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.

"He [Burgin] was clearly interested in a person of color; he wanted to have that link to the community. He felt that would be good for the paper both as a symbol and as someone who had a good understanding of Oakland," says Stewart.

But Burgin also moved into the office, and it became eminently clear who was calling the shots in Oakland.

"The guy who sets editorial policy sits here in Oakland, and that's me," says Burgin.

Stewart quit a year later. "I wasn't listened to," she says. "My views were not sought."

Combining the Tribune with the rest of the ANG chain allowed the company to sell advertising to a larger market, but editorial content is a different story. The suburbs and the city are nothing alike.

"I have just looked at it as a kind of deteriorating relationship," says Marge Gibson Haskell, a longtime Oakland activist and former City Council member. "A city of Oakland's size needs to have a daily newspaper that accurately reflects what's going on. Without it, an awful lot of things that people need to know they don't hear about."

In fact, any hope that the ANG could tame a skeptical public and prove that it had a grip on urban Oakland was dashed from the start.

The Oakland Tribune had had a long-standing policy against accepting advertisements for handguns, prompted by the number of people killed with them on its own city's streets.

The first edition of the ANG Oakland Tribune -- Dec. 1, 1992 -- contained a page-long advertisement for Traders Sporting Goods Store. The ad featured not only handguns, but automatic, semiautomatic, and assault weapons, all of which appear to have been on sale.

Sources inside the Tribune at the time say the newspaper was flooded with calls and letters; there were also some subscription cancellations.

Six days later, the paper published a chart depicting the workings of the criminal justice system in Alameda County. In it, all of the icons illustrating judges and jury members were white. All of the icons illustrating criminal defendants were black.

"There was no intention of making it look like all the defendants were black with these little icons, but the community saw it as intentional," says former editorial-page editor Mary Ellen Butler. "Once again, it was one of those situations where they didn't realize it was the impression that was going to be so important. Had there been some sensitivity to looking at the product from someone else's eye, maybe it could have turned out differently."

As time went on, it became more and more apparent that the editorial direction of the Oakland Tribune was coming from outside, and so was the push to attract readers beyond the inner city.

The new Tribune added columns from Tom Goff and Ray Orrock, who write for all four suburban papers, to the familiar minority faces of Oakland -- Bill Wong and Brenda Payton.

In a city where 70 percent of the population is racial minorities, editorial voice was directed by a board that consisted of the editors of the five ANG papers, plus Burgin and then-Publisher Allan Meath. All, except for Stewart, are Anglo. Then Stewart was replaced by Tim Schreiner, another Anglo.

For Butler, it was the beginning of the realization that her position as editorial-page editor of the Tribune had no power, that she had become a figurehead reporting to the head of editorials for the chain.

"It was like having two cooks in the kitchen," she says.
Butler, a nationally known writer who had been on Oakland's editorial pages for more than a decade, resigned in March 1994.

Stewart soon learned that her voice was little more than a whisper. That was perhaps most evident when editorial and marketing concerns came crashing together in a meeting.

"The issue of race was introduced by [Publisher] Allan Meath, who said there appeared to be too many photos of black people in the paper, and he felt whites were disinclined to read the paper because they saw so many black faces. Of course, I was the only African-American in the room.

"I said, 'I can't comfortably sit here and listen to even a suggestion that we limit or reduce the number of black people in the paper.' "

Stewart and Burgin have different memories on what happened next. In her version, Burgin backed Meath. In his, Burgin disagreed with Meath and tried to end the meeting.

Meanwhile, bottom line considerations would seem to play a more prominent role in the content of the newspaper.

The paper took a pro-development stance on the controversial Dunsmuir Ridge development proposal in the Oakland Hills, which a significant portion of Oakland opposed.

Similarly, when Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis was negotiating the return of his football team from Los Angeles, the paper hit the brakes on asking tough questions until the deal was done. After all, a local professional football team would almost certainly increase Sunday and Monday Tribune circulation, when fans would pick up the paper to rehash the games.

"I was under strict orders from Dave Burgin not to print anything negative about the Raiders. He said he didn't want to blow the deal," says Lavin. Other Tribune writers also were aware of the edict.

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