When onetime surf shop manager Donna Frye surged to within an eyelash of the San Diego mayor's office last month, the city's media had their biggest political story in years.
But the razor-thin vote margin also thrust newspaper and television reporters into an ethical dilemma: How far were they willing to go to examine disputed write-in votes that potentially could tip the contest to Frye?
Three television stations and two newspapers helped instigate a recount of several thousand ballots last week.
The news outlets said the value of their hands-on review quickly became evident -- uncovering 5,547 ballots on which voters had written in Frye's name, but had failed to color in an adjacent oval, or ''bubble." If a judge eventually decides the votes must be counted, they could wipe out a 2,108-vote victory for the incumbent, Mayor Dick Murphy, whose win county officials certified this month.
But the involvement of reporters has drawn a rebuke from Murphy's lawyer and complaints from some readers and viewers, who said the news outlets had forsaken their journalistic impartiality.
''The feeling is bewilderment, I guess," said Bob Ottilie, Murphy's lawyer. ''The press financed something, the recount, that could change the story. They became the story."
KPBS-TV (Channel 15), the city's public television station, and its public radio affiliate, KPBS-FM, received about 60 complaints from viewers and listeners who said their donations to the station had been used to advance Frye's political agenda.
Within the School of Communication at San Diego State University, there was disagreement on the matter.
Bill Eadie, the school's director, said the media had fulfilled their ''obligation to the public to do whatever it takes, within the realm of legality, to produce information on a matter of great public interest."
But Tim Wulfemeyer, journalism degree coordinator in the same department, said in an e-mail that the media's action ''smacked of subjective reporting. It appeared [the journalists] were Frye supporters and wanted to help her."
San Diego's political elite never would have predicted the saga of the ''unbubbled Frye votes" when the 52-year-old city councilwoman belatedly entered the November election as a write-in candidate against two establishment figures: Murphy and County Supervisor Ron Roberts.
But Frye surprised most local analysts when her stance as a maverick, and as the only council member who voted against underfunding the city's pension system, proved to be popular with voters.
The outcome has remained clouded because, although state law requires voters to color in the oval next to a write-in vote, Frye voters say ballots without marked ovals also should be counted.
The League of Women Voters filed a lawsuit attempting to force the San Diego County registrar of voters, Sally McPherson, to count the unbubbled Frye ballots. But a judge rejected that action.
By the time the Murphy victory was certified Dec. 7, the Los Angeles Times, the San Diego Union-Tribune, and other news organizations had already requested, under the California Public Records Act, to examine the ballots. But Deputy County Counsel Dennis I. Floyd said the state Elections Code prohibited public scrutiny of the ballots ''except under certain narrow circumstances, including a request for a recount."
The two newspapers -- along with KPBS, ABC-television affiliate KGTV-TV (Channel 10), and NBC affiliate KNSD-TV (Channel 39) -- were told there was another wrinkle: Recount requests had to be made in the name of a San Diego voter, who in turn had to ask for the recount in the name of one of the candidates.
Suddenly, a fairly routine journalistic exercise had been cast in starkly different terms. Reporters accustomed to making public records requests in their own names -- and under the rubric of the public's right to know -- had to name partisan surrogates to get the information they wanted.
The issue provoked varying degrees of debate within the news organizations.
Tony Perry, the Times's San Diego bureau chief, considered the question fairly straightforward. ''There was no getting around it. This was the only way to get this information that the public really wanted to know," Perry said.
Perry and managers at two of the other news outlets, KGTV and KPBS, agreed to file a joint request for a recount of the contested Frye ballots.
In a request that Perry faxed to the county registrar, the news organizations said they were making the request on behalf of Ann Shanahan-Walsh, a political and media relations consultant who, in turn, ''is doing this on behalf of the candidacy of Councilwoman Frye." The request added, ''Nothing in this request should be seen as an endorsement of Councilwoman Frye by the news organizations."
Times Deputy Metro Editor David Lauter approved his paper's request. He said filing on behalf of a voter and candidate was ''a technical requirement of the law and couldn't be avoided."