Blowing Smoke, Breathing Fire (Part I)

The Fang family rides tabloid journalism and hardball politics to the winner's circle

"When we support someone, we don't leave them out to dry if they lose," Fang says. "We couldn't leave him stuck with the bill [for the printing]."

Asked what he has to say to the contributors who are angry, he says, "I'm sorry. I thought we made it clear that the committee supported candidates who were good on transit issues."

And what about a newspaper publisher acting as treasurer of a PAC and as de facto chief of staff of a political campaign? How can his paper function as a credible news organ when its publisher is perceived to punish sources in the political arena? Who does he think he is, William Randolph Hearst?

Fang sees no conflict whatsoever. "I don't see how my role as publisher of a newspaper precludes me from participating in the political arena," he says.

But the Majka firing, and Ted Fang's role in it, illuminates the conflict beautifully. One day Fang is a newspaperman, asking legitimate questions about a story. As is often the case, a source is recalcitrant -- even rude. The next day, Fang is a political appointee, making personnel decisions. And Majka is targeted. Now did Ted Fang play a critical, exclusive role in the dismissal? We will never know. Did Ted Fang take an experience garnered as a journalist and let it bleed over into his political life? Absolutely. Is that a problem? You bet. Asking these questions of Fang it becomes readily clear that he doesn't see them as legitimate concerns.

Throughout dinner, Fang is charming, accessible, witty, and coy when he's evasive. Asked a tough question, he throws his hands up to his face, spreads his fingers, and looks at the source of the query.

All of which is a 180-degree turnaround from his first interview, which was on his turf: the Evans Avenue headquarters of the Independent and Grant Printing. That interview was all about putting the interviewer in his place.

There's a special skill politicians employ in rattling reporters. Principally, it's the eyes. Former Mayor Art Agnos could put a chill in your spine lickety-split with one glare. Assemblyman John Burton rolls his and says, "Oh, come on, you know better than that." And Jack Davis does it with fire in his eyes and invective and insult on his tongue.

But before Fang tries out his eye tricks, he keeps the interviewer for this story waiting for almost an hour. When the interview finally starts, Fang hands over a study on newspaper readership, showing SF Weekly lagging behind his paper.

"Guess you guys aren't doing too well, huh?" he asks, smiling, but avoiding direct eye contact.

He has also invited local political consultant Robert Barnes to "witness" the interview and protect him from misquotes. "I understand I always need protection when I'm interviewed by the Weekly," he says.

Ted Fang wants to dominate people, but the clumsiness of his attempts show that he is still developing a persona to match his power, and the former hasn't quite caught up with the latter.

Continued...

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