Giving readers the finger

By John McManus
Posted May 5, 2005

A story too big to fit above the fold.

If you rely on the front page of the San Jose Mercury News to keep abreast of the world, chances are good that you know plenty about a finger turning up in a bowl of Wendy’s chili in March.

But next to nothing about the war in Iraq, rising inflation, the stormy confirmation hearings of John Bolton, the Bush administration’s nominee for U.N. ambassador, or North Korea’s nuclear advances, or the slaughter in Darfur, or a conflict in the Congo said to be killing 30,000 people a month, or an energy bill moving through Congress that would award $89 billion in tax breaks to an oil industry selling its product at record prices.

In the month from when the story broke of Anna Ayala finding a finger in her chili bowl at a San Jose Wendy’s to the Sunday following her arrest for allegedly planting that finger in order to sue the popular restaurant chain, the Mercury News ran 11 front page stories about the incident. In addition, the story made the local news front page seven times. In all, it was the primary subject of 23 stories, including an editorial during the period, from March 23 to April 24.

John McManus

During that 33-day period a search of the Mercury News’ archive shows that the insurgency in Iraq merited but a single story on the most-read page of the newspaper. And it was a personality story -- a profile of slain Bay Area activist Marla Ruzicka. The effort of Iraqis to put together a unified national government – a key aim of U.S. policy – got no page 1 play. Nor did genocide in Darfur nor slaughter in the Congo.

The debate about whether Mr. Bolton’s nomination as ambassador to the U.N. would exacerbate or ease U.S. isolation in the world rated nada on 1A. Same for Zaccarias Moussaoui’s Al Qaeda guilty plea. The move to change rules in the Senate to outlaw the filibuster and pave the way for confirmation of federal judges Democrats have judged radically conservative? 0.

Privatization of social security was blanked on 1A. Ditto the controversial Congressional energy bill that would also protect oil companies from suits over pollution caused by MTBE, which has infiltrated drinking water supplies in California and across the nation. Israel’s expansion of West Bank settlements, breaking the terms of the U.S. “roadmap for peace,” and violence by and against Palestinians didn’t merit the front page. Nor did the Army investigation clearing top brass of responsibility for prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib.

How about the gathering controversy over alleged ethical violations by key presidential ally and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay? Not on 1A.

In a period of war and other momentous developments, why was the chili bowl finger story played so much more prominently than these other stories?

Frequency of major stories on Mercury News front page 3/23 to 4/24/05

Story topic

# 1A stories

Finger in the chili bowl
Oil/gasoline prices
Insurgency in Iraq
Rising inflation
Stock market swings
Forming new Iraqi government
Bolton confirmation
Congressional energy bill
Abu Ghraib investigation
North Korean nuclear threat
Soc. security privitization
Darfur genocide
Revoking the filibuster
Moussaoui terror trial
Cong. DeLay's ethics
Congo slaughter

“We played the finger more prominently because it was local and it was ours,” Mercury News Managing Editor David Satterfield replied by email. “In the age of the Internet and 24-hour television news, our priorities are different today than they were five years ago. We want to be local, unique and useful.

“We don't want to simply give readers the news they've heard -- or read on the web -- throughout the day. The finger was an interesting tale, it was local and it became a national story.”

But was it more important than the war in Iraq?

“Of course not,” Mr. Satterfield responded. “But the Mercury News is just one of many outlets to get news about the war in Iraq -- and we've run a story virtually every day for the past three years about the war in Iraq. Increasingly, those stories are running inside, because readers have other options and -- because of the news cycle -- the Iraq news often is quite old by the time we go to press.

“Sure, we run important stories on the front page all the time. But importance isn't the sole criteria for a story to crack the 1A lineup.”

Local? Well, the finger was “discovered” in San Jose, but the story quickly migrated to Nevada, Ms. Ayala’s home.

Unique? The Merc says it broke important elements of the story, but the finger in the chili bowl was one of the most widely reported stories in the nation, available in other newspapers, all over local TV news, on cable news and on the Web. Type “finger in the chili bowl and Wendy’s” into a Google search and 90,900 entries are displayed.

The Merc’s sparkling series on young athletes wearing themselves out for college scholarships was unique. So was its reform-motivating investigation of the California Youth Authority. No one else had these. The finger was ubiquitous.

Useful? What public interest was served by saturation coverage of what police are calling simply a hoax?

• Massive revenue losses at Northern California Wendy’s: the national restaurant chain reported losing a million dollars a day in the first month after the story broke. The company also has spent heavily to restore public confidence in its business.
• At least 20 copycat findings of foreign objects in Wendy’s food.
• Humor: A series of finger jokes by comedians like Jay Leno (“I didn’t know Wendy’s sold finger food.” “I guess we know what Wendy’s did with their founder, Dave Thomas.”)

If there were systemic problems with Wendy’s food supply that might have threatened public health, widespread coverage would certainly have been justified. But this was not like the E. Coli bacterial contamination of Jack in the Box hamburgers that killed four and sickened hundreds in 1993. Nor is it like the Tylenol tampering case in 1982 when seven Chicago area residents died from cyanide-laced capsules.

Research shows that the stories getting the most repeated play in news media tend to set the public’s conversational agenda.

Was this agenda-setting power used responsibly to focus our attention on the issues citizens must engage for democracy to work. Or was it squandered on diversion for consumers?