By Robert Haugh
In an interview with Santa Clara News Online (SCNO) last week, Ethicist Dr. Tom Shanks had some interesting things to say about the Bay Area’s two largest papers.
He was critical of one. “The Mercury News, for example, used to be strong on ethics and transparency but they either don’t understand what’s happening in Santa Clara or they have concerns about offending a major advertiser,” said Shanks.
“Their recent editorial called the 49er contributions ‘troubling.’ That was a major understatement. They also placed the responsibility on the elected officials, not the team.”
But Shanks was complimentary of another: “The San Francisco Chronicle has done some recent good reporting and they’ve become the paper of record for this larger story even though it’s technically not in their backyard.”
Shanks was a former director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. He also taught communications.
Shanks says that he’ll evaluate media coverage differences as part of his case study on the Santa Clara-49ers story.
SCNO documented a major difference between the Mercury News and the Chronicle in 2018 when they had really different takes on the City’s successful effort to stop the team from reducing its own rent. (There are links to other anti-Santa Clara news stories, too).
The 2018 Mercury News’ story headline: 49ers blast Santa Clara for ‘fuzzy’ math
The 2018 Chronicle’s story headline: 49ers get sacked again in rent battle with Santa Clara City Hall
In 2020, when the 49ers spent $3 million to elect 3 Council members, the Merc wrote just one story about it. According to a former Mercury News reporter, someone outside the news department had to push for it to be written. Wow.
This year, the team has spent well over $1 million between the fake organization Santa Clara Now and independent expenditure committees to back Councilmembers Anthony Becker, Raj Chahal and Karen Hardy.
The Chronicle has extensively covered the spending, writing multiple stories.
The Mercury News has only written one story about the 49ers spending even though it started in February. And reporter Grace Hase combined the team’s spending with a story on The Related Companies’ $100,000 independent expenditure for Lisa Gillmor.
According to a former Mercury News reporter, the fact that the paper has written more stories about the 49ers spending $300,000 in the San Jose mayor’s race shows “either a bias or a blind spot.”
The Chronicle has also done some serious reporting on the major legal settlement between the City and the team. In an in-depth analysis, they reported that the 49ers offer to the City was a fraction of what the team said it was – and what the Mercury News reported.
Hase was the author of two Mercury News stories on the settlement. She wrote that the deal was worth $13 million. Her only source was the team.
Hase was contacted multiple times last week for comment but did not respond.
When former reporters and other media experts were asked why the coverage between the papers is so different, SCNO heard a lot of theories.
Some suggested that the Chronicle is just a superior newspaper. “They have real investigative reporters and real columnists that can write,” said one expert. “The Merc’s newsroom has been gutted of its talent.”
Others, like Shanks, suggest that the 49ers are a major advertiser. Since the Mercury News is owned by Alden Global Capital who pushes its papers to make higher profits even at the expense of good reporting. So they can’t afford to offend the 49ers.
One source pointed out that the Mercury News Publisher Sharon Ryan has a friendly relationship with 49ers CEO Jed York on the Silicon Valley Leadership Group’s Board of Directors.
But since the team left San Francisco, the ownership doesn’t really have personal friendships with the Chronicle at the highest levels.