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Today's News: The story that started it all was stuck in the back of the Valley section, where none but the wonkish dare to venture.

Who Broke the News?

What happens when the city's daily scoops its own newsroom?

By William Dean Hinton

ON MONDAY MORNING, May 24, readers of the South Bay's daily newspaper were presented with a 1,500-word investigative piece detailing allegations of ethical lapses by Terry Gregory, a freshman San Jose City Council member. Gregory, a 48-year-old former high-tech manager, accepted generous meals and a case of wine from real estate developers who conduct business at City Hall, according to the San Jose Mercury News story. Most of the article was written in the matter-of-fact tone daily newspapers are known for. One of the main sources was businessman Dennis Fong, who owns the Tropicana Shopping Center about a mile southeast of downtown for which Gregory was allegedly preparing to support significant subsidies until the deal went sour in February. A refrain running through the piece was Gregory's halfhearted denials that he couldn't "remember that many dinners with Dennis."

By all accounts, the Gregory piece—with an accompanying 600-word sidebar and a grainy photo of Fong carting a wooden box from his wine shop—was hard-hitting, unflinching and concise. The one drawback, for those both inside the Mercury News and readers on the outside, has been the placement of the story. It didn't run on the front page, which, for obvious reasons, is the most-read section of any daily paper. Nor was it on the cover of the paper's Valley section, where most significant local stories run.

Rather, the story was placed at the back of the Valley section, on page B6, in the paper's opinion section, which is the area of interest for many of the area's policymakers. On one level, this makes sense. The hit piece was one of 38 editorials the Mercury News has run since the beginning of the year as part of a series on "money and influence" at San Jose City Hall.

But on another level, the editorial's placement was strange. Editorials, which run with no byline, are generally seen as the institutional opinion of the paper. They are typically used in conjunction with the breaking news of the day, either on the front page or in the Valley section. Their targets are usually public policy trends or issues involving a large amount of number crunching. By zeroing on a single individual's alleged peccadilloes, the Mercury News seemed to be acting as judge and jury.

"To have an entire editorial section covered with Terry Gregory seems like a bit much," says political consultant Rich Robinson, who calls the money and influence series an "ethics witch hunt." "Would Dennis Fong have released all this information if he had gotten his way at the Planning Department? There seems to be a bit of extortion going on. I'm not trying to defend Terry Gregory. But the editorial looks bad because it didn't look fair."

Robinson says public trust in the Mercury News runs high, above 70 percent. But he wonders whether confidence will erode if readers become confused about where the paper's opinion begins and facts end.

"For years, the Mercury News went around telling everyone there was a wall between the editorial section and their reporting section," says Robinson, who has appeared in the Mercury News pages more than 100 times since 1995, including two involving San Jose's ethics policy. "Now, it seems like the wall doesn't exist. Therein lies the problem. They'll tell you that the opinion section doesn't contribute or interfere with the news department. Given their current situation, you can't trust that anymore."

The current situation is that David Yarnold, who for years held management positions in the newsroom, took over the Mercury News op-ed section last year. Many readers noticed an immediate change. Robinson, for example, says the opinion page is much more aggressive in its editorial voice ("shrill," according to one political observer) and more anti-union.

Yarnold, though, isn't saying very much. Responding to a list of questions from Metro, the editor and senior vice president holds firm to the corporate line. "The Mercury News' editorial pages have a proud history of doing original reporting and breaking news," Yarnold said via email. "Our editorial writers do good shoe-leather journalism that leads them to pieces that help shape public policy. In this case, the Gregory piece was one of a series we've been running since the beginning of the year about San Jose's lax ethics ordinances."

Yarnold refused Metro's request to sit in on an editorial-board meeting. But the issue was enough of a concern that some of the paper's reporters gathered for a brown-bag lunch meeting in one of the paper's conference rooms about a week after the Gregory piece ran. Publisher Chip Visci and executive editor Susan Goldberg, who took over the newsroom when Yarnold was moved to the op-ed page, were reportedly in attendance. The objectivity of the paper was questioned, and concern was raised that the fact-gathering side of the paper might lose credibility.

Goldberg deflected questions to Yarnold, while Visci downplayed the meeting: "People are concerned about a lot of things. We're constantly re-examining things at the paper."

Tough Call

Chip Visci repeats the same things David Yarnold does about breaking news on the editorial page: it's a longstanding practice that predates Yarnold and will continue long after he's gone. "Where is it written [that] journalists can't break news on the opinion page?" he asks. Indeed, Cornelia Grumman of the Chicago Tribune won a Pulitzer Prize last year for investigative editorials about Illinois death-penalty reform.

But if it's such an old story, why are so many City Hall observers talking about it? "I don't know," Visci says. "Nobody's called me."

The media-watchdog agency Grade the News, which is affiliated with the Stanford University journalism program, wrote pro and con arguments to discuss whether journalists should break news on the editorial page, inviting guests to comment on the practice. Some were negative: "This was an obvious and typical power move on [David Yarnold's] part," an anonymous post reads. "It totally blurs the lines between news and opinion pages. Of course, it should have been on the [front page] instead of a soap-opera takeoff on the long-running Laci Peterson soap opera."

Others were nonchalant: "This is old news," R. Thomas Berner wrote. "The Phila. Inquirer did this 30 years ago. Where have you been?"

The one place where the story received very little play was in the Mercury News letters section. Only two were printed in relation to the scandal. One, from Jeffrey Schwartz of Saratoga, said that he didn't know Gregory but that the paper's coverage of the councilman seemed excessive. Another, written by Larry Fewell of San Jose, said Councilman Chuck Reed, who asked the Elections Commission to look into the conflict of interest charges, should also give Gregory a break, since he is presumed innocent. "I don't get the sense people are outraged," says San Jose State political scientist Terry Christensen. "I think some are disappointed, some feel vindicated but most are just amused."

Would that have changed if Gregory had been placed on the front page? It's difficult to tell. He was voted into office in 2002 with 6,440 votes, which was only 22 percent of the eligible voters in his central San Jose district. But if you look at the city's 920,000 population, his votes reflect less than 1 percent of the city's population. In other words, nobody knows who Gregory is. That might help to explain why two weeks after the Gregory allegations were revealed, the Mercury News ran a story on the front page about a free golfing outing Mayor Ron Gonzales received from a couple of lobbyists. Gonzales, who had to win a citywide election, had to pay $270.

Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules about what goes on the front page and what goes on the editorial page. "It varies from paper to paper," says Kate Riley, a Seattle Times editorial writer. "I definitely hope the editorial page is not just warmed-over news with opinion added."

And if reporters become enraged that their own editorial board is scooping them, too bad. "Morale is important," says Maureen Croteau, head of the University of Connecticut's School of Journalism. "But it's not as important as getting the story to the reader." Even so, Croteau says, seeing editorialists breaking news, while not unheard of, could be a shock for readers. "It's a tough call," she says. "You certainly don't expect to find investigative news on the opinion page."

According to Rob Elder, the Mercury News editor who retired in 2001, more city officials would have shown up on his editorial pages except that San Jose was relatively clean under his tenure. "We didn't have a single sleazebag," he says. "Maybe a couple of dumb people but no outrageously behaving people."

Elder says his editorial writers often broke news on the opinion page, including stories about how BART was not appropriately funded to extend underneath downtown San Jose or how the impact of the city's growth affected small communities to the south. "We reported news on the editorial page all the time," he says. "We didn't sit around sucking our thumbs. We had opinions. The trick was to get the facts to back them up."

What might be confusing some readers, he says, is that the wall between editorial and reporting is a one-way avenue. "Keeping news and opinion separate means you don't put opinion on the news pages," he says. "It doesn't mean you don't put facts on the opinion page."


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From the July 7-13, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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