September 22, 2003


The Ombudsman: Are Bee's standards for Web lower than for print? (Tony Marcano -- Bee Ombudsman, September 21, 2003, Sacramento Bee)

An obscure news item appeared on on Sept. 9. I doubt that more than a few people noticed it. But one reader who did notice it brought an ethical lapse to my attention.

The lead paragraph of the item read, "The Sacramento Municipal Utility District was given final approval by the California Energy Commission to build the first phase of the 500-megawatt Cosumnes Power Plant." There's nothing obviously wrong with that sentence -- until you read the press release distributed by the utility district. Its lead sentence?

"The Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) was given final approval by the California Energy Commission (CEC) to build the first phase of the 500-megawatt Cosumnes Power Plant (CPP)." Much of the rest of the news item, which carried the byline "By Bee Metro Staff," was also taken verbatim from the press release.

It was only a few weeks ago that I wrote about the suspension of a Bee sportswriter for lifting directly from press releases and attempting to pass the work off as his own. In that case, The Bee's editing safeguards prevented the fraudulent work from getting into the newspaper.

So how was it that The Bee's editors didn't prevent a press release reprinted under the guise of "Bee Metro Staff" from getting on its Web site? It's because an editor in the newsroom responsible for making sure that kind of thing doesn't happen was the transgressor.

The problem here is that some editors at The Bee can unilaterally post items to the Web with no additional oversight. That's directly in conflict with standard editing practices. [...]

The Bee got a further lesson in the pitfalls of that recently when columnist Daniel Weintraub included a contentious statement in his Sept. 1 Weblog, which is posted on

Weintraub wrote that Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante "certainly owed his elevation to the job of Assembly speaker to his ethnic background and to the support he received from fellow Latinos. If his name had been Charles Bustmont rather than Cruz Bustamante, he would have finished his legislative career as an anonymous back-bencher."

Further, he alleged, "it's indisputably true that the Legislature's Latino Caucus advocates policies that are destructive to their own people and to greater California, in the name of ethnic unity." The caucus protested in a letter to Bee Publisher Janis Besler Heaphy.

Make what you will of Weintraub's statement, and of the caucus' protests. No matter what I or anyone else thinks, he has every right to analyze the political scene and reach those conclusions. But no newspaper should publish an analysis without an editor's review. That doesn't necessarily mean that Weintraub's blog should have been reworded, but an editor should at least have had the opportunity to question his conclusions.

Since these incidents came to light, The Bee has instituted some reforms.

Mr. Weintraub's ability to analyze Recall items as they come along and give us all informed opinions has been invaluable, but it does seem fair to hold his blog writing to at least the level that the op-ed page has to meet. His blog is after all a Sacramento Bee branded product.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 22, 2003 7:19 PM

No paper where I have worked has come close to having an ombudsman, thank the non-existent Lord.

The Bee's ombud seems more than unusually sanctimonious, which is saying something.

A byline of "Newspaper staff" is pretty much meaningless but perhaps suggests that the newspaper staff accepts the press release as correct.

Whaddays want for 50 cents?

Posted by: Harry Eagar at September 22, 2003 10:08 PM

Repeal of the press portion of the 1st amendment.

Posted by: oj at September 22, 2003 10:33 PM