‘You Won’t See a Repeat,’ Merc Editor Says

“The Bay Area News Group is committed to the highest ethical standards. Fairness and accuracy are among our core values. But perhaps nothing stands above the need for the newspaper to maintain and preserve its integrity. The public’s trust in our work—our most important asset—depends on it.”

So begins the preamble to the Bay Area News Group’s ethics policy, which extends to all of the media chain’s newspapers, including the San Jose Mercury News. It’s a straightforward seven-page document that explains what employees can and cannot do in their official capacity and what they should keep in mind when conducting their personal lives. The document also acknowledges that unforeseen circumstances can arise in the ever-shifting landscape of journalism in the digital age.

But in the case of an email opinion editor Barbara Marshman sent to a political candidate, there is no obvious section to point to in the BANG ethics policy. In August, Marshman offered Barbara Keegan “lavish praise” in print in exchange for Keegan removing herself from the Santa Clara Valley Water District board race. Keegan refused to drop out and won a seat on the board in a landslide victory last week.

Following is part of the Marshman’s email to Keegan: “If you plan to drop out, I will be thrilled to write an editorial of lavish praise for both you and Scott (who also would have been terrific on the board, I’ve known him for 20 years) for putting the best interests of the district first.”

The name “Scott” is in reference to Scott Knies, the San Jose Downtown Association exec who dropped out of the water board race in July.

Marshman did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but Mercury News editor and BANG VP of news Dave Butler sent this email response Friday afternoon:

“Re Barbara, I think she got carried away in her email because she was so intent on a good candidate winning the water board seat. And that’s how it turned out. But you won’t see a repeat of her actions in the future. She and the new board member have been in contact and will be having coffee soon to discuss ways to improve the water district. As our editorials said, voters wound up having two good choices.”

Butler was not available for further comment, due to personal reasons.

In his statement, he seems to acknowledge that Marshman committed a blunder, noting her actions won’t be repeated. But the idea that everyone ended up winners because voters had two strong candidates to choose from is absurd. Had Marshman gotten her way, there would have been one less strong candidate to choose from.

Would Keegan have felt like a winner because she received “lavish praise” for being a good soldier and bowing out of the race?

In addition to his two other titles, Butler, apparently, is the ombudsman for the newspaper and BANG. This presents a whole new set of potential conflicts for accountability. Exactly how does an editor step back, change hats and impartially view his work as well as the work of the people he manages? More likely than not you’re going to end up with articles like this.

BANG’s ethics policy includes a note about “Connections,” which reads: “Employees shall not use the company name, reputation, phone number or stationery to imply a threat of retaliation or pressure, to curry favor or to seek personal gain,” the policy states. Keegan told San Jose Inside she felt threatened by the email.

San Jose Inside contacted Kelly McBride, a senior faculty member for ethics at the Poynter Institute, and this was her reaction to Marshman’s email:

“It reinforces the idea that newspapers and newspaper editorials are part of this magical power structure that nobody really understands and is unjust,” McBride said. “It’s kind of like she’s meddling with democracy, and people don’t like that.”

McBride added: “This is not how editorial writing is supposed to work and this is not the reason newspapers are in the business of writing editorials. In fact, many of them are getting out of [the editorial] business.”

Some are getting out of the business, period. In a thinning field—and with less internal checks and balances—it’s easier for reporters and editors to pick winners and losers. In the rare event that a suggested quid pro quo is actually documented and publicly revealed, it sheds light on the secret interactions that shape government without public participation.

When Butler writes “you won’t see a repeat,” it’s a fairly safe bet that the next attempt at influence brokering won’t be put into writing and emailed.

Josh Koehn is the managing editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Email tips to [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @Josh_Koehn.

16 Comments

  1. What you now have to believes is that Marshman made promises to Scott Knies to get him to drop out of the water district race.

    So if Scott Knies runs for something else, will an endorsement by the Merc be suspect, and if Keegan turns out to be a terrible director, will the Merc speak up?

    This story isn’t over yet.

  2. The Murky News has a tradition of inflating certain candidates and deflating others.  From various Board members, to Council seats, Police Chiefs, District Attorneys and even certain Measures and Propositions.

    The have a strong dislike of Unions and anyone or anything associated to them, as seen with Measures V, W and B.  Pretty much any position Mayor Rufus takes s A-OK with them.  From editorials, to half-true statistics and even inflammatory quotes even the “stories” are often highly editorialized.

    One of the worst offenders, Sean Webby, took hatred of SJPD to a new level by writing stories nearly every week with negative focus.  Of course, he blamed the editors for changing the content.  Interestingly though, he now works for DA Jeff Rosen who was a Murky News darling during the campaign, while DA Carr was vilified. (Rosen, by the way, has turned out decently enough- hopefully he keeps the Murky influence at bay in the future).

    The paper still pretty much denies that they’re aligned with certain local activists and the “Independent” auditor to manufacture complaints about not just conduct, but policies as well.  Unsurprisingly, they had little to say when they were caught stealing publication racks- and very little is reported when their preferred candidates err.

  3. So, did you ever think that you would get unbiased journalism from the Mercury News?  It has an office inside City Hall. But “once again” the citizen’s of complacent San Jose will let this slide.  People of influence get caught doing illegal things in this city all the time and the citizen’s just don’t care.  But they will whine for services or the lack of them. 

    People always talk about how bad the journalism is provided by the Mercury News.  What if you boycotted the paper for one month?  What do you think would happen?  I never by this newspaper, but I do sometimes use my neighbors and use it for the floor on my bird cage. 

    Boycott the Mercury News people.  Take a stand somewhere.

  4. ‘You Won’t See a Repeat,’ Merc Editor Says.

    At least not in print. All Merc Employees are undergoing trianing on how to win friends and influence elections without using email.

  5. The “repeat” came quickly on Sunday, just two days after this posting was dated.  This “repeat” is a little different from Barbara Marshman’s shenanigans, but it is a political coverups.

    I refer to the glorification of Ann Ravel by Steven Harmon (page B1) and the trial by publicity of George Shirakawa by Karen de Sa & Tracy Seipel (page A1).

    The story on Shirakawa links him with Ravel by stating:  “He is simultaneously under investigation by the state’s political watchdog agency…”  Oops, the head of that agency is Ravel.

    Both stories cover up Ravel’s role as county counsel from 1998 through mid-2009 when it appears that she had a leading role in helping to define rules and guidelines for county officials using taxpayer money.

    Shirakawa took office half a year before Ravel left the county counsel office.  Now she is going to investigate his apparent violations of a system she created?  And this goes without notice by Merc writers?

    Fascinating “repeat” so soon on the heels of the Marshman scandal.  And there’ll be another “repeat” soon…the Merc literally can’t help itself.

    • I love how this crap paper took credit for Josh’s work on Shirakawa, making it sound like they had two crack reporters who spilled all the beans on county corruption.

      They need to go back to stealing news stands.  Of course they never got charged with that either.

  6. Ethical Standards ? Fairness ? Accuracy ? Core Values ? Integrity ? These are qualities that the Mercury News and its so called writers , Know nothing about ! It is Absolutely laughable that they are trying to explain away Their very Biased and slanted writings . The way they Villify Public Safety , They print every mistake or short coming in editorials . But where are the editorials , regarding our Corrupt Mayor? Or Editorials on fiscal emergencies while setting aside Millions for a ball park. what about the $650million dollar lie , or the fact that city workers offered a proposal that would have saved @ least $500 million dollars ,( but the mayor refused to even consider) what about the Mayors illegal contribution to council members , or the Mayors Illegal over charging certain accounts( he himself fired city employees for exact same offense)

    Truth is the Merc has been used to do all of This Pathetic Mayors dirty work .This isnt the first time it wont be the last time. they just got caught this time.

  7. “The Bay Area News Group is committed to the highest ethical standards. Fairness and accuracy are among our core values. But perhaps nothing stands above the need for the newspaper to maintain and preserve its integrity. The public’s trust in our work—our most important asset—depends on it.”

      THAT is the most unethical statement the San Jose Mercury fishwrap can make.  It follows NONE of these principles, and has been the hammer of the San Jose City Council since they were bought and paid for with tax-dollars.  Ask the question: Who runs the SJ Merc?

  8. So, what is the real difference between the Mercury and the SJI/Metro?

    Both are really just ventriloquist dummies for the same ruling caste.

    Both supported Obama.

    Both supported Jerry Brown.

    Both supported Prop 30 and opposed Prop 32.

    Both supported Braunstein over Khamis.

    Same.  Same.  Same.

    If there was any substantive difference beween the Merc and SJI/Metro in the candidates and issues that they supported, I would like to know what it was.

    • Did the Metro try to get Barbara Keegan to drop her bid for the water board?

      The Merc waited for 2 weeks to publish a story on Shirakawa’s expense reports, because it had endorsed Measure A.  I believe the Metro’s story on Shirakawa’s expense reports ran a week before the election.

      So the evidence is that the editorial board of the Merc does more than writing editorials, and the news portion of the Merc supports its editorial portion by selective reporting.

    • Lou, it may be that the Merc and Metro/SJI come from the same portion of the political bell-shaped curve, but then so do the Sacto Bee, the SF Chronicle, the LA Times, the NY Times, the Boston Globe, and the Washington Post.

      The key point for San Jose is that Metro/SJI is creating a two-paper town in a monopoly one-paper town.  This alone is a major contribution to our large city which has outgrown its one-horse, one-paper nature.

      And we both must know that Metro/SJI offers some opportunities to unmask some of the dirty tricks played by the Merc at least since 1989 (when I started to keep track) on its reading public.

      I’m not sure Metro/SJI do offer the identical perspective on candidates…on the big offices it looks like it, but on the local candidates and local issues they can and do differ, and offer compelling alternative views.

      The mere existence of two papers is an institutional fact that has a different community value than a similar overall political sensibility.

  9. Who would pay for this crap of bird cage lining anyway.  Crazy people read this Reed paper and even respond.  Get real people.