The San Jose Mercury News: Journalism or right-wing political activism?

Longtime Merc columnist Scott Herhold finally admits in writing:  He’s just about the only republican in Santa Clara County

Mercury News Columnist Scott Herhold

I rarely find myself in agreement with Bob Brownstein, the policy and research director of the labor-oriented Working Partnerships USA. Brownstein is well on the left, while a long journalistic career has made me more skeptical about government.
Scott Herhold, August 11, 2014

The Mercury News:  Once a bastion of Journalism

The San Jose Mercury news was once a great bastion of journalism.  Described in the 90’s as “a middle-of-the-road political cast slightly tilted to the Democratic side”, the paper more recently leans decidedly right.  Throughout the 80’s, 90’s and early 2000’s, the paper reigned as one of the best in the country.  It won two Pulitzers, first in 1986, again in 1995, and then it scored three Pulitzer finalists between 2001 and 2005.  But the awards stop there, as the paper slid from balanced journalism to become the de facto Chuck Reed / Sam Liccardo political campaigning vehicle.  Reed took office in 2006, the year after the newspaper’s accolades took a decade recess.

As evidence of the downhill spiral, the daily got scooped on the biggest San Jose story in recent times.  San Jose’s tiny weekly paper, The Metro, broke the George Shirakawa scandal, a story which culminated in the influential county supervisor spending time in the slammer for gambling and corruption.  Scrappy journalist Josh Koehn sniffed out the story that everyone in the Merc’s sprawling newsroom seems to have missed.

Editorial:  My take on where the Merc went wrong

Here’s my theory.  The Merc fell in love in with Mayor Chuck Reed, lost its way in a lovesick daze, and slowly but surely got sucked into the Right Wing Democrats’ anti-union, anti-government crusade.   The newspaper writers became close friends with one faction of the city government.  Sal Pizarro’s daughter was a flower girl in Sam Liccardo’s wedding.  Scott Herhold was observed advising Liccardo on how to run his mayoral campaign over a personal lunch.  It all happened under the guise of being liberal, after all Santa Clara County leans democrat with a margin of 2:1.  The Merc let their ethnic minority opinion writers slip away.  Over time, because of attrition or hiring practices or something, everyone began having the same point of view.  On the important local issues they – staff journalists to columnists to editors – now speak with a unified voice: anti-union, pro-charter, small government, balanced budget.  Let’s be honest, everyone in journalism has a bias.  That’s not the problem, the problem is that everyone at the Merc leans the same way.  They are racially homogenous, ideologically identical.  The lack of diversity is appalling, and let’s face it, boring.

Herhold’s admission above is a small statement in a much bigger sea of editorials and news pieces.  One Merc reporter told me that the editorial staff used to be housed in a separate building to maintain “the firewall ” between the journalists and opinion writers.  Budget cuts later pushed them all in the same room, a more than ceremonial breakdown in journalistic ideals.

Herhold’s confession of being a Right Wing Democrat is a small example.  There are so many more examples, but here’s my favorite.  The Mercury News actually made a small campaign contribution to the right leaning anti-union Don Gagliardi in the San Jose District 3 race.  The Merc later castigated itself for the contribution, admitting that it’s “improper for a newspaper to contribute to a political action committee.”

By now, you may be wondering why a blog laser focused on charters would be criticizing the local daily.  I’m a blogger.  I don’t get paid to do this, I stay up late at night on my own time doing the research.  There’s a lot I can’t do.  Paid journalism is so important.  The more time I spend blogging, the more I realize the importance of a local daily newspaper that walks the tenuous line down the center.  We need the Merc.  We need its paid staff to dig up dirt, and expose the truth.  We need a strong editorial board that makes solid recommendations that represent the community.  Let’s be honest, I shouldn’t be writing this blog.  If the Merc did its job, I wouldn’t have to.  They should be writing about Rocketship, they should be writing about the dangers and benefits of the education privatization movement.  Unfortunately, their support of Reed & Liccardo’s anti-union campaign led them to blindly support Rocketship rather than to look at the truth.

To the Mercury News:  Time to change!  Add some minorities!

I want to go on the record publicly.  The Merc has to change.  The all white editorial board is a dinosaur.  They need new blood, they need to add Spanish speaking Latinos, they need Asians, they need a young member and an old member.  Everyone is beginning to notice.  Even when they called me a “conspiracy theorist,” most of my friends hadn’t read about it; they stopped reading the daily long ago.  I hear the same story so often, “I let my subscription lapse, The Merc’s a joke these days.”  Here’s an idea to bolster their falling subscriptions:  get some diversity, let diverse columnists duel it out on important issues.  Imagine a pro-charter and a pro-public school advocate hammering out the issues in parallel dueling columns.  People would love it!

Some might argue that I have an axe to grind.  Herhold named me the “Nimby of the Year” in 2013 for representing the desires of the Spanish speaking Latinos in our community.  The editorial board added criticized our group in 2013, saying that we were “A small group [that] opposes the plan, citing sometimes contradictory concerns about air quality, parking and draining students from a nearby school, as well as a preference for a middle school.” The editorial board declared in 2014 that I was a “conspiracy theorist”.  If I weren’t thick skinned, I wouldn’t be writing a blog.  While these off color statements are annoying, they don’t represent the core of my concern.

Write about education …. and can we get back to the days of Daniel Vasquez?

Education is going through the biggest change in the history of America’s experiment in democracy.  Reed Hastings’ suggestion that we replace elected school boards with private corporations is the biggest story since Daniel Vasquez (a Latino) became the Merc’s last Pulitzer prize finalists in 2005.  I can only wish that an education story in 2015 would break the decade slide into oblivion.  I’ll even suggest where to start:  The Detroit Free Press did some hard journalism on charter schools.  The Merc should follow suit.

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Good Editorials


Time for a change!  2014 San Jose Mercury News Editorial Board
Ed ClendanielMercury News Editorial Writer
Barbara J MarshmanEditorial Page Editor
Sharon RyanPresident & Publisher
David J ButlerBANG Editor in Chief