Local News Fails the Grade

Sometimes it's useful to turn conventional wisdom on its head.

What would you think if I said that Jayson Blair, the New York Times reporter who admitted plagiarism, harmed the public less than any news director at the three largest stations located in San Francisco in the weeks before the March 2 primary?

Mr. Blair disgraced journalism. He stole other reporters' copy. The public harm? Readers got another journalist's report. More damaging, Mr. Blair made up some quotes. These misled readers, but most of his embellishments didn't fundamentally alter the import of the stories he was covering. And Mr. Blair's reporting constituted a tiny fraction of the Times' weekly output.

While public harm was limited, Blair threatened the credibility of the Times. His actions called into question the newspaper's quality control mechanisms. But the paper responded vigorously and remains respected, even revered.

The news directors at KGO Channel 7, KPIX Channel 5 and KRON Channel 4 are good people with sterling reputations. I doubt any would plagiarize. But Grade the News recorded their premiere evening newscasts during two of the final three weeks before Election Day, March 2. We found that they utterly failed at their first responsibility as journalists. That's to enable the public to make informed choices when we have the chance to shape our democracy as voters.

This obligation arises from the very first sentences of the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists: "public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends..."

As citizens looked for help in deciding complicated questions in the weeks before March 2, these stations devoted a minute or less of their prime evening broadcasts to news voters could use to decide all local, state and national races combined. Citizens who depended upon them to decide $27 billion worth of state propositions, 65 local ballot measures and scores of candidate races were distracted and disempowered. Is it any surprise that San Francisco's voter turnout trailed the state average?

Jayson Blair's harm was limited to a single reporter. The decision of news directors to downplay politics affected three entire newsrooms.

Mr. Blair was, of course, fired. So were two top managers at the Times. The paper broke with a long tradition and hired its first ombudsman. Supervision of reporters increased. The ethics policy was revised.

But there was no consequence for shortchanging the citizens of San Francisco. On the contrary, the stations enjoyed their usual campaign windfall, selling hundreds of political ads.

Jayson Blair knew what he was doing was wrong. He was violating a trust in the New York Times newsroom. In contrast, the news directors at KRON, KPIX and KGO were keeping a trust. Not with the public, but with a management far more concerned with private profit than public service.

The conventional logic and way of doing business in these three newsrooms needs to be turned on its head.

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