Editorial: What's Fair and Why?

Becky O'Malley
Tuesday January 13, 2004

Fired reporter Henry Norr’s offhand snipe that the San Francisco Chronicle “apparently sees no problem in having a Sacramento bureau chief whose wife is Arnold Schwarzenegger's deputy chief of staff and was previously a flack for Maria Shriver” prompted not one but two indignant denials from Chronicle functionaries. They told us that the Chronicle's Sacramento bureau chief, Greg Lucas, has agreed to be reassigned, and is no longer covering the governor, the Legislature or any area of state government.  

That’s not necessarily good news. 

Lucas is an extremely competent newsman with a fine reputation. His former colleague, Rob Gunnison, who now teaches at the UC School of Journalism, says he’s always been “an excellent reporter.” He’s been married to his wife Donna a long time, and she’s been a first-tier flack for Republicans most of that time. She previously worked for Republican Gov. George Deukmejian, and subsequently had her own public relations agency which was acquired by the national PR firm Porter Novelli. (More grist for the conspiracy mill: That firm’s principal, William Novelli, used to be a speechwriter for Newt Gingrich, and he now runs the AARP, which was widely accused of selling out seniors in the debate about the new Medicare bill.) Whew! What does all this have to do with Henry Norr, you might ask? 

There’s a good argument to be made that Henry was wrong if he was intending to suggest that the Chronicle should take Lucas off Sacramento coverage, and that the Chronicle was wrong for doing so. The idea that journalism should be practiced only by the equivalent of Vestal Virgins, people with no experience in or carnal contact with the area they’re reporting on, is a peculiarly American construct that arose sometime around the 1920s, largely at the behest of advertisers. Newspapers in the early days of the Republic were proudly partisan, as most papers in most other parts of the world still are. Even at the end of the twentieth century, some fine folks went back and forth between politics and journalism (John Kennedy, Pierre Salinger and Al Gore are three that come to mind) and the public interest benefited, overall.  

A reporter who has never heard a political campaigner say “you can’t overestimate the laziness of newsies” is a set-up for a cleverly written press release that seems to plug a news hole. A business writer who doesn’t know anyone in business is more likely to swallow Enron-type publicity, as many did before the real story was finally uncovered. In an era of two-career families, extending the concept of conflict of interest to spouses can produce ludicrous results. A business writer of my acquaintance was taken off her beat because her husband was “in business;” i.e. was a minor executive in a company which was very unlikely to be newsworthy.  

As far as the Lucasses are concerned, their relationship has never been a secret: They’ve even used the same name, not common among professional couples these days. They’re not fooling anyone, and there’s no sign Lucas is pulling his punches because his wife might have done some work for the bad guys. A Google search on his name produces a whole web page attacking his reporting, authored by the tobacco industry, big users of political PR. He must be doing something right if he has that kind of enemies. He’s never showed any signs of pro-Republican bias in his reporting. Taking him out of the action in Sacramento does no favor for Chronicle readers who want to find out as much as possible about what’s going on there. 

Becky O’Malley is executive editor of the Berkeley Daily Planet.