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Contra Costa Times and Mercury News provide comprehensive, useful voter's guides

The Contra Costa Times Voters Guide is a superb resource.

Bouquets to the Contra Costa Times and San Jose Mercury News for thoughtful, impartial, easy-to-read guides to the long, complex ballots East Bay and South Bay residents are facing.

Information about the presidential race is easy to come by, but not independent journalism about candidates for local school boards and judgeships. Both papers filled the gap and made the work of citizenship less burdensome.

The Times' voter's guide was particularly well executed. Rather than letting candidates mouth platitudes about good government and "cutting fat," the paper queried candidates on specific issues relevant to local voters. The two Contra Costa County supervisor candidates in district 3, for example, were asked about such specifc issues as "refinery worker safety" and "Vasco/highway 4 traffic." Staff writers also wrote interpretative articles about the most pressing issues in each race.

The Times also showed respect for minor party candidates, giving Libertarians and Peace and Freedom hopefuls space equal to that of Republicans and Democrats. Although not as comprehensive, the Mercury News' guide, at left, puts a wealth of information in one place.

Both guides are particularly easy to access on the Web and currrently available without charge.

Posted Oct. 28, 2004

 

The scandal of California's youth prisons

A ward of the California Youth
Authority is checked for tatoos which
may indicate gang affiliation.
(Mercury News photo by Judith Carlson)
Bouquet to the San Jose Mercury News, reporters Karen de Sa, Brandon Bailey and Griff Palmer, photographers Judith Carlson and Richard Koci Hernandez, graphic artist Rob Hernandez and editors John Hubner and Elisabeth Rubinfien for a thoroughly researched and compellingly written six-day series illuminating the expensive, ineffective and often cruel system California has created for juvenile offenders.

"All Californians suffer the consequences of the youth prison system failures -- from the inmates and their families, to the victims of new crimes, to the taxpayers who must foot the agency's $387 million annual bill," Ms. de Sa and Mr. Bailey wrote in the lead article, which appeared Sunday, Oct. 17. Among other startling revelations:

This is the kind of reporting about important issues that makes the Mercury News indispensable for South Bay residents.

The Mercury News special report is available at http://www.mercurynews.com/mercurynews/news/9942303.htm. (Seven days after publication, most Mercury News articles carry a charge for viewing.)

Posted Oct. 26, 2004

 

Should the news prepare us to be voters ... or fans?

Part of page 1A, San Jose Mercury News, Saturday, Sept. 18.

Bouquet to the San Francisco Chronicle for getting journalism's priorities straight and Brickbat to the San Jose Mercury News for reversing them.

In Thursday's Chronicle, Washington Bureau Chief Mark Sandalow analyzed 200 of John Kerry's comments and speeches about the Iraq war and concluded that the primary Republican claim that Kerry has "flip-flopped" on the issue is a myth. The Chronicle gave the story front-page play, appropriate to the importance of vetting the most repeated charge the Republican Party has levied against Mr. Kerry.

Whether or not you agree with the analysis, the Chronicle used the front page to empower its readers as voters.

Last Saturday the Mercury News took an opposite direction.

The Mercury News ran a thoughtful head-to-head analysis of President Bush's and Mr. Kerry's health care plans on page 19A, just inside the back cover. There was no room on page 1. The San Jose paper devoted fully 80% its front cover to Barry Bonds' 700th home run. That's more space than it allocated to President Bush's declaration of military victory in Iraq last May!

Preparing us to be Bonds' fans trumped informing us about one of the central controversies in the presidential contest: how each candidate would address the scandal of almost 50 million Americans -- mostly children -- without health insurance.

Here's how the Mercury News report described the importance of the health care issue: "The problems [of soaring costs and dwindling coverage and care], which touch every American family and business, combined to make health care one of the central issues of Election 2004."

Here's how the paper assessed the consequence of Mr. Bonds' home run: "It may not have been the Shot Heard 'Round the World, but given the cheers that followed Barry Bonds' 700th home run, it surely resounded at least as far away as Cooperstown."

Nowhere in the ethics of journalism does it say its purpose is to encourage fanship, or to distract us from the problems -- and solutions -- of the day by elevating a mere game -- a pastime -- over real life.

Rather, fostering citizenship is journalism's aim. The Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics begins with the assertion that "public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends...."

To be sure, last Saturday the Chronicle played Bonds' 700th big as well. But compared to the Mercury News' enshrinement of Mr. Bonds' accomplishment, the Chronicle's coverage left room above the fold for other stories from a turbulent world bursting with news that will mark our lives and those of our children far more deeply than the arc of a baseball.

Posted Sept. 23, 2004

 

Bungling homeland security

An interactive map on the Oakland Tribune's Web site (inactive here) shows how much each of the state's 58 counties got, breaks it down per capita and tells what they bought with the money.
Bouquet to the Alameda Newspaper Group, for an alarming and thoroughly researched series of articles this week demonstrating how anti-terrorism money was poorly distributed in California and how local officials wasted millions in anti-terrorism funds by investing in outmoded technology.

The four-day series, which ran in the Oakland Tribune and other ANG publications across the Bay Area, compiled a list of shocking details:

The reporting was based on more than 2,000 pages of documents from the state Office of Emergency Services and included homeland security grant applications and progress reports, and similar filings in nine Bay Area counties. State officials, after several months of arguing that releasing details about equipment purchases would give terrorists valuable information about potential weaknesses, relented.

"The documents," the reporters wrote, "obtained under the California Public Records Act, show that more than a quarter-billion dollars has been doled out in California with little regard to risk or threat. Local officials have been slow to spend the money and often have little understanding about how to use the things they're buying."

The series was written by Oakland Tribune reporters Michele R. Marcucci, Ian Hoffman and Sean Holstege. Editors included Mike Oliver, Bob Goll and Keith Jones. Director of design Chris Walker oversaw graphics and page design. Graphic artist Josh Ruthnick created the graphics. Ryan Medlin oversaw the on-line map.

If you care about California's ability to respond to a terror attack, don't miss this prize-worthy series, "Missing the Target," on the Tribune's Web site:
http://www.oaklandtribune.com/Stories/0,1413,82%257E27730%257E,00.html

Posted Sept 10, 2004

 

Front-page presidential endorsement?

The Chronicle, Sept. 3. Editorial or news?
Brickbat to the San Francisco Chronicle for either abandoning impartiality or choosing its words poorly when assessing President Bush's speech on the front page Friday.

"BUSH'S VISION FOR U.S. -- IDEALISTIC AND STRONG," declared a headline that spread across five of the six columns atop the paper's cover the morning after the Republican nominee spoke. Whether the president's vision is either idealistic or strong constitute opinions -- and controversial ones at that -- not statements of fact.

Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context.

-- Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics

If this was an editorial declaration by the paper or perhaps an early endorsement, it wasn't marked as such. Further, neither story under the headline supported its conclusion. Staff writers John Wildermuth, Zachary Coile and Carla Marinucci reported the story straight. Neither word, "idealistic" nor "strong," appeared in their report. Praise of Bush was carefully attributed to sources rather than made by journalists. Those terms were also missing from Marc Sandalow's rather sober news analysis describing Bush's softened tone.

Five weeks earlier, the Chronicle headlined Democratic nominee John Kerry's speech objectively: "KERRY ISSUES CHALLENGE: Democratic nominee calls for 'contest of big ideas'."

On Friday, the New York Times described Mr. Bush's talk, but left characterizations of his vision to the candidate by setting it off in quotes: "Bush, Evoking 9/11, Vows to 'Build a Safer World'; Outlines Plans for a 2nd Term and Attacks Record of Kerry." The headline leaves it to the reader to assess Mr. Bush's words.

Ironically, also on Friday the Chronicle's editorial page -- where opinion is acceptable and clearly labeled -- described Mr. Bush's speech, but offered no assessment of the quality of the president's vision.

Posted Sept. 3, 2004

 

City hall coverage costs manager her job

Wandzia Grycz
Bouquet to the San Jose Mercury News and reporters Aaron Davis and Barry Witt, for following through with the investigation the paper began in June into San Jose's profligate city hall tech budget.

On Tuesday, the paper led with a story describing the resignation of the city's Chief Information Officer Wandzia Grycz, in advance of an audit describing favoritism and collusion in the awarding of an $8 million contract to Cisco Systems.

The audit followed the front-page report last June, in which Mr. Davis pointed the runaway costs of technology for the building, including a $12,000 50-inch plasma-screen television for the mayor's office, $400 Internet telephones, a $9,200 pivoting lectern and $5 million worth of new cubicles.

The audit found that Cisco was writing technology guidelines for the city, recommending Cisco products, a violation of city rules that promote competition.

On Wednesday, reporters Davis and Witt wrote a follow-up story revealing that the San Jose Police Department has been conducting a criminal investigation into Ms. Grycz's "possible electronic eavesdropping" of colleagues.

The exposure of such abuses, if substantiated, justifies the Mercury News' use of the word "watchdog" to describe itself.

Posted Aug. 11, 2004

 

From tawdry to terrific journalism in a single weekend

The Chronicle connected $108,000 in political donations to a non-profit construction grant in San Francisco.
Both a brickbat and a bouquet to the San Francisco Chronicle, for leading the paper with an irrelevant, lurid crime story one day last weekend, and a fabulous investigation into potential political corruption the next.

On Saturday, the Chronicle featured on A1 a story that could hardly have less impact on the lives of its readers: "Plastic tarp and duct tape are tested for links to body; Prosecutors didn't know of park police's suspicions until this week." In case you're wondering why the nation's 11th largest newspaper considers a minor development in the prosecution of a single crime the most important story of the day, all we have to say is the name of the defendant: Scott Peterson. Mr. Peterson, a celebrity by means of mass media vilification after being charged with murdering his pregnant wife, undeniably sells papers. But no one ordered the Chronicle to displace serious news from the top of the front page, and thus cheapen its reputation, for a one-day circulation boost.

On Sunday, in contrast, the Chronicle spotlighted some of the best investigative journalism the paper has produced this year. Reporters Vanessa Hua and Christian Berthelsen traced $108,000 donated to Secretary of State Kevin Shelley's campaign. It turns out that the money came from five contractors who were paid nearly identical amounts shortly beforehand by a non-profit group run by San Francisco real estate agent and power broker Julie Lee and her son Andrew. It's unclear what, if any, work the contractors performed for the money. The cash came from a state grant for half a million dollars that Mr. Shelly arranged in 2000 when he was Assembly speaker. Although Mr. Shelley denied knowledge of any impropriety and ordered an investigation, it's hard to imagine that he will escape scrutiny for what the Chronicle portrayed as possible use of public funds for political campaigning.

Pati Poblete and Chuck Finnie edited the political contributions story; Jennifer Thelen copy edited it and graphic artist John Blanchard illustrated it.

Now, if only the Chronicle could show itself to be a great paper more than every other day ...

Posted Aug. 9, 2004

 

Kerry vs. 'Frasier': Politics wins

John Kerry, not quite live, on KRON last Thursday.
Bouquet to KRON Channel 4, and KQED Channel 9, for leading the pack on television by providing prime-time coverage of the Democratic National Convention all four nights last week.

KRON had originally programmed "Inside Edition" and "Frasier" from 10 to 11 p.m. every night, but decided to pre-empt them Monday through Thursday in favor of running the highlight speeches from the convention.

"Our strategy was to give the viewers an alternative to the live coverage on the networks by running the speeches late at night," said Pat Patton, KRON program director.

If you didn't have cable, and thus lacked C-SPAN, your only other option to watch the convention every night was KQED public television, which ran the convention live at least two hours every night.

The other broadcast news stations aired parts of the convention on some, but not all of the nights, either during the regularly scheduled newscast or in a special.

KGO Channel 7, however, also aired two special one-hour issue programs after the last two nights of the convention under the banner of "Beyond the Headlines." A program called "The Voting Gap," on who votes and who doesn't, aired from 8 to 9 p.m. on Wednesday. A program called "The Bay Area's Economic Future" aired at the same time Thursday night, and will be rebroadcast Aug. 15.

Ed Chapuis, news director at KTVU Channel 2, said that although his station did not run any unedited convention speeches, "Mornings on 2" interviewed local Democrats from Boston, and political reporter Randy Shandobil filed reports from the floor of the convention every day.

(Disclosure: Grade the News director John McManus receives an occasional honorarium from KQED for recording audio "Perspectives" on the media and hosting the "Forum" call-in talk show.)

Posted Aug. 2, 2004
Updated Aug. 6, 2004

 

Using TV to stop help the killing

Barbara Rodgers, right, interviewed members of the audience about solutions to the violence in KPIX's special, "Target: Bayview."

Bouquet to KPIX Channel 5 for treating the problems of violence and poverty in the Bayview district more seriously than San Francisco's own mayor.

The station aired a one-hour news special titled "Target: Bayview -- Search for solutions," on July 1. The program delved into possible causes and solutions to a rash of killings throughout the southeastern corner of the city, home to a close-knit black community besieged recently by gang clashes.

Reporters Barbara Rodgers and Manny Diaz hosted a forum the station organized at the historic Bayview Opera House attended by community leaders and Kamala Harris, the district attorney.

The program was interspersed with reports that fleshed out the long-term trends: There were 40 murders the first five months of 2004, meaning that if current trends continued there would be 97 for the year -- one of the most violent years since 1990, when police recorded 161 murders.

Panelists discussed possible causes: Availability of guns, lack of job opportunity, failure of the police to investigate thoroughly, the hesitancy of residents to "snitch" on neighbors and children growing up without fathers. "I grew up without my father there, so I gave my mother a hard time," said one participant, former gang member Maurice Sullivan. "There's a lot more youngsters out there I see, my son's age, don't have a father or nobody in the house -- no guidance."

One report broke down the gang territories with an illuminating map of five zones controlled by the BTN, Westmob, Big Block, Harbor Road and Oakdale gangs.

Mayor Gavin Newsom was invited to the gathering but declined to attend. That didn't stop the station from producing a compelling hour of television that challenged the community and the city at large to solve the violence problem.

Among the numerous KPIX personnel listed in the credits, Tim Didion was the program's executive producer; Ginnelle Elliot the producer; Sydnie Kohara and Mike Sugerman the reporters; and Chris Mistrot, Jennifer Mistrot and Joe Riordan the photographers.

Posted July 13, 2004

Inspiration in 3 and a half minutes

KRON aired the profile of Byron Wilson, a high achiever despite the odds, on Monday.

Bouquet to reporter/anchor Wendy Tokuda and KRON Channel 4 for the station's ongoing series "Students Rising Above," which challenges preconceptions about young people who come from the most troubled circumstances.

The occasional feature focuses on students who have suffered from domestic violence, poverty and family illness, to overcome their troubles to excel in school.

In March, the station was awarded one of the most prestigious honors in broadcast journalism, the Peabody Award, from the University of Georgia's Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. It was one of 29 Peabodys presented last month in New York.

Tokuda started the series when she arrived at KRON in 1997. The program grew to involve 85 students in schools across the Bay Area and multiple non-profit organizations.

The students selected for recognition on the air are awarded college scholarships; since 1998, the station says, viewers have donated more than $2.4 million to the Students Rising Above Fund, all of which goes directly to the students.

Though there is always an element of voyeurism in such dramatic tales of young people pulling themselves up out of tragic situations (and the scholarships are an incentive for the students to tell all) the 3-and-a-half-minute segments are filmed to treat the youths with respect and dignity.

The most recent episode profiled Byron Wilson, a senior at Oakland High School, who has been living with his aunt because his mother was "strung out on drugs" and his father ended up in prison. The station showed him nearing adulthood well adjusted and ready to succeed, having earned a 3.3 GPA.

"It took me like a couple of years to decide that I am a hundred percent sure that I want to be someone," Bryon told KRON.

Posted June 23, 2004

Second-guessing San Jose's tower of tech

The Mercury News' deft use of infographics helped put the story in perspective.
Bouquet to reporter Aaron Davis and the San Jose Mercury News, for shining a light on the City of San Jose's technology shopping spree to outfit its gleaming new city hall.

Mr. Davis dug through memoranda and e-mails among city employees for his story on the front page Sunday, "Furnishing a controversy: Tech budget for new S.J. city hall prompts finger-pointing."

The story shows how the city bureaucracy -- with apparent full knowledge of Mayor Ron Gonzales -- kept secret for months the total technology and furniture bill that at one point in the process reached $70 million. It has since been halved, but even that sum was nearly 10 times larger than original estimates. Among the whiz-bang gadgets: a $12,000 50-inch plasma-screen television for the mayor's office, $400 Internet telephones, a $9,200 pivoting lectern and $5 million worth of new cubicles.

Mr. Davis returned to the topic Tuesday with a story on the outrage that politicians and other critics expressed. They said they were kept in the dark about the expenditures, and are threatening a lawsuit to curb spending.

Mr. Davis said he was aided in his research and presentation by Bert Robinson, assistant managing editor/metro; Kevin Wendt, news design director; Javier Zarracina, graphics artist and Denis Theriault, copy editor.

Posted June 22, 2004

 

Learning about homelessness, away from home

San Francisco can learn from Philadelphia, which dispatches social workers to entice homeless people from the streets. (Chronicle photo by Brant Ward.)
Bouquet to San Francisco Chronicle reporter Kevin Fagan for taking the time to explain solutions to homelessness that work in other parts of the country.

For articles that ran on the front page Sunday and Monday, Mr. Fagan traveled to Philadelphia and New York, where he took a close look at programs that have good track records of keeping panhandlers and other chronically homeless people off the streets. In Philadelphia, he traced that city's success in getting thousands of homeless people into supportive housing programs to one Catholic nun -- who explained the value of reaching out to the homeless and dealing with their concerns quickly and efficiently. In New York, Mr. Fagan focused on one program, Pathways to Housing, which cuts short the usual requirements of social service and drug or alcohol rehabilitation. He followed one man on his journey to his first private apartment in decades.

Mr. Fagan's writing is filled with statistics on success rates as well as compelling anecdotes. Most notably, he resists the temptation to take sides in long-simmering debates over homelessness that have led many politicians to avoid the issue. Last December, Mr. Fagan's five-part series on the lives of homeless people painted a raw but realistic picture of the population living outdoors in San Francisco. His articles, hopefully, take the city one step closer to bringing them inside.

As in the December series, Mr. Fagan's articles were illustrated crisply by photographer Brant Ward. Assistant Metro Editor Chuck Finnie was the main line editor on the stories.

Posted June 15, 2004

 

Equal-opportunity sensationalism

Ying Deng, the victim, with husband Jason Cai, in a photo from the Sing Tao Daily that dominated the front page of the San Jose Mercury News Monday.
Brickbat to the San Jose Mercury News, for expanding its merciless exploitation of the Peterson tragedy and making an unrelated murder investigation top news.

The latest episode of the Mercury News' front-page reality soap-opera took what is ordinarily a good instinct for journalists -- seeking untold stories from ethnically diverse communities -- and turned it into another opportunity to milk a human-interest drama for a short-term bump in circulation.

The story in Monday's paper, titled, "Picture-perfect image shattered; Slaying in Cupertino of bride from Shanghai, arrest of husband seen as immigrant version of Peterson case," took up 51% of front-page real estate. It attempted to reinforce the message of relatedness by blowing up grainy photos of both the Chinese couple and the Petersons. (For those Bay Area residents who have been living in a cave for the last year and a half, Scott Peterson became one of the local news media's biggest obsessions even before he was arrested on charges that he killed his pregnant wife, Laci.)

Taking what might have been a good read inside the paper, the Mercury News crowded out real news from the front and never made the case that this story was important to its readers.

Even assuming the Peterson case were relevant enough to readers' lives for the paper to justify writing about the case every other day, author Cecelia Kang acknowledges as early as the third paragraph that "the two cases have little in common."

The death of Ying Deng, Ms. Kang writes, "similarly shatters the image of a picture-perfect marriage ... But unlike the all-American Peterson tale, Deng's death also reveals the sometimes harsh realities of life as a newcomer in a country built on achieving the immigrant dream." The story does make an effort to inform, by spending the last four paragraphs discussing domestic violence in Asian communities. But the article appears much more aimed at heartstrings than neurons.

The claim for front-page worthiness rests on splicing together two tired tropes -- the dark side of the "perfect family" and the "immigrant dream" gone sour. That may make for great melodrama, but it hardly qualifies as important. Judging by what other major papers put on the cover the same day (the San Francisco Chronicle, for instance, devoted more than a third of its front page to developments in the U.S. occupation of Iraq, a story the Mercury News relegated to 9A) more important news was breaking than a year-old murder case.

What's shocking is not the story of either husband's alleged killing of his wife. The real indignation is that a paper of the quality, creativity and influence of the Mercury News considers this emotion-rich but information-poor story worth half the front page.

Posted May 24, 2004

 

Segregation redux

KRON Channel 4 ran stories by reporter Noel Cisneros explaining that desegregation is low on state educators' list of priorities.
Bouquet to several newsrooms across the Bay Area for following the lead of the Oakland Tribune in pointing out last summer a story that is no less important than it was 50 years ago: educational inequality.

The anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in the Supreme Court -- establishing the principle that separate schools for whites and racial minorities cannot be equal -- spurred several thoughtful reflections of the state of integration today.

The results were disheartening. The San Francisco Chronicle printed on its front-page and two pages inside last Sunday an article titled, "Brown vs. Board of Education, 50 years later: Segregation by income." Nanette Asimov, the Chronicle's education writer, contrasted the resources of McClymonds High School in West Oakland with a wealthier school in nearby Piedmont.

Its conclusion: "Even though no board of education still has the power to exclude students based on ethnicity, the schools' racial barrier lives on in the segregated lives of the rich and the poor."

An article on the San Jose Mercury News' local page on Sunday also tackled the legacy of Brown by noting that teachers in public schools are overwhelmingly white making it hard for minority students to find role models of their own ethnicities.

The Contra Costa Times, meanwhile, ran a three-part series by Suzanne Pardington. The first part explained the story of segregation by income. The second, how school districts are hampered by bizarre spending restrictions.The third how the problems go deeper than just which schools get the most money.

KRON Channel 4, meanwhile, ran a nearly five-minute story about a lawsuit regarding California schools that charges schools are separate and unequal because infrastructure problems and low-paid teachers are concentrated in schools with high-minority student populations. Reporter Noel Cisneros visited Helms Middle School in San Pablo and found many of the same problems. Ms. Cisneros reported another story about the current clashes between integration and the push for neighborhood schools in San Francisco.

KPIX Channel 5 also aired several stories on school desegregation, one focusing on a successfully integrated school in San Jose. Another report contrasted the resources and performance of Riverview Middle School in Baypoint and Foothill Middle School in Walnut Creek.

Last June, without the prompting of an anniversary, the Oakland Tribune printed a five-part award-winning series by reporters Jill Tucker, Robert Gammon and Michelle Maitre. The series, titled "Separate and Unequal," followed students at a wealthy school in Pleasanton and a poor school in Oakland, documenting the roots of inequality based on the localized structure of school funding.

Posted May 20, 2004

 

Exposing e-voting's house of cards

State officials
inspect Diebold
touch-screens
Wednesday in
Sacramento. (AP
photo.)
Bouquet to the Oakland Tribune for being first (and hopefully not last!) to report on a brewing scandal involving electronic voting throughout California.

Investigative reporter Ian Hoffman wrote Tuesday that the state's second largest electronic-voting company ignored warnings by its own attorneys that its balloting machines violated state law.

Mr. Hoffman obtained internal documents showing that lawyers for Diebold Election Systems told the company in December that the machinery was out of compliance and violated its $12.7 million contract with Alameda County.

Specifically, the company had been attempting to put its best spin on accusations that it has been altering the design of touch-screen software while maintaining that it does not need to be reviewed by the state because it consists of "off-the-shelf" technology.

After publication, Diebold changed direction. On Wednesday the company's president said, "We were caught. We apologize for that. ... We're sorry for the inconvenience of the voters."

Those comments came Wednesday, when state election regulators began to debate fining Diebold or banning its technology from the state. The outcome is important because of the dismal performance of electronic voting in the last election.

In the March 2 primaries, The Tribune reported, more than 600 voting machines froze or otherwise malfunctioned -- an error rate of 24 percent in Alameda County and 40 percent in San Diego. Although such problems have not yet changed the outcome of an election, there is no reason why it could not, the Tribune wrote in an editorial the same day.

By writing a persuasive and timely expose of the company's lack of candor, the Tribune has helped to protect voters and the integrity of California's election system.

Mr. Hoffman got lots of support. He writes: "Our coverage has been guided primarily by ANG Regional Editor Mike Oliver and Deputy Regional Editor Bob Goll, with strong management backing and editing guidance from (new) ANG Executive Editor Kevin Keane. Editorial Page Editor Tom Tuttle has written more than half-dozen editorials. Our Sacramento bureau reporter Steve Geissinger has contributed reporting as well."

Posted April 22, 2004

Time out for politics

100 days of Newsom.
Bouquet to KPIX Channel 5 for reflecting intelligently on San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom's first 100 days.

The half-hour special presentation that aired last Friday night, just before prime time, gave a coherent summary of the challenges facing Mayor Newsom. Anchor Kate Kelly and reporter Manuel Ramos went beyond the most prominent headlines about Mr. Newsom's promotion of gay marriage, looking at the impending financial crisis as the city tries to balance a budget with a predicted $352 million shortfall.

The report also gave Mr. Newsom ample opportunity to talk up his other priorities: curbing street violence in the Bayview-Hunters Point district and implementing his plan to strip homeless people of cash grants and replace them with social services.

The station also quoted four other respected sources: San Francisco Chronicle City Hall reporter Rachel Gordon, former San Francisco Republican Party Chair Arthur Bruzzone, and former mayors Art Agnos and Frank Jordan. It suggested that Mr. Newsom has distanced himself from his predecessor, Willie Brown, and surprised those who thought he would be wholly pro-business, though it didn't elaborate the claim.

The show did take a slight turn to the trivial at the end, discussing Newsom's marriage with attorney and television host Kimberly Guilfoyle-Newsom, but mostly stuck to policy. It also would have been nice to see a greater diversity of voices weighing in on Mr. Newsom's political trajectory. The show allowed him to state without comment that "the care will be there," for homeless people who are denied payments. That was the most contentious claim during the mayoral race last fall.

Overall this show demonstrates that KPIX took seriously its mandate to keep the public aware of the political landscape within the city, and it presented it in a clear and understandable way.

In addition to Ms. Kelly and Mr. Ramos, Producer Peter Saiers, Reporter Simon Perez and Executive Producer Fritz Lichty helped assemble the show.

Visit the KPIX Web site for a short synopsis.

Posted April 20, 2004

 

Grape expectations

Grape crushes other front-page news.
Brickbat: If you're looking for purple prose, both literal and figurative, look no further than the San Francisco Chronicle. Every day for the next five weeks, Northern California's Largest (Lifestyle) Newspaper brings us the tangled "serial saga" of grape vines and growers, gamblers and gluttons, which, at least on its first day, displaced such trivia as the fermenting anti-American revolution in Iraq, by occupying two-thirds of a Sunday front-page.

Deliciously, the launch of the series came just one day before the Pulitzer Prizes were announced. The Los Angeles Times harvested five. The San Francisco Chronicle, grape.

From its set-up opening scene in which the writer himself pushes a bottle of Sonoma County Fumé Blanc onto unsuspecting diners at New York's Four Seasons restaurant to the grand pronouncements that everything -- everything, including Sept. 11 -- ties back to wine, we know we're in for a wild, spirited and probably pretty irrelevant ride.

For more sour grapes, check out Patrick Mattimore's multiple-choice test on wine journalism.

Posted April 6, 2004

 

Standing up to fast talkers

Contact4's Joe Ducey exposes the hard sell.

Bouquet to consumer reporter Joe Ducey and KRON Channel 4, for exposing the unprofessional and high-pressure tactics of a local timeshare company.

Mr. Ducey heard from local customers of Pacific Monarch Resorts that the company was transporting them to hours-long sales meetings, telling them they would get deep discounts if they signed on the spot, and not telling them that they had only three days to cancel.

The four-minute "Contact 4" report that ran on KRON's newscast February 17 also presented a poignant interview with a woman who spoke little English. She said she and her husband had no translator and never would have signed up had they realized what lurked in the fine print.

Mr. Ducey used a hidden camera to show Pacific Monarch's sales presentation, but didn't use the video to shock or titillate. Rather, it was merely additional video that added to the story and the sense that the TV viewer was there in the room listening to the pitch.

In an interview, the president of the company criticized his sales staff, and the company refunded several customers' money.

Mr. Ducey had help from producer Abby Sterling, photographer Glenn Kinion and executive producer Sandra Lee.

See the story on KRON's Web site: http://www.kron.com/Global/story.asp?S=1650143

Posted March 12, 2004

 

Bridge-building in Santa Rosa

A constructive bilingual voice.

Bouquet to La Voz, the bilingual monthly newspaper published in Santa Rosa, for its "Parents in Schools" guides in the March edition.

Editor Maria Luisa Arredondo and her reporting team produced two guides, one in Spanish the other in English, full of tips about how parents can communicate with teachers, English-language instruction for children who speak Spanish at home, how to understand the state's Academic Performance Index scores for schools, even college scholarship and aid information.

Posted March 3, 2004

 

Covering a topic as certain as death

Making the inevitable more inviting.

Bouquet to the San Jose Mercury News for a comprehensive overview of the headaches that make April the cruelest month -- state and federal income taxes.

In the Sunday, Feb. 6 business section, lead writer Mark Schwanhausser, reporters Dan Lee, Sue McAllister and Mary Anne Ostrom, editor Donna Alvarado, designers Bonita Burton and Tracy Cox, and copy editor Mark Rosenberg produced 10 pages of helpful articles and resources for making tax time less taxing.

If you don't subscribe, it might be worth a trip to the library's newspaper archive to read about changes in tax law regarding family and home deductions, investment and retirement income, small business taxes, education deductions and credits and sources of advice, many on the Web.

Posted February 13, 2004

 

Pure doggerel

Mercury News goes to the dogs.

Brickbat to the San Jose Mercury News for choking on its own commercial leash.

Despite the shocking turnaround among Democratic presidential hopefuls in the Iowa caucuses, despite the growing chorus of opposition to Gov. Schwarzenegger's crisis budget, despite President Bush's State of the Union speech, the dominant story above the fold on the front page of the Mercury News this week has been ...

Bella, the lost and found golden retriever.

The paper voted eighth best in the U.S. by a panel of journalists in 1999, even penned an editorial:

BARKING UP THE RIGHT TREE
Mercury News editorial (Jan. 22, 2004)

Thank goodness, the dogfight is over.

We know Silicon Valley is a dog-eat-dog world, but for a while we feared we would have to start subscribing to the dogma that the world is, well, going to the dogs.

Not in a dog's age, it turns out.

Dog lovers hounded the family who adopted Bella, putting up a dogfight that would have done a World War I dogface proud. The dogged pursuit pushed the family to return Bella to her rightful owner, proving yet again that every dog has her day.

To which we can only say: It's time to let sleeping dogs lie. Dog-gone it.

To which we can only add: It's a doggone shame.

Posted January 22, 2004

Sacred cows and state prisons

Delano II under construction.

Bouquet to the San Francisco Chronicle and reporter Mark Martin, for skewering what's looking more and more like a taxpayer-funded boondoggle: Delano II state prison.

Former Gov. Gray Davis' prison policies irked plenty of Bay Area liberals, but early in his tenure Davis had a few strong arguments to support construction of the $700 million maximum-security campus in the Central Valley. The state budget was in surplus, and the prison population was growing.

Now, neither is the case, and Mr. Martin pointed out that the project's financing, through convoluted methods that circumvent the Legislature, "defies logic." He put Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's choice in simple but stark terms:

"Delano II will have serious impacts on a state budget that is projected to be $14 billion in deficit. The state will spend about $30 million a year to pay off the Delano II construction bonds.

'That's enough to pay for health insurance for more than 113,000 children through the state's Healthy Families program. Gov. Schwarzenegger has proposed capping enrollment in Healthy Families and creating a waiting list for kids as a way to help the state save money." In addition, Mr. Martin reported, the new prison will cost upwards of $110 million annually to operate.

One statistic in the story deserves follow-up in future articles: California inmates have an "astounding 70 percent recidivism rate." If true, this is perhaps a more serious indictment of the ability of the criminal justice system to reform its wards.

Chronicle photographer Michael Maloney provided the pictures for the series. It can be found online at http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/chronicle/archive/2004/01/05/MNG2D43G871.DTL&type=news.

Posted January 6, 2004

Rediscovering homelessness, in vivid detail

Photo
A homeless San Francisco woman.

Bouquet to the San Francisco Chronicle, for bringing alive the tales of homeless men, women and children in a varied, unvarnished and compelling way.

On Sunday the paper launched a five-part series exploring the lives of some of the estimated 12,500 homeless people in San Francisco. The first three parts painted tragic but human portraits of homeless drug addicts, a family living out of a van, and so-called middle-class homeless men, who prefer to bed in a south of Market Street shelter.

Writer Kevin Fagan and photographer Brant Ward spent four months interviewing and observing homeless people as they begged, shot up heroin, sent their children to school, attended church and conducted themselves in an uneasy equilibrium with residents -- as "mascots" in a few neighborhoods.

The series, titled "Shame of the City," follows a similar effort two years ago by reporter Patrick Hoge called "Squalor in the Streets," which asserted that San Francisco spent more than $200 million a year. While it would be nice to see this kind of in-depth reporting in the paper more often, it is good to see that the paper has not tired of such up-close-and-personal portrayals.

The political implications for such stories are obvious, barely a week before a mayoral runoff election. But the paper seems to be handing neither candidate a favor. Both candidates have been on the Board of Supervisors for years, and neither can claim to have solved or even substantively ameliorated the problem.

In addition to Messrs. Fagan and Ward, editors Wendy Miller and Michael Taylor helped guide the story. Graphic designer Jack Ivers also contributed. Managing Editor Robert Rosenthal and Deputy Managing Editor Steve Proctor supervised, and Executive Editor Phil Bronstein got it rolling in the first place, Fagan said.

Catch up with the series at http://www.sfgate.com/gate/special/pages/2003/homeless/

Posted December 4, 2003

 

On the trail of a Medicare scam

Bouquet to the San Jose Mercury News, for prying open a possible Medicare fraud ring.

Reporters Brandon Bailey of the San Jose Mercury News and Duc Ha of the Viet Mercury, a Vietnamese-language sister paper, wrote a lengthy expose of doctors and clinic owners in Southern California last Thursday that appeared in both papers. They discovered a scheme in which elderly Vietnamese-American Medicare patients were bussed to Southern California clinics for questionable medical treatments. These were then billed at more than $1 million to the federal health insurance program.

The paper tracked patients who said they were offered free rides to Orange County to get complimentary checkups and nutritional supplements. But many of the expensive procedures Medicare was billed for appeared to be medically unneccessary or never performed, the paper reported.

In addition to describing the checkered histories of the individual suspect doctors and their "cappers" -- helpers who recruit and transport unwitting patients -- the Mercury News went one step further. The paper laid out the scope of the problem: tens of millions of dollars a year in California alone.

By investigating the manipulation of a vulnerable population of elderly immigrants, the Mercury News admirably observed one of the key tenets of socially-repsonsible journalism -- to look out for the welfare of community-members least able to do so for themselves.

The two lead reporters had been working on the story since August. They were assisted by photographers Thu Hoang Ly and Dai Sugano, editors George Judson (assistant managing editor for projects at the Mercury News) and De Tran (editor of Viet Mercury), projects coordinator Rick Tulsky, copy editor Tom Watson, photo editor Mark Damon, designer Kevin Wendt and graphic artist Karl Kahler, among others.

Posted Nov. 17, 2003

 

A question of priorities

Brickbat to the San Francisco Chronicle for paying more attention advertisers' information needs than the public's.

Last Thursday, the Chronicle led with an article, "Auto buyers stall, wait for fee cut: Dealers eager for Schwarzenegger to keep promise." Editors considered it so important they stretched it across all six columns at the top of the front page.

It displaced from the marquee position one of the biggest legal stories of the decade -- President Bush signing a ban on late-term abortions. Entirely bumped from the page was the story about the administration dropping more than $20 billion in lawsuits against industrial polluters.

Auto dealerships, the Chronicle said, are suffering from a decline in buyers. Apparently some customers are putting off their car purchases until the then governor-elect, Arnold Schwarzenegger, reduces the car registration fee as promised.

While the story neatly pointed out the irony of dealers being hurt by a policy they lobbied hard for, it spawned another. Why would this quirky story merit top billing? If customers are merely waiting to buy cars, then dealers will be made whole again soon, when Schwarzenegger either cuts the fee or fails to do so. Either way, when it is resolved stalling buyers will return to showrooms. For these major advertisers, it's really just profits delayed, not profits denied.

Chronicle reader representative Dick Rogers was asked to comment on the story, but had not done so by Monday morning.

Posted Nov. 17, 2003
 

Fading to white

Brickbat to the Alameda Newspaper Group. A few months back the chain began to label the tabloid part of its HomeSite real estate section as advertising, bringing the Bay Area newspaper chain into compliance with the precept of ethical journalism that advertising should be clearly distinguished from news to avoid misleading readers.

Photo

Where's the ad label?

Now examine two recent covers of HomeSite, which is included in six Bay Area papers with a circulation of 183,000, and see if you can find the advertising identifier. (Hint: Look just above the HomeSite logo.)

Having trouble seeing the advertising label in the top cover? Can't find it in lower cover? It's there in both, but written in white letters on a light background.

ANG has labeled the section, but in a way that makes it as invisible as its commitment to truly distinguishing between news and ads.

ANG Managing Editor Norm Bell has not yet responded to our request for comment.

Posted Nov. 11, 2003

No more secrets

Bouquet to the Palo Alto Daily News, for spearheading a fight for open government. And kudos to the San Jose Mercury News for joining the struggle.

The newspaper has been working on a routine request for almost a year -- to get information on salaries and job titles of specific government employees in several Peninsula cities. A judge in April blocked the release at the request of employee unions. Last Friday, a state appeals court upheld the decision, saying privacy trumps freedom of information in this case, and that the paper had to explain why it wanted the information.

The rationale of the appeals court has puzzled journalists and First Amendment lawyers, who have been relying on years of court precedent that says the salaries of public employees are public records.

And, observes the Daily News, the appeals court decision "appears to contradict the California Public Records Act," which says requesters do not have to state a reason for wanting the information.

The Daily News has spent $71,000 so far on the legal battle and plans to appeal the case to the California Supreme Court. The Mercury News has joined the case and contributed an additional $40,000.

"It is not sufficient, in our view, to get a list of salaries from the government with the names redacted," said Dave Price, co-publisher of the Daily News. "The public has a right to know exactly how its money is spent."

But Terry Francke, legal counsel for the California First Amendment Coalition, said he fears the Supreme Court may side with the appeals court. In the absence of a constitutional amendment on open government, such as the proposal CFAC pushed for this year, courts may continue to restrict access to the salaries other than top employees with personal contracts.

That would be a shame, Francke said. It would make inquiries of this sort more difficult, and perhaps mask incidents of favoritism and nepotism in public agencies.

 

Untangling news and ads in Oakland

Half a bouquet to the Oakland Tribune and the Alameda Newspaper Group, for taking a half step toward distinguishing between news and advertising.

Several weeks after Grade the News pointed out in June that the tabloid part of the ANG HomeSite real estate section was not labeled as advertising, the words "advertising feature" began to grace the front cover.

Still, the Tribune and its sister publications have some work to do. Inside the section, there are stories from legitimate news sources such as Newsday, The Boston Globe and Scripps-Howard news service. Those appear alongside "articles" from Western Pacific Homes. All are laid out in columns and headlines like other news pages. This makes it easy for readers to become confused between neutral reporting and advertorial copy -- advertising disguised as news.

To discourage misleading content, the code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists urges editors to "Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two."

Bob Gammon a Tribune reporter and vice chair of the ANG bargaining unit of the Newspaper Guild, said he was disappointed that management has not seen fit to specify inside the section which is news and which is advertising. " “I don't think anything has changed," Mr. Gammon said.

Norman Bell, managing editor of ANG newspapers, said the label on the front of the section is a sufficient warning. "It's an alert to the reader that there may be things inside with a point of view," he said. Asked about the persistent mixture of news and ads within HomeSite, Mr. Bell said, "I don't see that there's any problem with that."

 

When recycling isn't virtuous

Photo

That old familiar op-ed page illustration.
Brickbat to the San Francisco Chronicle for reusing an old and off-topic illustration on the op-ed page. It's only a peccadillo, but a great city's biggest newspaper shouldn't force readers to puzzle over the connection between fresh commentary and art commissioned years earlier for a different topic.

On Oct. 9, the Chronicle ran a timely and thoughtful op-ed, "No on Prop. 54 enhances prosperity." It claimed victory for racial minorities in the defeat of the ballot measure that would ban tracking of racial categories.

Yet the accompanying drawing depicted the Statue of Liberty superimposed on an American flag with one big star and six bars. Lady Liberty inexplicably wore an Uncle Sam-type hat. According to the copyright, artist Tim Brinton drew the picture in 1997.

What does this have to do with tracking racial statistics?

The Chronicle's Reader Representative Dick Rogers responded: "I'd be hard-pressed to argue that the clip art was a particularly good choice. I suppose it's connected to race in the generic sense that lady liberty relates to justice for all. But I wouldn't stake my reputation on that argument. It's fair to say that the illustration is cliched in this context.

"The editor probably could have pulled a better piece of clip art to make the point visually. I don't quarrel in principle with the use of clip art in this case, however. The art department was stretched pretty thin keeping up with the demands of an election week. In balance, I'd rather accept clip art for an op-ed column than divert a staffer from the many informational graphics the paper did to help tell the story of the election.

"A better piece of clip art would been nice, though."

 

Guiding voters

Bouquet to Melissa Jordan, section editor, and the San Jose Mercury News for an informative tabloid "Recall Voters Guide" inserted in Sunday's edition (Sept. 28).

The Mercury went to the trouble of contacting all 135 gubernatorial candidates and asking a few key questions about their backgrounds and platforms. The guide also offers thumbnail descriptions of the two ballot issues as well as information on finding your polling place and voting with various kinds of technology.

With the insert, the Mercury has begun to put politics on the same plane as the National Football League. In January, the Mercury ran a 22-page broadsheet insert for Super Bowl XXXVII. In September, the paper ran a 20-page broadsheet insert, "NFL 2003."

In fairness, the football sections were well supported by advertisers. No ads ran in the Recall Voters Guide.

 

Deconstructing the debate

Bouquet to KPIX Channel 5 and Political Editor Hank Plante for a stimulating follow-up to the gubernatorial recall debate on Wednesday evening. Plante interviewed two savvy analysts, San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown and political consultant Dan Schnur.

Brown, who spent decades in Sacramento, may understand California politics better than anyone. Schnur, who was Gov. Pete Wilson's press secretary, is currently a visiting instructor at the University of California at Berkeley's Institute of Governmental Studies. Their analyses of the debate crackled with insights.

Demonstrating the public interest for which they receive free use of public airwaves, KPIX as well as KRON Channel 4, KGO Channel 7 and KNTV Channel 11 broadcast the Sept. 24 debate live. Only KPIX followed the debate with analysis, however. KQED Channel 9 will rebroadcast the debate at 5:30 on Saturday Sept. 27.

 

Citizenship trumps fanship (at least twice)

Bouquet to the San Jose Mercury News for a series of front page news decisions that placed citizens ahead of sports fans.

It may only be due to losing streaks for the 'Niners and Raiders, but Monday Sept. 22's paper featured only a front page tease about the 'Niners game. Fans had to resort to one of the paper's two sports sections inside.

On Wednesday the 24th it got even better. At least for one day, the customary teases of sports and other stories across the top of the front page above the paper's logo were replaced by news -- a story about a South Bay judge accused of fixing tickets.

And although the Oakland Athletics clinched the divisional championship the evening before, the San Jose paper refrained from pushing more important news off the front page. There was only a small tease at the bottom of the front page directing the reader to the cover of the sports section.

With sports temporarily banished to its own daily sections, the paper had space for strong stories about whether business taxes in California are creating a hostile environment for employers, profiles of gubernatorial contenders Arianna Huffington and Peter Camejo, and the decision to re-instate the recall election.

Coming clean on authorship

Bouquet to the San Jose Mercury News, for ending a mild deception -- claiming as its own staff, reporters who actually work for the Knight-Ridder Newspaper chain in bureaus in Washington and elsewhere.

Since early June, the Mercury News has started regularly labeling many reporters as writing for Knight Ridder, the paper's corporate parent. As late as May, many of those same reporters were identified in bylines as "Mercury News" staffers or "Mercury News (fill-in-the-blank-city-name) Reporter." Those labels, though, were misleading --many of the reporters were actually employed by Knight Ridder and wrote for dozens of newspapers across the country, including The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Miami Herald and The Kansas City Star.

For example, on May 1, one Mercury News story was bylined: "James Kuhnhenn, Mercury News Washington Bureau." On June 6, another appeared over the byline: "James Kuhnhenn, Knight Ridder." The other Bay Area Knight Ridder paper, the Contra Costa Times, is always careful to point out that reporters work for the chain, not the paper itself.

Newspapers and television stations have an economic incentive to claim their staff is larger than it is. It gives the consumer the impression that she or he need go nowhere else to be informed regardless of where news is breaking. It also gives the impression that the story has been tailored to local information needs.

David Satterfield, the recently promoted Mercury News managing editor, said at a gathering of the Society of Professional Journalists in San Francisco in June that the paper was re-evaluating many of the newsroom’s standard operating procedures in light of high-profile reporter resignations at The New York Times over large and small violations of journalistic ethics.

 

Televisual town hall

Bouquet to KPIX Channel 5 for cancelling evening programs between 7 and 8 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 27 to air a town hall meeting with embattled Gov. Gray Davis. KPIX sponsored the event along with the San Francisco Chronicle and KCBS radio (which will also broadcast the discussion at 7 p.m. on the AM radio band at 740).

 

Airing the debate

Bouquet to KTVU Channel 2 and the Contra Costa Times, for putting the public interest first by producing the first candidate forum for the top candidates vying to replace Gov. Gray Davis in the Oct. 7 recall election.

The program, jointly hosted by KTVU Political Editor Randy Shandobil, Contra Costa Times Political Editor Daniel Borenstein and KQED Public Radio’s Sacramento Bureau Chief John Myers, will run for two hours without commercial interruption. It airs on Wednesday, Sept. 3, from 4 to 6 p.m.

The "Race to the Recall" will start with a half-hour program on the recall itself. The rest of the program will be a debate among the top-polling candidates in a KTVU Field Poll: Democrat Cruz Bustamante, Green Party candidate Peter Camejo, independent Arianna Huffington, and four Republicans. They are Tom McClintock, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bill Simon and Peter Ueberroth.

"A citizen's right to know all the sides to this recall election is as important as their right to vote," Jeffrey A. Block, KTVU's vice president and general manager, said in a written statement.

 

Persistence pays

Congratulations to Seth Rosenfeld of the San Francisco Chronicle, the 2003 recipient of the Eugene S. Pulliam First Amendment Award presented annually by the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation, the educational arm of the Society of Professional Journalists.

"Seth Rosenfeld's work exemplifies the highest standards in journalism," said Sue Porter, Sigma Delta Chi Foundation president. "His cautionary story -- the result of nearly a quarter century of investigation -- has drawn attention in the U.S. Senate and is particularly timely in an era when federal officials have narrowed the Freedom of Information Act and broadened governmental powers of surveillance."

Rosenfeld, a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, specializing in legal affairs and investigative reporting, will be recognized as this year's award winner for his piece "The Campus Files: Reagan, Hoover and the UC Red Scare." The award will be made during the Society of Professional Journalists' 2003 National Convention in Tampa, Fla. He will be presented a check for $10,000 and a crystal sculpture at the closing banquet on Sept. 13 at the Hyatt Regency Tampa. (From the SPJ award announcement on August 7, 2003.)

 

Which paper wants to be taken seriously?

On July 3, more than one-third of the Chronicle's front page was devoted to a story about a prank in a Solano County wheat field that attracted a few dozen people seeking healing, convinced that the crop circles were the work of extraterrestrials. The headline read like a supermarket tabloid: "Space aliens? In Solano?"

The same day, editors placed at the bottom of the page a compelling and consequential story about the convergence of a heat wave, a power outage and resentment of U.S. rule in Iraq, by the Chronicle's enterprising foreign correspondent Robert Collier.

Photo
Two papers, separated at birth?

Research has shown that the most read part of a newspaper is the front page and the most important part of that page is the half "above the fold" of the paper. "Space aliens" consumed 2/3 of the paper's most precious real estate.

What's more worrisome is that story placement cues the reader about what editors think is important -- must reading -- and what's not. We question whether the discovery of crop circles really is more important than growing Iraqi resistance to the U.S. occupation.

It was the second day in a row that the Chronicle flipped newsworthiness on its head, placing an entertaining feature at the top and an equally interesting, but far more important story on the bottom. On July 2, the paper highlighted a 13-year-old Hawaiian golf phenom across the top and subordinated an exclusive story by its own reporter on how Iraq is hemorrhaging the heavy equipment needed to rebuild as smugglers drive cement mixers and bulldozers across the border into Iran.

Certainly the news -- particularly in these threatening times of deep recession and war -- need not all be serious. The crop circle article provided comic relief. It may even have merited the front page, but not as the day’s dominant news. The article plus map, plus photos, including an aerial shot, consumed more than a third of the entire front page.

Robert Rosenthal, the Chronicle's managing editor, said the space alien tale deserved to be on the front page because it was fun and entertaining, but it was "probably overplayed."

"It didn't have to be that big," Mr. Rosenthal said. "I would have had it so it was more of a centerpiece. We've already talked about this.

"It's always easy to second guess," he added. "The people who are making those decisions don't have 12 hours on deadline. Sometimes stories come in on deadline in very good shape,and sometimes they don't. And once you go for a shape for the page it's very hard to come up with a new design."

 

Taking chances to keep us informed

Photo
Heavy equipment flees Iraq.

Bouquet to the San Francisco Chronicle and reporter Robert Collier and his Kurdish interpreter for taking big risks to interview smugglers moving bulldozers and other heavy equipment through the Iranian border with Kurdish areas in Iraq.

Mr. Collier interviewed one entrepreneur, who in story that ran July 2 told him, "Bulldozers, everything -- I'm ready to carry anything, even an airplane. ... Some people say this makes me a war criminal, but so what? It's good fortune, and it's my work."

While many news organizations pulled out of Iraq when the shooting stopped, a team of Chronicle reporters remains to document the slow-boiling crises of post-war Iraq: guerrilla war, power outages and lawlessness. Staff writer Anna Badkhen, and Danielle Haas of the Chronicle Foreign Service, among others, also have scoured the country for such scoops. Kudos also to Foreign Desk Editor Mark Abel.

Why is this important? It may be an indication that while the United States won the war, it's losing Iraq. "As American firms such as Bechtel and Halliburton rebuild power plants and water purifying stations, criminals steal the new equipment almost as fast as it is installed," Mr. Collier wrote.

Read about it: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2003/07/02/MN133485.DTL

 

Covering 'Fajitagate'

Bouquet to lead reporters Susan Sward, Bill Wallace, editor Steve Cook and the San Francisco Chronicle for a thorough and fair investigation into the qualifications of Alex Fagan to be San Francisco's chief of police on Sunday, June 1. The report caps a series of careful reports about turmoil in the department's leadership following an altercation involving Acting Chief Fagan's son, Officer Alex Fagan jr.

Military and paramilitary organizations like the police are often the most difficult public agencies to hold to account because of their strong internal loyalties and the likelihood of retribution for those who speak critically about superiors. Finding it difficult to get critical comment on the record from current San Francisco policemen, the Chronicle was forced to rely on anonymous sources in the department, but took care to inform readers whether those sources were known to be friends or enemies of Acting Chief Fagan. The reporters also tracked down public records of Fagan's scrapes with the law. They had help from staff writers: Leah Garchik, Rachel Gordon, Jim Herron Zamora and Carolyne Zinko, plus librarian researchers Charlie Malarkey and Johnny Miller.

Read about it: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2003/06/01/MN283332.DTL

 

Looking out for troubled kids

Bouquet to reporter Karen de Sa, editors John Hubner and Bert Robinson, data analyst Seth Hemmelgarn, and the San Jose Mercury News for a two-part series beginning Sunday, June 1 investigating conditions at the Santa Clara Children's Center. The carefully balanced report, in which the paper showed its results prior to publication to a variety of experts, highlighted problems at the shelter and pointed to a central problem: it may not be a sound idea to aggregate troubled children across a range of ages in a group shelter.

Read about it: http://www.bayarea.com/mld/mercurynews/news/5989789.htm


 

Bouquets and brickbats are editorial judgments of news quality. The director and associate director of Grade the News are solely responsible for them. Although readers may nominate candidates, no story gets a bouquet or brickbat unless it is personally reviewed. You are invited to register your own comments by clicking below.

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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.

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Newspapers can't cut their way back into Wall Street investors' hearts, by Stephen R. Lacy; Alexander responds
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