Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Examining the Examiner

First in an occasional critique of local media
It goes without saying that newspapers are important in forging the public consensus necessary for propounding responsible urban regimes. And indeed, the illness that afflicts San Francisco's urban regime is evident in San Francisco newspapers.

In general, newspaper reporting is San Francisco is afflicted by profound shallowness and an overly precious attitude, which emphasizes meaningless eccentricity and neglect. The sense of outrage that newspapers can generate about critical issues is very rare, and when evident is bizarrely misplaced. The end results range from the blunted affect which characterizes reporting in the Chronicle to the bizarre and intellect-insulting screeds found in the Bay Guardian.

But today, we discuss a frustration of yet another kind: the permanently unrealized potential of the San Francisco Examiner.

According to legend, William Randolph Hearst's father, George Hearst, acquired the what was to become the San Francisco Examiner as payment for an outstanding gambling debt. When he inherited the paper in the late 1880's, it became the jewel of Hearst's media empire, featuring prominent writers like Jack London and Mark Twain, and the scathing journalistic style which defined the Hearst papers of America's Imperial period, showcasing shocking scandal, biting satire, and jingoism. The Examiner remained a newspaper of national prominence until well into the 20th Century.

By 1965, the overall market for newspapers had been impacted enough by television that the Examiner entered a Joint Operating Agreement with its staid and more successful rival, the Chronicle. Outlets on the Left attacked the JOA as commercially unfair, and of narrowing and dumbing down the quality of Journalism at both papers. In reality, it allowed the Examiner to appeal to a more cosmopolitan and liberal readership than the ancien-regime-oriented Chronicle. By the 1990's, management trio Will Hearst (William Randolph's grandson), David Talbot (who had come over from, among other places, Mother Jones, and would later move on to found salon.com) and self-made maverick editor Phil Bronstein had produced a paper which featured insightful reporting, truly interesting columnists such as Rob Morse and William Woo, and a forward thinking cultural sensibility.

Unfortunately it was not to last. Already to an extent subsidized by Chronicle revenues under the JOA, circulation had shrunk to less than a quarter of that her sister paper by 1990. A crippling strike in 1994, along with rising paper costs, pretty much pegged the paper for disposal by Hearst Corporation. They hired a new publisher, and lowered the cover price to a quarter. Progressives characterized these moves as the beginning of the "Examiner Deathwatch," alleging that they were preludes to a move to buy the Chronicle and merge it with the Examiner. In other JOA cities, agreements had been allowed to expire and involved papers to merge, for the most part without public outcry. But here, the Progressive Antiregime was determined to ensure public outrage, and others were waiting to take advantage.

The Left's outcry over newspaper mergers in San Francisco was for the most part based on fallacy. They decried newspaper mergers as attempts to stifle divergent public opinion when local governments are increasingly influenced by the priorities of Big Business. This despite the fact that the objects of such hand-wringing are in fact owned by large corporations, and that their editorial stances generally favor metropolitan development and other issues which alternative papers invariably oppose. Much of the rhetoric here was based more on the desire to control public dialogue rather than on any desire to preserve diversity of public opinion. The editorial conduct of the Fang Family's San Francisco Independent during the life of "the Chron-Ex Merger Controversy" perfectly epitomized this.

That publication had repeatedly embroiled itself in pissing matches with the Examiner. Much of the vitriol was fueled by erstwhile columnist Warren Hinckle, and tended to exemplify the hyperbolic news coverage which that publication had become known for. However, there were commercial motives for these conflicts as well. In 1993, the Independent filed an antitrust lawsuit against the Examiner over their aggressive bidding to win the City's public notice advertising contract. They won at trial, but the verdict was overturned on appeal. Since then, the Independent's coverage of the Examiner, Hearst, and notably then-Executive Editor Phil Bronstein, became even more bellicose. There was even a tawdry comic strip, "Mr. Sharon Stone," that poked fun at Bronstein's marriage to the blond film star.

When Hearst announced plans to acquire the Chronicle and merge it with the Examiner unless a buyer for the afternoon paper could be found, the Independent amplified the campaign even further, with a publicly stated goal to block the deal. It was echoed, albeit in a much more genteel manner, by San Francisco's political establishment, citing the now predictable claims of preserving diversity in public opinion.

The quest to block the merger in favor of acquiring the Examiner dovetailed with the Independent's other more transparent agendas. For instance, when the Chronicle published a series of stories criticizing the record of District Attorney Terence Hallinan during his tough re-election fight, Hallinan and the Independent claimed that the Chronicle was attempting to retaliate against him for launching an investigation into the merger, which apparently never took place. As Supervisor earlier in his career, Hallinan was instrumental in ensuring the Fangs were awarded the Independent's earlier public notice contracts. Thus the District Attorney's race, as well as the Mayor's race, soon became embroiled in the Fangs' designs on the Examiner. It soon would become clear that there would be no merger without some lip service paid to an "independent" entity inheriting the Examiner name.

Once the 1999 election cycle ended, the Fangs went public with their agenda to buy the Examiner. The announcement first came through the rumor conduit, and then financier Warren Hellman volunteered to the press that he would help bankroll a Fang takeover of the paper, as long as the Joint Operating Agreement was preserved. Clearly, the Fangs were looking at simply replacing Hearst at the helm of the Examiner with little or no change in its relationship with the Chronicle. The problem is that the JOA on its face has become unprofitable for both papers; this has been an open secret for sometime, but potential investors apparently had little awareness of it. Certainly Hearst was aware of it, and resisted any attempt to preserve the JOA.

Further avenues for risk later emerged. In early February, the Independent was finally evicted for nonpayment of rent from its Burlingame offices after a long court action to delay the ouster. During the proceedings, Ted Fang told a judge that being evicted would cause "a domino effect on the health of the business" that in turn could "cause the newspaper to fail." Whether this affair was due to simply being strapped for cash, vexatious business dealings with the landlord, or indicative of a much deeper problem is subject to speculation. Some observers claim that the Independent Newspaper Group, with recent editions opened throughout the Peninsula, had stretched itself too thin. In any case, Hellman pulled out of the deal. These financial strains would continue to manifest themselves throughout the Fang family's stewardship of the Examiner, and eventually to its being sold yet again.

Nevertheless, in 2000, the Fangs obtained the Examiner name, its archives, 35 delivery trucks and a subsidy of $66 million (over two years) as part of the Hearst Corporation's acquisition of the Chronicle.

The new Fang Examiner was frought with production and proofreading problems. Media criticism sites like Poynter and mediagossip.com were regarding it as a national joke. Tainted by the hack reputation of the Fangs, the paper burned through reporters, editors, and columnists. P.J. Corkery, late of Vanity Fair, tried to give the paper some degree of urbanity, but was soon himself run through (he later returned to the Examiner after it was sold to the current owners). Virtually all national coverage was provided by wire service stories.

It was during this time that the Examiner was first marketed as a free paper, with revenue generated from commercial advertising. It was a smart move given the direction of the industry, however, a number of factors, including the Fangs' political empire-building and the lack of a sales infrastructure geared to commercial ads (as opposed political-contacts-driven public notice ad contracts) led to an increasingly untenable financial situatuion.

Finally, in 2004, the Examiner was sold to multimillionaire Philip Anschutz, then chairman of Qwest Communications International, dabbler in professional sports management, and outspoken conservative. For Anschutz, the Examiner would become part of what would soon be called the Clarity Media Group, including a sister Examiner paper in Washington DC and, eventually, other nationwide markets.

The overall concept behind the papers has not been spelled out, but both existing papers have been significantly changed: The tabloid format has been cleaned up, production has been professionalized, and the content has been tailored to a fast-paced, short-attention-span commuter readership: the front page pretty much serves as a fast table of contents, there's a crystal clear daily event index inside, no jump pages for stories, an emphasis on graphics, and a seemingly rational and centrist editorial take on local news. And the paper is still free.

But the the new editorial format lacks depth - and that impacts the quality of reporting. Rather than digging for detail, Examiner articles often seem as if they're put together from very superficial interviewing. For instance: Exhibit 1; Exhibit 2. It goes without saying that such a content format often restricts the ability of reporters to get both sides of a story. Combine that with the lack of experienced writers, the end result is empty reportage.

The Examiner briefly had made a name for itself with some fairly in-depth politcal coverage. That was lost with the departure of Adriel Hampton. Hampton's articles and regular political notebook column did a good job of naming the players and their motivations in various political moves around the City, even if it did sometimes treat some of the more malevolent ones with kid gloves. Hampton started while the Fangs were in charge, and in many ways he was their best asset, along with Samson Wong who still writes for the Fang-owned Asian Week. What stands in now for political news tends to get the names, dates, and issues spelled right, but there's no analysis. The end result is more like a political calendar of events than real political reportage. While the Examiner seems to get it most of the time in its editorial stance on local issues, the reportage on those same issues is often not there to back it up.

The best opportunity for going deep into political issues is provided by the Examiner's newest columnist, Ken Garcia. Now, we've warned you about Ken in the past; but so far he's been timely and spot on in his new column; hopefully we can keep him from going down the nostalgic road of Harry Parker and NIMBY eucalyptus tree worship.

You would think the slack in this area would be taken up by the Examiner's columns. Not Quite, not yet anyways. PJ Corkery does a decent job of covering civic culture, but never goes too deep except when he comes across a juicy tidbit, which isn't often. 
When the Fangs still ran the Examiner, Bill Picture did a wonderful quasi-social column on local club culture, but he's since disappeared, and what remains of "Scoop!" is wire-service-driven Hollywood gossip. Like we really need more of this? There's also a "Life & Style" picture section which stands in for for the usual over-embalmed society pages, and it's rather unique in that we don't see the usual over-embalmed people in it. Yet there seems to be a lot of emphasis on what everyone is wearing - but since many of these people shown off are regular people, they seem to all be wearing Banana Republic. The other entertainment columns aren't bad at all - but that isn't what we're here for.

One of the most frustrating things about the political opinion content in the Examiner is the occasional violent blurting out of random conservative opinion. It seems almost as if the editorial board is pressured to pick something conservative out of a hat and slip it in to appease corporate. Apart from the occasional absurd ranting of Kathleen Antrim, they occasionally slip in wire-service political cartoons which manage to offend both the sensibilities and intelligence of the average San Franciscan: one recent cartoon featured a presumed sequel to "Brokeback Mountain" which purported to depict a love affair between a cowboy - and his horse. Another depicted Ted Kennedy as Joe McCarthy during the Alito hearings. There are conservatives in San Francisco, and I suspect that even they are offended by these forays into talk radio sentiment. The Examiner would be better off with a regular, reasonable voice for conservative views, along the lines of the Chronicle's Debra Saunders. There's certainly some local talent they could make use of - Chris Bowman, Don Casper, Quentin Kopp (under Mara's name perhaps?), the refugees from the latest Chronwatch or Republican Central Committee purge; hell, even we publish these people. If the Examiner is charged with introducing conservative opinion to the San Francisco mainstream, they aren't doing a very good job by showing us the shrill stuff.

So the Examiner remains, for the most part, a promise unfulfilled. Tabloid papers in other cities, at the very least, will use their content to create outrage about issues that matter and enliven the dialogue. The Examiner fails to do this. Yet most people I know, when asked to choose between the Chronicle and the Examiner, will often choose the Examiner. Why?

"At least it's worth the money I paid for it," is the usual answer.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

The Miserable

This past week, San Francisco became the venue and witness for one of the most bizarre and spectacular non-story news stories in a long while. And the participants are about as mundane and typical as you could imagine: a shoplifting crackhead, disaffected retail employees, and overeager police.

I am speaking, of course, of the Starbuck’s Bomb Scare.

This is what likely happened: last Monday afternoon, a homeless guy walked into a Starbuck's, bums a bag of some used coffee grounds, supposedly for gardening purposes, and asks to use the bathroom. Homeless guy uses bathroom and leaves, but leaves a broken flashlight, which he found in the street, in the shitter. The homeless guy picked up the flashlight thinking it might be a good club, but changes his mind after thinking about it, so he leaves it. He then goes into a Circuit City and tries to use the coffee bag to steal a camera from the store. He's caught by store security, his name is taken, and a complaint is forwarded to police.

Meanwhile a Starbuck's employee inspects the bathroom, finds the flashlight, and thinks it's a bomb. So Starbuck's calls the police, they send the Bomb Squad, who analyzes the device in situ ("well, it COULD be a bomb...") and decides to "defuse" it with the water cannon just to be safe. They then analyze the Starbucks video, and the time of incident checks out to said homeless guy. Starbuck's employees give police his name, and the rent-a-cops at Circuit City give SFPD a name and Polaroid for the shoplifting incident. Meanwhile, the homeless guy is arrested on an outstanding drug warrant the following day. When interviewed, 2 plus 2 end up making 5, and a shoplifing drug addict makes national news.

Meanwhile, police and media figures start playing telephone. The baristas get the next two days off, and SFPD spokespeople describe the flashlight as "an item that, if it had exploded, would have caused some damage.” The ATF is called in. KPIX gets a heartwarming interview with the suspect.

At which point the flashlight is revealed to be a flashlight.

I have some thoughts about all this:

1. While retail managers probably should get some basic premises security and bomb recognition traning from corporate, one wonders what kind of Starbucks employees think they are likely to be bombed. If I worked at Starbuck's I'd be more worried about laptop thieves, not bombs. Of course, Starbuck's employees routinely shug their shoulders at laptop thefts on their premises, so perhaps they think that customers who lose their laptops there will develop some sort of grudge. This is very reminiscent of what happened to City College Trustee Rodel Rodis, who got falsely arrested last year for counterfeiting when he used a older $100 bill to buy something and the pimplefuck manager thought it was fake. Bureaucratic Risk Aversion and stupidity are a dangerous combination.

2. Police spokespeople should not make shit up. If it's a real bomb, they should not say shit. If it turns out to be a fake bomb, they should not say shit. Once a suspected "bomb" is proved to be another innocent object, they should make a very clear statement of how and why it was mistaken for a bomb.

3. SFPD may wish to consider actually responding to shoplifting calls and taking shoplifters to jail, rather than citing and releasing them or passively taking reports from stores. We can always release them after booking at the jail.

4. Media pros could start asking obvious questions, like, well, WHO WOULD REALLY WANT TO BOMB A STARBUCK'S?!

Discussion on The Wall Forum

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Today On The Bus

I took MUNI Downtown today. A brief while into the bus ride I heard a slumping, thumping sound.

I looked behind me and saw this:

Apparently, one of our fellow passengers had a little too many.

Some passengers complained. They and the driver wondered what to do.

The driver called an Inspector and arranged to meet him at a stop. They would then tell the man to get off the bus or they would call the police.

The Inspector was waiting at the stop.

So they tell him to get off the bus. He wakes up and, apparently, is wondering what is going on.

At this point another passenger recognizes him. He tries to talk to him and convince him to get off the bus.

Our inebriated friend will hear nothing of it. He responds with obscenities.

Then, he gets up and shouts more obscenities at the man.

We become relieved for a moment as it looks as if he will finally get off the bus.

But this is not to be.

Instead, he asks the Inspector why the bus has stopped.

Instead of waiting for a response, he gets back on the bus.

And sits down, and yells more obscenities.

Finally, another bus comes and we decide to take it. The drunk stays on the first bus, presumably to wait for the police.

Have a Nice Day.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Bill Barnes is Looking at Your Underwear

Everyone seems to have this fixation with Bill Barnes. Barnes made the gossip circuit again when Supervisor Fiona Ma decided to bring him on for a temporary gig in here office, filling in for aide Jaynry Mak while she’s on maternity leave.

People are scratching their heads over this, because Barnes is most associated with being the longtime chief aide and political bottle-washer to the Stalinist supervisor Chris Daly. Ma on the other hand is regarded as a pragmatic moderate, quite the opposite of Daly. Pat Murphy has even put out an opinion piece urging Ma to Redact “Barnacle Bill.” Many people see Barnes’s political record as incompatible with his new job.

How quickly people forget. Barnes first hit the political scene in San Francisco in the employ of Willie Brown, and was elected to the DCCC originally on the votes of gay liberals and moderates. Rumors that he was a registered republican back east are unsubstantiated but persistent. And while he’s repackaged himself as a progressive by standing with Daly on prurient (but nevertheless Progressive) pursuits such as throwing a monkeywrench in pot club regulation and banning legal handguns, he’s also gone against his own party by doing constituent outreach work for Prop 78, the recent pharmaceutical industry-backed voluntary subsidy initiative. Barnes is a member of the local Democratic Party Central Committee, yet no one seems to have called him on working for a measure that his own party opposed.

Barnes sees himself as a political professional, so on one level the political ecumenicalism really isn’t that odd. Also, job positions are more like currency than identities in Barnes’ chosen level of the political world, and both Barnes and Ma have strong ties to the recently retired Senate Speaker Pro Tem John Burton.

So please, stop talking about Bill Barnes. Go ahead and ooh and ahh over his Friendster profile instead. Just don’t do it in earshot of me. Thanks.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Somebody is Listening...

Small Business Commissioner Jordanna Thigpen has a pretty decent column coming along in the Sentinel. And lo and behold she's come out with the truth about the San Francisco polity:

"Over the past couple months, taking stock of this year, I've been thinking a lot about the labels 'progressive' and 'moderate' in this town, and I'm mad as hell and don't want to take it anymore.

First of all, most of us are Democrats. Only 15% of San Franciscans are registered Republicans; essentially all voted for Bush II in November 2004. We are mostly all pro-choice, mostly pro-gay marriage, mostly pro-civil rights.

Yet, what's the old adage? If the left had a firing squad, it would be a circle? We are living that adage in this City in vivid color.

Stuff like this truly brings tears of joy to my eyes. Now if we can just get her to use the word "Stalinist" in future columns.

Read the rest of it here.

How to Take a Free Dump

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The Unraveling of Prop H

Proposition H, the handgun ban measure sponsored by Chris Daly passed by voters last November, has been analyzed by up-and-coming demographic prodigy Dave Latterman. The PDF, complete with precinct maps, is online at Usual Suspects.

The upshot of this report is interesting: Prop H was driven primarily by constituencies that supported it for ideological and cultural reasons rather than policy necessity:

“This leads to the observation that, although H did well throughout the City, it did better in parts of the City less affected by the recent increase in gun violence: BV/HP and WA. With the possible exception of the Mission, which voted quite high for H, it is difficult to conclude the very high Yes on H precincts have similar crime issues than some of the aforementioned areas.”

This exposes H as being driven primarily by political expediency and bias. It’s conceivable the H would not have won if were not on the ballot during the controversial and polarizing Special Election orchestrated by Governor Schwarzenegger. Indeed, another ideological albatross on the statewide level, Prop 73, almost won. Neither H nor 73 would’ve been put on the ballot during a regular election.

The end result is that the city is saddled with a highly embarrassing legal and political paradox, as highlighted by Chronicle columnist Debra Saunders:

"San Francisco is supposed to stand for choice. This is supposed to be a town where tolerant individuals don't pass laws that, in essence, say: If I don't do it, you shouldn't either; if you do, you go to jail. Yet the gun ban ends choice -- for the law-abiding, at least."

Nevertheless, every cloud has a silver lining. Another interesting tidbit from Latterman’s report:

"It is possible that for the first time we’re seeing the new demographic in D6 start to have a slight effect. In Appendix 1, I display a boxplot of the district residuals of the above regression, which shows if the results come out as one thinks they would. While D5, as usual, is higher than the other districts, D6 – usually high – is a bit lower, with the lowest median residual value of all the districts. This simply means D6, as a whole, voted lower on Prop H than we would expect given its current demographics. Since the detailed demographic work was completed from 2000 Census data, this could indicate a significant demographic shift affecting electoral results."

The upshot: Commandant Daly’s constituency is crumbling.