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Final Deadline 

David Burgin is legendary as a rough-and-tumble newspaper editor. But the legend is full of astonishing contradictions, and its last chapter may include the outcome of a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by one of his proteges at the Oakland Tribune.

Wednesday, May 29 1996
After a few peppermint schnapps, C. David Burgin walks over to the jukebox at the Warehouse, a favorite hangout of police officers near the Oakland Tribune offices in Jack London Square. As the top editor of the Alameda Newspaper Group (ANG), a chain of newspapers to which the Tribune belongs, Burgin is here tonight to see off one of the paper's environmental writers, Tracie Reynolds, who's returning to college to get her M.B.A.

Pumping several quarters into the machine, Burgin turns around and yells across the bar, "Hey, Tracie, this one's for you!" Seconds later, the opening chords of Jimmy Buffett's ditty "Let's Get Drunk and Screw" fill the room.

"It wasn't sexual harassment," Reynolds says today. "But at the time I was mad. He did it because he could do it, because it was my last day. I just remember being irritated and a little bit angry."

The next day, after he learned that the newsroom was buzzing about his behavior the night before, Burgin called Reynolds into his office to explain. He apologized and asked for forgiveness. But Reynolds wasn't ready to grant absolution.

"You went over the line," Reynolds remembers telling Burgin. "It's a good thing I'm not working here anymore. Otherwise I'd make an issue out of it."

"It's true," Burgin says of the incident and the conversation he had with Reynolds the next day. But he adds an amendment: First, he didn't mean to play that particular Buffett song; he merely picked an entire Buffett album on the jukebox and "Let's Get Drunk and Screw" was the first song.

"I'm a big Jimmy Buffett fan," says Burgin, who plays guitar and owns a vintage Martin acoustic. "It was innocent. I didn't mean anything by it. Who knows it was going to come back and haunt me like this?"

Beginning this month, Burgin will have to explain himself in another incident -- this one rehashed in depositions connected to a sexual harassment and wrongful termination lawsuit filed against him and the Alameda Newspaper Group in January by Christine Lavin, the former editor of the Oakland Tribune.

Lavin had a falling out with Burgin that culminated in her dismissal or resignation -- depending on which side of the suit you talk to -- after she started dating a city councilman in Oakland.

Lavin's suit alleges that Burgin sexually harassed her beginning in 1990 and fired her because he was jealous of her relationship with the city councilman. Burgin calls the lawsuit "frivolous, malicious, and wrong."

But as that suit progresses, Burgin is also explaining to reporters and colleagues why he's leaving the editor's seat after 33 years in the newspaper business. On June 30, Burgin will vacate his post as editor in chief of the Alameda Newspaper Group and begin consulting work for the ANG's parent company, MediaNews Co. Burgin says the lawsuit has nothing to do with his departure.

"Never say never, but I don't think I'll be running any more newspapers," Burgin said during a lengthy interview earlier this month.

Self-explication is hardly a new pursuit for Burgin. He has been defining himself -- setting the record straight or spinning it -- almost since he began his career as a reporter at the New York Herald Tribune in 1963.

Given to fits of brilliance and outrageous behavior, Burgin is a minor legend in American journalism. But he is a legend full of contradictory motives and accomplishments, largely because his career has tracked the rapidly changing world of daily journalism over the last three decades. Once a newsman in the classic sense, full of vigor and ache for "The Story," Burgin ends his editing career next month, at the age of 57, working for William "Billy" Dean Singleton II, a publisher whose budget-cutting, pay-freezing, profits-first mind-set has earned heartfelt enmity from journalists across America.

In 1992, Singleton took over the perpetually moribund Oakland Tribune, buying a financial disaster that had once been considered a monument to multicultural employment and quality journalism. Burgin was quickly installed as editorial-side point man.

Since then, the paper has twisted in almost tornadic turmoil. Inside and outside the newsroom, the Oakland Tribune has become a soap opera of corporate misstepping and cellar-level staff morale and pay. The Lavin suit is but one act in this long drama.

From day one, the ANG seemed to place a higher premium on chasing advertising dollars in suburbs like Piedmont and Montclair than covering the urban flatlands of Oakland. While the city struggled with crime, disease, crumbling schools, and political corruption, its newspaper was busy watching its own bottom line. Civic journalism has a price that Dean Singleton apparently decided Oakland, with its dwindling retail economy, can't pay.

Until last week, when he announced his departure, Burgin was at the center of this collision of race, class, money, and the media. His tenure was marked by unhinged screaming fits in the newsroom, debilitating fights with community leaders, self-serving coverage aimed at boosting circulation, journal-istic acquiescence in the face of political pressure, and the firing of the paper's nationally prominent -- and one of its few minority -- columnists.

Burgin had bright spots. While he clung to a manual typewriter, he had the foresight to start a technology section at the Tribune, the first in any ANG paper. He also made the gutsy move of printing the Unabomber manifesto at a time when other editors balked.

When the ANG bought the paper from Robert Maynard, however, the company moved the editorial offices from the landmark Tribune Tower to a squat building in Jack London Square. That building quickly became the House of Bad Judgment.

David Burgin can't breathe; if someone doesn't help quick, he'll choke to death. He was standing in the Tribune newsroom, gobbling down an apple, when suddenly, a sizable chunk of the fruit lodged in his throat. Tribune copy editor Jack Kneese tries to help Burgin. But he's too short to get a firm grip. Someone calls an ambulance.

About The Author

George Cothran

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