“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.
“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.