Trashing the Tribune
October 5, 2011
OPINION By KEVIN P. RICE
San Luis Obispo’s trash container ordinance was recently converted to “trash ordnance” fired at the city council when the Tribune published large color photos of all five San Luis Obispo City Council members’ homes on the front page of the Sunday edition.
Is it fair to lob a return volley?
Two years ago, I published a lightly read report on my website which revealed one of our county grand jurors was a former registered nurse. Her license was revoked for falsifying patient records, unprofessional conduct, and stealing and using patient drugs, thus depriving patients of prescribed medications.
According to Penal Code 893, “A person is competent to act as a grand juror only if… he is in possession of his natural faculties, of ordinary intelligence, of sound judgment, and of fair character.”
My report questioned this individual’s fitness for grand jury service. The San Luis Obispo Tribune felt otherwise.
Instead of reporting the revelation, the Tribune published a critical editorial suggesting the privacy of this juror was invaded because my report included a public document where jurors list their home address. This public document was necessary in order to present incontrovertible proof that our juror and the disciplined nurse were the same individual.
Fast-forward two years.
This week, I am struggling to see the difference between my 2009 report and the Tribune’s decision to publish photos of council member homes replete with street names for the convenience of Google Street View voyeurs. Was there a major scandal uncovered? No.
Four of the five council members left their trash containers in view of the street “blatantly disregarding” a city ordinance “that they created”. Far be it from me to defend the city council, but only three of the current five were on the council last year when the ordinance was voted upon. The Tribune didn’t bother to report this fact, nor investigate former mayor Dave Romero and council member Allen Settle, nor report that the ordinance originated with the city planning commission.
Yet, the Tribune did see fit to invade the privacy of law abiding new councilman Dan Carpenter with a photo of his home.
And the Tribune blundered by failing to recognize new councilwoman Kathy Smith resides in a private development and was not in violation of the ordinance. Smith was thrown under the trash truck with the rest of the council. Usually, this is called libel, but I didn’t see a front page retraction in this week’s Sunday ink.
Make no mistake, the Tribune article is well-deserved by the remaining three council members who created an ordinance only enforced by neighbor snitching (termed “complaint driven” by those who feel “snitch” hits too close to home). But front page photos of homes seems uncalled for in the petty case of refuse container placement.
Or, maybe I’m confused. Is trash can visibility a higher offense than nurse misconduct?
More poignant, though, is how the article speaks to the level of Tribune investigative journalism. Occasionally, the Tribune performs good public service by publishing valuable information such as public salaries and holding the feet of government to the fire via presentation of fact. Still, Tribune investigative pieces are mostly child’s play: simplistic public records requests or drive-by photographing of council member residences.
I am compelled to offer that the Tribune should take notice of the complicated and arduous investigative pieces undertaken by other local news sources. Hard work investigations that require days or weeks of interviews, obtaining documents, research, and professional consultation are sorely lacking at the Tribune.
Instead, the Tribune is quick to criticize investigative efforts made elsewhere. Certainly not every investigative revelation exposes a violation of law, but that doesn’t mean the Tribune should criticize the ethical questions that arise. The public wants and has a right to know about public affairs. When the Tribune produces in-depth investigative reports of higher quality than elsewhere then I will give ear to their criticisms.
Simultaneously, the Tribune is long on staff editorials. Tribune editorials often seek to sway public opinion, influence elected representatives and determine elections. Indeed, Tribune editorials have seeded and fueled sentiment for and against election candidates. Journalistic organizations might choose to include independent editorial content as thoughtful points of view, however Tribune editorials often seek outcomes. Presenting uncolored complete facts is a role of the press to which the Tribune frequently fails.
Often times, Tribune reports mix content and editorial. Certain staff fill both shoes. Lately, a photographic editor’s blog content has been appearing under the “news” category. Whether this is by design or lack of journalistic rigour is unclear.
One of my favorite local figures is Mr. Benjamin S. Brooks. Mr. Brooks–a man of superior attainments regarded as one of the most skillful members of the San Francisco bar–bought the San Luis Obispo Tribune in 1886 and served as editor for thirty years. I believe Mr. Brooks, who lies in the old Masonic section of the San Luis Cemetery, would be dismayed by the dearth of substantive local content in today’s Tribune.
Do your job, Tribune.
Kevin P. Rice of San Luis Obispo is an open government advocate.