. Even reported on bestiality that “blurred the boundaries between dog and human.”

From an entertainment point of view, the Whipple murder was a 14-month carnival of life proving stranger than fiction. In contrast, all the state ballot issues had going for them was a significant impact on the quality of our lives and our future tax bills.

How important were the ballot issues?

Even the proposition that may have seemed least important, the one governing discipline for chiropractors (Prop. 44), still affects 15,000 licensed practitioners in California, according to the Legislative Analyst. If you assume that each chiropractor sees 30 patients, that’s nearly half a million people. And since Prop. 44 affects medical insurance rates by stiffening penalties for fraud, the impact is far broader.

Prop 45 promised minimal financial implications, but it would have signaled the first crack in uniform limits for how long a politician can serve in a particular office. That makes it significant. Prop 41 modernizes our voting machinery and procedures, protecting us from the irregularities that plagued Florida in the last presidential election. Prop. 42 handcuffs the state legislature from spending gasoline taxes on anything but transportation, eventually re-directing current expenditures for education and health care. Prop. 43 moved the right to have your vote counted into the state Constitution.

Of course, Prop 40 was the big ticket item. Of particular significance locally, Prop. 40 promises to fund purchase of thousands of acres of salt ponds surrounding the Bay so they can be restored to their natural state.

Tod editors don't respond

I asked Phil Bronstein, executive editor of the Chronicle and David Yarnold, his counterpart at the Mercury , and Susan Goldberg, managing editor of the Mercury why their papers put so much more emphasis on a morbid personal tragedy than on alerting us to our options in the voting booth.

None responded. So I’ll try to present what I think a candid modern newspaper editor might say.

Editor: People aren’t interested in politics even when there are colorful personalities contesting an office. These state ballot initiatives were boooooooring. We’re not going to risk our profit-margins on stories that turn people off.

Me: You have a point. Only 34 percent of those who could have voted turned out for the primary. But that's still more than a million Bay Area residents, many of whom are your readers. And, of course, one reason for the low voter turnout may have been that newspapers like yours devoted their front pages to stories even less consequential than the Whipple case. Did I mention March Madness dribbling our attention away?

The front page of a newspaper is the focal point of the whole enterprise. It’s a bully pulpit. It’s where you tell readers what’s important. If that limited space is allocated purely on what sells, you’ve left journalism for the entertainment biz.

Editor: Wait a minute, pal. We are a business as well as a profession.

Me: So are medicine and law. Would you trust a doctor who told you what you wanted to hear rather than using her knowledge and skill to diagnose what actually ails you?

Editor: We have a legal (fiduciary) responsibility to our shareholders.

Me: The Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists says “public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy.” It doesn’t say "news is whatever generates the largest audience for our advertisers at the lowest cost to our shareholders." Are you sacrifcing Main Street to Wall Street?

I’ll grant that the Noel-Knoller trial was an astonishing read. And stories about clean water, term limits, gasoline taxes and ensuring a fair vote don’t possess the same pizzazz. But news that subordinates substance to sensation gnaws at democracy’s weakest leg--the limited willingness of the public to become informed, active citizens. Such news doesn’t enlighten and empower, but distracts and disengages.

What do you think?

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