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July 28, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, July 28, 2004

On Deadline: Lapdog journalism and the responsibilities of the press On Deadline: Lapdog journalism and the responsibilities of the press (July 28, 2004)

Daily News' tactics erupt into public controversy and sharpen contrasts in community news coverage

by Jay Thorwaldson

The Palo Alto Daily News has taken some hits recently about its style of journalism.

And it has fired back, attacking City Councilwoman LaDoris Cordell for going public with her opinions of the Daily and, peripherally, getting into some name-calling about the Weekly for reporting them.

The Daily ran an editorial that accused Cordell of irresponsibly promoting a "gag order." It also accused the Weekly (without naming it explicitly) of "serving up softball questions and regurgitating City Hall press releases." A subsequent editorial cartoon showed a caricature of Cordell walking past a slavering watchdog labeled Daily News, telling her miniature-French-poodle lapdog, "Fluffy," (the Weekly) that they weren't going to associate with "the riff-raff."

I've long held off on getting into a public head-to-head with Publisher Dave Price and Editor Brian Bothun. I personally like both, but disagree sharply with their aggressive attack-dog journalism that too often ignores fairness, balance or even accuracy in their zeal to pump up a story or sensationalize a headline. Part of my reluctance is that we journalists all work in glass houses -- what we do is highly visible, and every paper makes mistakes. Some of us welcome corrections, clarifications and differing viewpoints more than others.

Cordell has refused to talk to Daily reporters ever since her election last November, claiming they twist her words and slant the story. The paper is "the finest example of yellow journalism. It's purpose is to be divisive and controversial," she said.

She is far from alone in that view, or no-comment approach -- she's just the first Palo Alto city official to go public and recommend the silent treatment to other city officials. That is why it became news (Weekly July 9). Cordell also has been significantly irked with the Weekly, but the difference, she notes, is the opinions of the Daily's publisher and editor dominate its news columns while the Weekly strives to keep them separate.

"You guys should be reporting this story, not us," I told Daily News Publisher Dave Price in a civil but stiff phone dialogue the day the Cordell story was published. Then I chuckled, remembering: "But I guess she's not talking to you." Price followed our conversation with his "softball" editorial and lapdog cartoon, which we posted in our newsroom. The Daily has since offered Cordell a guest opinion, which she's considering.

And, yes, we would do a story if Cordell was cold-shouldering Weekly reporters.

Another local public official last year went public about the Daily News: Peter Carpenter of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District board said because of past experiences he would only talk with its reporters if the paper gave him written permission to record the interviews. The paper just reported that Carpenter refused comment, which outraged him, then in a later partial correction said it did not agree to his terms.

Even the incomplete correction, Carpenter said, was "a perfect example of the way in which they mislead the public and misuse their role as the press."

While the Weekly strives to maintain the balanced, analytical style of journalism it started out doing a quarter century ago, the Daily News arrived in the community in the mid-1990s displaying a different breed of journalism, more like the New York tabloids than anything that has ever been done in the Palo Alto area. Its tactics have included gratuitous sniping at the Weekly from time to time.

A petty case in point: When the Daily discovered that a graphics designer at the Weekly has the same name as the infamous Scott Peterson, the paper deemed it front-page news and referred to the Weekly as "a free newspaper carriers toss on some Peninsula driveways...."

Well, surprise guys, you even got that snide aside wrong. The Weekly reaches 43 percent more households in Palo Alto than does the Daily News, and is mailed into the homes of most readers -- except for some carrier distribution in San Mateo County.

As for being a fluffy lapdog, the Weekly just won its second-in-a-row "Freedom of Information" first-place statewide award from the California Newspaper Publishers' Association. The awards were for articles, editorials and lawsuits against the City of Palo Alto relating to (1) secret e-mails and responses between council members and city staff and (2) a closed "personnel" session that violated the state's open-meeting law, the Ralph M. Brown Act. Both cases were settled in the Weekly's favor, and the settlement broke new ground in electronic-communications openness.

But the self-proclaimed sharp-fanged watchdog newspaper depicted in the Daily's cartoon was nowhere to be seen in these important "public's right-to-know" cases.

The Daily instead has focused on obtaining and voyeuristically publishing the salaries and names of everyone who works for the City of Palo Alto and other cities. It recently lost a court challenge and an appeal, and has actually set back the cause of open records by pressing for such indiscriminate release of information.

Until the Daily's action, the public and media were routinely provided salary information on request. Because of the case, newspapers and activists throughout California are now having difficulty obtaining such records. It is essential that journalists have access to such information to dig out cases of excessive spending or overtime, malfeasance or waste.

There's an old saying, "Bad cases make bad law." This appears to be one of those cases, putting an essential media right at risk by carrying it to what some consider an unnecessarily intrusive extreme.

But the Daily's "tough-dog" approach to journalism doesn't apply just to government officials or employees. When the Palo Alto Neighborhoods (PAN) organization -- which purports to represent neighborhood interests -- scheduled a closed meeting of neighborhood leaders April 24, 2003, the Daily brass decided the meeting should be open to everyone.

They sent a photographer to take pictures of all who attended -- publishing them on the front page. The resulting community buzz made the incident itself news. One offended attendee dubbed the Daily the "paparazzi of Palo Alto."

I'm a decades-long advocate of open meetings -- closed sessions tend to generate suspicions and an "us and them" polarization. But is it truly front-page news that, in America, a private organization chooses to have a private meeting? The Weekly noted in an editorial (May 7, 2003) -- not in its news columns -- that the incident constituted a severe chilling of the Constitutional right of freedom of association. To me, it was more bully than bulldog journalism.

Even nonprofit organizations have felt its bite. In May, 2003, the Daily reported that the state was investigating "fiscal shenanigans" in the YWCA of the Midpeninsula, since disbanded. The official quoted, Tim Herrera, fired off an e-mail demanding a "correction or clarification story" because of "obvious misrepresentations," "inflammatory" tone and "blatantly false" lead sentence. The Daily published a partial correction only after several days -- and only after learning (from me) that the Weekly had the e-mail and was planning a story (May 21, 2003) to set the record straight.

The Daily's approach shows through to perceptive readers. Joe Villareal, one of those photographed outside the PAN meeting, later recounted how he used the Daily to help tutor a Hispanic woman in reading English. After about a week, she looked up and asked: "Doesn't anything positive happen here?" He stopped using the Daily.

So as the local news scene enters the name-calling phase, readers can make their own judgments between two dramatically different approaches to journalism: between a conscientious watchdog that strives to be fair and balanced and the, ahem, proverbial junkyard dog that lunges and snarls at just about everyone and everything.

Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at

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