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Bouquets and brickbats


The myth of a fair trial

Miguel Sermeno of East San Jose was separated from his children for eight months awaiting a trial and appeal for a crime he didn't commit. (Mercury News photo by Anne-Marie McReynolds.)

Bouquet to the San Jose Mercury News for an ambitious, must-read, nearly book-length five-part series this week on how the criminal justice system sometimes grossly fails to protect the rights of the accused.

The series, "Tainted Trials, Stolen Justice," paints in both broad and fine brushstrokes injustices committed by prosecutors, trial judges and appeal courts that place their own institutional prerogatives over the interests of criminal defendants. Some are innocent, while others probably are guilty but still don't deserve the severe punishment they receive.

The series took reporters, editors, photographers and graphic artists three years to assemble. Lead reporter Fredric N. Tulsky explains in the first story that it was 2002 when the paper began to sift through records of the 6th District Court of Appeal, which covers Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Monterey and San Benito counties. The paper examined 727 appeals cases over five years. While most cases appeared to have been decided properly, others appeared rife with error and malpractice.

The problems are as absurd as that of an East San Jose man falsely accused of a hit-and-run accident who was jailed for eight months after the public defender neglected to take exculpatory testimony and a judge refused to admit documentary evidence that would have cleared his name.

The final article shows clearly that the fates of prisoners who are victims of incompetent lawyers or judicial error hardly ever find relief in the Court of Appeal. The paper keenly points out that the court's reluctance to overturn misconduct cases stems from the legacy of the political climate of the 1980s that valued toughness on crime foremost.

"Taken together," reporter Fredric N. Tulsky wrote, "the Mercury News findings offer a picture of a system that often turns on its head the presumption that defendants are innocent until proven guilty. Prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and appellate justices often act in ways that cause defendants' rights to be violated."

The series, edited by Bert Robinson, is all the more noteworthy coming from a publication that has increasingly sensationalized its crime coverage -- giving front-page play to unusual events with strong human-interest angles but little broader consequence.

As Mr. Tulsky wrote, "Another outside check on the system -- media attention -- also has largely failed. The few defendants with money or connections often can command attention for their complaints against the system. But the overwhelming number of cases in the Mercury News examination, even involving the most serious allegations of error or misconduct, have received scant publicity, if any."

This massive effort to look at broad patterns the justice system might just inspire Silicon Valley residents to mobilize to make a change for the better. Journalism doesn't get better than that.

Posted Jan. 27, 2006

Public schools, public records

Administrators at the University of California enjoy all sorts of perks that aren't included in their base salaries, including mansions for the university president and 10 chancellors. (Chronicle photo by Paul Chinn.)

Bouquet to the San Francisco Chronicle, reporters Todd Wallack and Tanya Schevitz, and editors Erik Ingram and Trapper Byrne for doggedly pursuing the ever-widening story of hidden executive compensation at the University of California.

On Nov. 13, Mr. Wallack and Ms. Schevitz published the first of a series of articles detailing more than $871 million worth of undisclosed compensation for the university's highest-paid employees. These include millions for top administrators in moving expenses and paid leaves of more than a year at their top salaries -- in seeming violation of an explicit longstanding policy that was recently reaffirmed by the Board of Regents. Some top UC employees also are allowed to expense parties, pricey meals and gifts.

Another story detailed the extravagance of the "mansions" awarded to the university's president and 10 chancellors.

Incredibly, some UC officials were on the payroll without being required to do any work. The paper also uncovered conflict-of-interest violations that the university has acknowledged.

This, at a time when the university is facing dire financial pressure to cut back classes and increase tuition. The Chronicle contacted unions representing lower-paid staff, who have seen their salaries either stagnate or even decline in real dollars in recent years. Some government reformers have called the high compensation a "betrayal."

Often newspapers that set about to write investigative series reassign reporters after the original stories run, neglecting the follow-up. But the Chronicle has apparently given the team working on the UC pay story free rein to stay on the story, with impressive results.

In December they reported that their story prompted the state Legislature to plan hearings this spring about compensation at the university.

Last Friday, the Chronicle followed up on a proposal that UC President Robert Dynes has formulated that would give him even more leeway than he's previously had to set salaries without approval from the regents. His plan would allow him to boost executive pay to up to $791,600 without approval from the regents.

That move looks highly unlikely to succeed in the face of political pressure to account for runaway pay, brought to light by the persistent inquiries of a few intrepid reporters.

Posted Jan. 17, 2006


Predicting the week's catastrophe

The Contra Costa Times included explanatory graphics in its series to show why the levee system that protects sunken "islands" in the Delta are so fragile.

Bouquet to the Contra Costa Times and natural resources writer Mike Taugher, for an incisive and prescient six-part series on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the safety, health, economic and environmental dangers it poses for California.

The series, "Delta in Decline," was farsighted because on day three, in an article titled "Levees put in danger," Mr. Taugher quotes from a state report saying, "Multiple simultaneous levee failures caused by storm or earthquake would have a devastating physical and financial impact on the entire state."

The prediction came true in less than a week, as a rainstorm caused flooding across the Delta that breached and topped some of the levees there and next door in the North Bay. The state put the estimated damage at more than $100 million.

But the problems are complex, multilayered, dynamic and difficult to solve, Mr. Taugher found. After years and $3 billion of work by a state-federal partnership called CalFed, the water quality is lower and most fish populations are in decline, with some, including the Delta smelt, facing possible extinction. Rising demand for water in Southern California, pressure from developers to allow suburban sprawl in the Delta and miscalculations about available funds have made the failing health of the ecosystem even more dire.

What's past is prologue. The series, which was edited by Katherine Rowlands, is eerily reminiscent of the enterprising work of environmental reporters at the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 2002. The paper warned that New Orleans was a disaster waiting to happen because the city sat in a bowl, and the levees protecting it were in need of repair.

An earthquake or major flood could cause $30 billion to $40 billion worth of damage to the Delta, which provides a quarter of all of California's water and allows the state to export food. In light of recent events, the Contra Costa Times stands a good chance of motivating leaders to address these problems before it's too late. The final article in the series outlined some sensible proposals for reform.

Posted Jan. 4, 2006


Infomercial masquerades as political debate

Pitchman: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger got an hour of airtime on Univision stations to pitch four initiatives on the state ballot, a privilege not afforded to his opponents.

Brickbat to the Univision television network and the Bay Area Spanish-language channel KDTV Channel 14, for airing an hour-long "meeting with the governor" that presented only arguments for the four initiatives he proposed for the Nov. 8 special election.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was recorded Oct. 25 at the Univision studio in Sacramento, in what was essentially a free infomercial for one side in the debate.

Journalism ethics demand that both sides of important public issues be presented. In the weeks before an election it's difficult to think of four more important issues than the state propositions the governor is championing. Yet the governor was given 60 minutes unopposed to tout the "reform" measures that will likely form the foundation for his re-election campaign in 2006.

Unlike the carefully balanced pro and con that KTVU Channel 2 and the Contra Costa Times jointly hosted on the Governor's ballot measures on Oct. 24, the Univision event, sought no responses to any of the governor's claims. While the hand-picked studio audience asked more than a dozen questions, about half of which had to do with the ballot initiatives, none of the questioners was permitted a chance for follow-up questions. Gov. Schwarzenegger dominated the forum.

The appearance was part of a regular Saturday-morning show, "Voz y Voto" ("Voice and Vote"). In shows before and after the governor's appearance, journalists reported on the propositions individually and had in-studio debates, interviewing both supporters and detractors.

This time it was different. "It's like having "Crossfire," and then having just one guy talk," said Roger Salazar, a consultant with the Alliance for a Better California, a liberal political group opposing the governor's policies. "It went against the tradition and the spirit of debate that 'Voz Y Voto' is lauded for. It is essentially the exact oppositie of a debate."

In response to a protest lodged by Mr. Salazar's group, Diego T. Ruiz, vice president and manager of the Sacramento Univision station, replied: "Any opportunity to provide a Latino audience with an unfiltered opportunity to question the Governor of California directly is not only newsworthy, but an important public service." But the letter did not address the time imbalance.

A spokeswoman for Univision did not return calls for comment.

Univision also failed to alert its statewide viewers to the fact that billionaire A. Jerrold Perenchio, part owner of the network, was the governor's largest single campaign contributor, giving $1 million to the California Republican Party and $3.25 million to causes and campaigns backed by the governor. The contributions were reported by the Sacramento Bee. The code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists advises journalists to "disclose unavoidable conflicts."

Such partisan use of a network is particularly offensive in light of the requirement that broadcasters act fairly in return for free use of the public's airwaves.

Posted Nov. 8, 2005


When auto reviews enthuse

The substance of a "preview" of a vehicle that Mercedes-Benz is promoting as a cross between an SUV and a minivan came mostly from a company spokesman.

Brickbat to the San Jose Mercury News and auto columnist Matt Nauman, for allowing a company spokesman to dominate a preview of a so-called "crossover SUV" while ignoring the vehicle's frequent critics.

On Oct. 28 the paper ran a story titled, "Mercedes' touring vehicle: A new category of car," a glowing report on the new Mercedes-Benz R-Class. Most of the content came from the Mercedes marketing department. While auto reviewers have leeway with their personal opinions, they also have an obligation to appear above falling for auto-industry PR.

Mercedes launched a major marketing campaign to promote the new R-Class series. Ron Mueller, manager of luxury sport utility and touring vehicles for Mercedes-Benz, is quoted or paraphrased in 19 of the story's 35 paragraphs, making observations like, "As soon as people see this vehicle they say, 'It's nice looking.' They crawl inside this vehicle, they say, 'Holy cow! Where'd all this space come from?'"

Mr. Nauman said in an e-mail that he believes the story was fair.

"The Mercury News has been giving its readers an independent, expert, editorial voice on autos for 14 years," he wrote. "To imply that we're beholden to our auto advertisers is simply wrong. We have the track record, and a number of dealers and automakers who have gotten angry about things we've written over the years, to prove it."

He also pointed out that in a four-paragraph sidebar to last week's article, he mentioned that his wife referred to the car as a "hearse." "I doubt Mercedes or its local dealers liked that," Mr. Nauman wrote. He added that he has "written extensively about Mercedes' quality problems" in previous articles.

But when it came time to examine the company's newest product line, this story had almost nothing critical to say.

And there are critics: J.D. Power and Associates recently released a study measuring public perception of crossover SUVs. The R-Class received poor ratings from consumers for overall styling, and women viewed the car negatively. Other positive newspaper reviews have acknowledged this shortcoming or at least mentioned the exorbitant price ($56,275 for the R500 and $48,775 for the R350). One Associated Press story points out, "One thing is for sure: The R-Class is a pricey people hauler."

The closest cousin to the R-Class, the Mercedes-Benz M-Class (an SUV), has received consistently poor ratings from Consumer Reports. The magazine warns, "Be especially careful when considering these models." According to its 2004 annual subscriber survey, the M-Class has "shown several years of much-worse-than-average overall reliability."

So it's particularly inexplicable why Mr. Nauman would ignore this criticism once he gets in the driver's seat. Readers miss out on the context he and others provided earlier, which they might need to make an adequate purchasing decision.

Mr. Nauman contends that "I don't think it is the job of a reviewer to present alternative viewpoints," adding that it would be like a movie critic saying "I liked this movie, but others didn't."

Because auto dealers often try to influence coverage of cars in newspapers, and occasionally succeed in stifling criticism of poor-performing models, the public needs to have confidence that articles transcend the puffery of industry.

Posted Nov. 4, 2005


Informative, but no 'showdown'

Host Dennis Richmond greets two participants in Monday night's forum in Walnut Creek. (Knight Ridder photo by Karl Mondon.)

Bouquet to Oakland's KTVU Channel 2 and the Contra Costa Times for sponsoring an informative quasi-debate on the initiatives on this fall's statewide special election.

The 90-minute program, hosted by KTVU anchor Dennis Richmond, ran down the list of propositions in two parts: first with opponents of the governor's agenda -- Democratic Sen. Don Perata and California Nurses Association Executive Director Rose Ann DeMoro -- and then with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The forum was unusual because the governor didn't share the stage with his opponents: "Without the standard point-counterpoint format of modern political debates, the 90-minute forum at the Lesher Regional Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek had more of the feel of a town hall meeting than its self-described title as the 'Special Election Showdown,'" said an article in the Times the next day, written by San Jose Mercury News Sacramento bureau reporter Kate Folmar (and somewhat misleadingly also claimed by the Times as belonging to the Times Sacramento bureau).

The forum produced one interesting innovation: the 300 people in attendance were selected by Nichols Research Associates of Sunnyvale to represent ethnic, geographic and political diversity of the nine-county Bay Area. It was, Ms. Folmar noted, to "weed out strong partisans on either side."

But the segmented, indirect debate did shed light on the differences between the two sides on Propositions 74, 75,76 and 77. After discussing Proposition 74, which would require that unions seek approval of their members before spending dues money on politics, Mr. Schwarzenegger for the first time mentioned that next year he would support a companion measure to similarly require companies to seek approval of their shareholders.

Channel 2 and the Times performed a public service by highlighting the charged issues of this special campaign season at a time when many voters are starting to make up their minds.

Posted Oct. 25, 2005


Exposing risks in the Bay Area's housing boom

Bouquet to reporters Pete Carey, Mark Schwanhausser and Sue McAllister, editor Michael Dorgan, graphic artist Kevin Wendt and the San Jose Mercury News for "Unreal estate" a three-part series beginning Oct. 2 that exposed dangers in the Bay Area's housing bonanza.

When your house earns more on paper in a year than you do, it's time to step back and consider what's going on, how much longer it might go on, and what it means for the local economy.

With masterful use of graphics, research and writing, the Mercury News' team addressed an issue profoundly affecting almost all of the South Bay's residents.

Despite a severe recession, the median home price in Santa Clara County has almost doubled to $714,000. The county's median-priced house earned more than the average household's income in 2004.

As Pete Carey wrote in the series opener: "Such massive growth in home equity has set off a borrowing and remodeling binge, pumping enough money into the area's economy to help it through its post-dot-com doldrums. But recently, the 9-year-old boom in home values has begun to show signs of aging. Economists have begun warning of a slowdown in the housing market that could harm the valley's still recovering economy.

"It's clear that housing prices can't continue to rise at this rate -- 17 percent over the first eight months of this year -- experts agree. But when the boom ends, what happens to an economy that has been bolstered by real estate fees and commissions, home improvement and consumer spending from cash-out refinancing of mortgages?

"When interest rates rise, how will borrowers cope with higher payments on their interest-only, adjustablerate loans?

"Even if home prices don't fall but just level off, what would permanently elevated housing costs do to the future of the valley? Where will industry find new employees who can afford to live here?"

Seldom does a news report ask such important questions, much less answer them.

Posted Oct. 7, 2005


Denouncing deceptive advertisers

Greenwash: Chevron's ads in the Chronicle are just vague enough not to mean much, writes business columnist David Lazarus.

Bouquet to San Francisco Chronicle business columnist David Lazarus, for his fearless critique of sham corporate-identity advertising in his own newspaper.

On Wednesday Mr. Lazarus, a prolific and tenacious consumer advocate on issues such as energy deregulation, shoddy telephone service and health-care scams, turned his critical eye to a huge polluting company whose largesse helps pay his own salary.

"Warm, fuzzy, corporate" was the headline on a story that scolded, among others, San Ramon-based oil giant Chevron. The company has bought millions of dollars worth of ads in newspapers and magazines across the country, including the Chronicle, touting the company's ostensible environmental achievements.

Specifically he berates Chevron for claiming publicly to "committing over $100 million every year on renewable energies, alternative fuels and improving efficiency." In a conversation with a Chevron spokeswoman he discovered that this is puffery: The company was unable to specify how much goes to renewable energy or alternative fuels -- and how much goes to improving efficiency, which the company would be doing to save money regardless of the environmental impact.

It's refreshing to see a business journalist take on the deceptive practices of large and influential corporations. But it's even rarer that a reporter exposes such blatant manipulation at the risk of biting the hand that feeds his parent company.

Posted Sept. 23, 2005


Shared pain in the desert

Not just the pain of Israelis: The Chronicle included a glimpse of life for Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.

Bouquet to the San Francisco Chronicle for "A Time of Change," in-depth coverage of the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza strip and several outposts in the West Bank.

In more than 40 articles so far, reporter Matthew B. Stannard, photographer Lacy Atkins and editors Andrew Ross, Gail Bensinger and Bob Miller brought home the pain and conflicted story of the forced evacuation of Israeli settlers. They also crossed Israeli military checkpoints to interview Palestinians who have suffered dispossesion for so many years.

While the bulk of the articles focused on the emotional eviction of Jewish settlers -- a story the Israeli government encouraged -- the Chronicle broke away from the press pack to shed light on the little-covered plight of ordinary Palestinians under occupation. The newspaper covered the Palestinian resistance movement Hamas with more nuance and balance than customary in the U.S. press. The articles began July 24 and are continuing.


Journalism or idolatry

Going for the buzz: When screeners for a hit entertainment show came to the Bay Area, the Tribune couldn't contain its enthusiasm.

Brickbat to the Oakland Tribune, for following a cynical marketing strategy: ride the coattails of a popular TV show to sell more newspapers.

Last Friday the Tribune devoted about half its front page for a minor spot news story about a pre-screening in San Francisco for contestants wanting to appear on the hit TV show "American Idol."

Why did the Tribune make it the biggest story of the day?

Kevin Keane, vice president and executive editor of ANG newspapers owner of the Tribune, responded that it's not the role of newspapers to be all "sad and serious."

"Our focus is first and foremost local news, in all its forms," Mr. Keane wrote in an e-mail. "We shouldn't be all-government, all the time. On the contrary, readers have told us they enjoy humor and surprise in the newspaper, much of which comes out of pop culture.

"American Idol coming to the Bay Area is a local story for us. Given the news cycle that day, I believe it belonged where we played it. Plus, it was fun to boot."

We agree that a newspaper need not be serious in every story, even on the front page. Entertainment is important as a means of drawing readers to issues and events that matter. But here it displaced such information in favor of a routine interview of Idol wannabees.

Marketers are teaching news execs that to attract young readers whom advertisers covet they must write about things younger people are interested in -- regardless of news value.

"American Idol" is enormously popular, particularly with younger viewers. Covering a local audition makes sense in the arts section, maybe even below the fold on the front page, or in a front-page tease to an inside story.

But the dominant story on the front page conveys to readers what the paper considers most important that day. The Tribune has used such prominent placement recently for stories that really matter, such as pointing out possibly faulty welds on the new east span of the Bay Bridge. When uncritical writing about entertainment eclipses the news on the cover, it's hard for readers to know what's most worth their attention.

The appeal of using the front page for marketing rather than news isn't unique to ANG. The San Jose Mercury News also dedicated sprawling expanses of front-page real estate to "American Idol" when the show's traveling auditions last made a local appearance.

Posted Aug. 25, 2005


Mercury News crosses the yellow line promoting downtown race its parent company helped sponsor

Brickbat to the San Jose Mercury News for nearly abandoning other news on its front page for four straight days by displacing it with promotional coverage of auto racing downtown.

From Friday, July 29, to Monday, Aug. 1, the Mercury News ran a big yellow stripe down most of the front page to highlight its coverage of the Taylor Woodrow Grand Prix. Yellow is a significant color in racing -- it's the flag used to signal a crash. Yellow is also symbolic in journalism. It represents unbridled hype.

The Mercury News assigned more reporters than there were race cars -- 22 staff writers covering an event with only18 autos. The paper published 42 stories in just four days about a "race" that even its promoters conceded was boring and dangerous because the track -- downtown city streets -- was too narrow and bumpy for cars to pass each other.

After the Mercury News' corporate parent, Knight Ridder, donated $100,000 to the event, the paper made it the biggest news event of the year. The coverage included an editorial exhorting readers to “Get your motor running, and head out to the Grand Prix,” partial sponsorship of ads for the race and a complimentary ad for a remote control car “Mini Grand Prix” in which three Mercury News staffers participated -- an event the paper also covered.

The newspaper even took the highly unusual step of soliciting favorable letters to the editor about the event after readers sent volleys of angry letters complaining about a boring race, over-priced parking and concessions, and obstructed views of the action.

Journalism’s codes of ethics require impartiality. The Mercury News instead became a cheerleader:

“HIGH OCTANE WEEKEND AHEAD,” a giant front-page headline promised on Friday. “RACERS, FANS GET REVVED UP,” Saturday’s front page enthused. “GRAND SPECTACLE,” crowed Sunday’s page 1. “FINAL CHEERS,” applauded Monday’s cover. On the last two days, no other story shared the top half of the front page.

You might have thought the event a great success -- “full-throttle fun” or “a blast” as another Mercury News editorial proclaimed it when it was over.

But race drivers complained that the course was slippery, uneven and too narrow to pass. Half the cars that started crashed or were otherwise disabled. Many downtown businesses complained of lost customers. Banks and law firms decried an inability to do business as streets and streetcars were re-routed. One group , the San Jose's Children's Musical Theater, is considering pulling out of downtown during the summer, because of the disruption.

More than a week after the event traffic downtown was still disrupted, as crews removed the heavy concrete barriers with their curving chain-link panels designed to keep a careening race car from striking race fans. As the Mercury News' editors conceded in a note pleading for positive letters: "The letters we initially received about the recent inaugural Champ Car Taylor Woodrow Grand Prix of San Jose were predominantly negative.”

Given that most of these problems were reported by the Mercury News, was it really a “grand spectacle?” Worthy of more concentrated attention than any other event or issue in 2005 thus far?

Certainly the first sports car race through downtown San Jose merited coverage. Over three days the event drew more than 100,000 spectators. It was billed as a fund-raiser for the Canary Fund to improve cancer detection techniques. (But no one quoted by the Mercury News seemed hopeful that the event's estimated $10 million cost would be recouped by ticket sales and corporate promotions. Even with the event operating at a loss, its promoters were taken at their word when they said their intent was to generate funds for and spur interest in a cancer charity.)

When newspapers partner with promoters to hawk an event, particularly one where the benefits to the community are so speculative and uncertain, they open themselves to charges of bias and favoritism -- why not devote saturation coverage to the equally popular Gilroy Garlic Festival? By displacing so much other news from prominent display, they also frustrate readers who depend on the Mercury to makes sense of the world.

Mercury News Managing Editor David Satterfield responds: “As you note, the Champ Car race was the first road race in downtown San Jose. It attracted an estimated 100,000 people. It resulted in the closing of a number of city streets. We thought it merited big coverage.

"As usual, your review is selective. We wrote stories about delays, about poor racing conditions and about the perception by some that the race was as exciting as a parade. And if you go back a few months, we raised serious questions about whether the city should be contributing money to the event (which the city ultimately did not do).”

Posted Aug. 9, 2005


Readers shouldn’t have to worry whether ads bought favorable coverage

Brickbat to the San Francisco Examiner, for giving the impression that its travel stories are for sale.

Two weeks ago, the paper ran a story about Las Vegas, titled, "The greatest show on Earth." Such language is common in advertising, but in journalism that kind of hyperbole deserves a second look.

The Examiner story’s top recommendation for shows that week was Celine Dion performing at Caesars Palace, complete with a provocative photo of the diva, apparently provided by the promoters. The entire page opposite that story displayed an ad for the same show by the same singer.

Double vision: Both the news, left, and ad recommended Celine Dion. The Examiner says the newsroom communicates with the ad department, but not vice versa.

Asked about the Celine Dion double vision, the Examiner's executive editor, Vivienne Sosnowski, said she notifies the ad department of upcoming travel features, but the paper's ad department doesn't tell her what to report. "I don't know anything about advertising until it appears in the paper the next day," she said.

One-way communication across the wall that ethical news media erect between the news and advertising departments may seem harmless. And many newspapers do it.

But it doesn't entirely solve the problem of insulating journalists -- whose obligation is to the public interest alone -- from advertisers looking for favorable coverage of their business. When the newsroom informs the ad department of upcoming articles, it does so in order to help the paper sell ads associated with those articles. News becomes "bait."

The arrangement creates two negative pressures in the newsroom: The first is to choose topics that can sell advertising. The second is to cover them in a way that creates a buying mood in readers. Who would want to miss "the greatest show on earth"?

Imagine how angry an advertiser might be if he or she purchased an ad after being notified about an upcoming story, only to have the story undermine the ad. The advertiser would probably feel betrayed. But readers are betrayed when news is chosen not for the public's benefit, but for the advertiser's.

The code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists urges news media to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest. This should be a particular priority now, when the public's estimation of news credibility is at an all-time low.

Posted July 1, 2005


The biggest little sports scandal

The Mercury News did more than 100 interviews to research the exhausting effects of sports on kids. (Photo: Joanne Ho-Young, Mercury News)

Bouquet to the San Jose Mercury News for a sober examination of the unrealistic and even destructive expectations placed on kids who play sports.

This week the paper ran a well-written three-part series about the explosive growth in high-pressure children's sports. Many kids assume that if they practice enough, they'll get an athletic scholarship to college. All too often, however, the results are overuse injuries, burnout and a hole in their parents' pockets. Only about one in 300 high school senior athletes gets a "free ride" to college through sports. But everyone's kid is the best, right? The recent craze for pre-teen traveling club sports is also exacerbating a divide between the recreational haves and have-nots.

While the San Francisco Chronicle, most of the TV stations and, to a lesser extent, the Mercury News itself obsessed on the chemical dependencies of celebrity professional athletes, staff writer Mark Emmons instead went after the big story about sports: little people.

Posted April 15, 2005


A billion here, a billion there ...

Photo: Liz Mangelsdorf, San Francisco Chronicle.

Bouquet to Sean Holstege and the Oakland Tribune, for getting out in front of peers in describing the billions of dollars of cost miscalculations in the state's construction of the new east span of the Bay Bridge.

Mr. Holstege got 13 pounds of records from the California Department of Transportation using the California Public Records Act. In the documents, he found evidence that the state hid early reports that the bridge would cost billions more than the department had at its disposal. The documents also show how the option now being considered -- to replace a tower design with a flat roadway -- wasn't even proposed until last October, and isn't assured to save the state money. In addition, 90 steel workers have been laid off and legions of Caltrans engineers remain in limbo, since they legally can only work on the tower design.

To their credit, other major news organizations, such as the San Francisco Chronicle and KPIX Channel 5, quickly followed Mr. Holstege's work.

Posted Jan. 25, 2005


An eye on corporate shell games

Matt Smith's SF Weekly column on the Web.

Bouquet to Matt Smith and SF Weekly, for highlighting the local angle on the international Parmalat fraud scandal -- something the local daily press should have been more attentive to.

Mr. Smith, whose irreverent column in the free weekly routinely takes on corrupt businesses and politicians, this week does both. He goes into some depth discussing how Bank of America and Wells Fargo, two major banks that were then both headquartered in San Francisco, allegedly helped Parmalat swindle investors. They are accused of aiding the bankrupt Italian food giant in raising of billions of dollars by constructing elaborate financing deals that hid the company's debt and exaggerated its equity.

You'd think the daily newspapers would be interested in this story, especially since the Italian appointed overseer of Parmalat has named Bank of America in a multi-billion-dollar suit. And, as Mr. Smith notes, there's a great story in all this about how U.S. regulators may be encouraging such rogue behavior by failing to investigate American companies.

But none of the top four Bay Area newspapers has had its own reporters write a word about Parmalat's San Francisco connection. The San Francisco Chronicle has run a few briefs from the New York Times and once last year mentioned a Parmalat-owned Bay Area cookie factory in a column. The San Jose Mercury News has run several Associated Press stories, buried on the inside of the business section. The Contra Costa Times and Oakland Tribune have been mum on the topic, even though the scandal has deep roots in their own backyard.

Stories like this one are strong evidence that the "alternative press" plays a role in pointing out important news about powerful institutions, news that's often neglected by the mainstream.

Posted Jan. 13, 2005

Chronicle's world-class ambitions

The San Francisco Chronicle ran a powerful but rare front-page story in May about warring factions in Sudan that use rape as a political weapon. (Photo by Daniel Pepper, special to the Chronicle.)

Bouquet to the San Francisco Chronicle, for thinking deeply about why important news matters more than fluff -- and then acting on it.

The Chronicle's reader representative, Dick Rogers, wrote a compelling column in Sunday's paper, titled, "Looking away as a tragedy unfolds." His concern was the horror of civil war and famine in Sudan.

"Too little of this human tragedy has made its way into the pages of newspapers, including The Chronicle, and too rarely onto the front page," Mr. Rogers wrote.

Mr. Rogers continued the use of a simple audit -- frequency of appearance on the front page -- to communicate that his own paper's priorities are out of whack. Just three stories about Sudan have appeared on the front page this year, compared with 14 about Barry Bonds and 36 about the Scott Peterson murder trial.

On Monday, there was no A1 story about Sudan. But the paper did highlight another important topic in a well-written and thoughtful article by James Sterngold. He took a step back from the news about disarming Iran to discuss how experts in nuclear policy believe the last 50 years of anti-proliferation work have, or will shortly, become unraveled. More countries are seeking nuclear weapons, and little is being done by the United States or the international community to stop it.

Contrast that approach with the San Jose Mercury News, which once again force-fed its readers another inconsequential-but-sexy story about Scott Peterson that took up most of the top of the front page Monday. From today's papers, at least, it's pretty clear which one is making an effort to be taken seriously.

Posted Nov. 22, 2004


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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.