Unspun

Your Tax Dollars at Work
Those hapless folks at the Bureau of Automotive Repair were too dim to figure out that imposing tough new anti-smog regs on unsuspecting California motorists might require a little extra manpower and at least a few working phone lines. But nothing concentrates the bureaucratic mind quite like a pair of crusading right-wing talk radio stations (S.F.'s own KGO and KSFO) and 3,000 or so angry demonstrators screaming, "Government conspiracy!" on the steps of the state Capitol.

With the entire smog reduction program in jeopardy -- not to mention clean air and lots of federal moola if the new standards aren't met -- the bureau cranked into damage control mode. Enter Hill & Knowlton, one of the country's major public relations firms. Hill & Knowlton staffers spent last week frantically seeking quotable notables who would lend their names in support of the new regs or at least bash the talk shows for irresponsible journalism. A handy list of such was circulated at the Sacramento demonstration, though representatives of the Fourth Estate apparently managed to prepare their stories without assistance, thank you very much ....

Not to worry, it's all perfectly legal. Legislators had previously approved special funds to help the bureau publicize the new regs and smog procedures. It's a comfort to know the smog patrol's publicity money is being spent so wisely.

Editors in the Mist
When we saw "Daughter of Sunshine" demurely headlining the third item on the Chronicle's Aug. 20 editorial page, we smelled gorilla (as in Binti-Jua, the mother ape who rescued a child in an Illinois zoo two weeks ago). And boy was there a pile of it.

The third editorial is the designated humor spot, but this time the tone was all sincerity, nearly stretched to the breaking point. Of the simian good Samaritan, the item read, "San Francisco has a right to bask in the reflected glory."

The misdirected sentiment was bad enough -- like S.F. has so little else to be proud of. But how about those pesky facts? The heroine of this saga wasn't even born here. She was transferred to the S.F. Zoo after her mother in Illinois rejected her. She left while still a youngster, according to a Washington Post story the Chronicle ran later last week.

The editorialist cleared that inconvenient hurdle this way: Binti-Jua's father and her grandfather were "also San Franciscans." Not content with that one assault on the evolutionary chain, the writer took a leap of which Tarzan could be proud in the closing sentence, comparing the gorilla to the Huntington Beach Boy Scouts who killed a bear cub in Yosemite. "[W]e are forced to reconsider our view of the theory of evolution" was the weary conclusion.

Editorial Page Editor John Diaz, reached last Friday on his way to Chicago and the Democratic Convention, conceded the Binti-Jua/San Francisco connection was "not the most direct of angles." He was "just making note of it."

We commended him for avoiding any mention of alligators. "They're not editorial page news," he responded, "yet."

Tempest in a Teapot
A small-circulation neighborhood monthly lashes out at a major potential advertiser, a purveyor of yuppie goods aimed straight at the paper's claimed core readership. The struggling shopper denounces the company as "at best indifferent" to the local community. That should be news, given the generally cowed or sugarcoated reporting that passes for coverage in most community papers.

And when New Fillmore Publisher/Editor/Chief Ad Salesman David Ish did just that in his August issue, naming the upscale gardening store Smith & Hawken as the culprit, he created a stir on his few blocks of Fillmore. But for all the wrong reasons. Ish launched his attack not because of any corporate malfeasance by Smith & Hawken. He was just mad because it didn't buy an ad from his newspaper.

"It has been the talk of Fillmore Street," notes one longtime resident, merchant, and community activist, who asked to remain nameless. "Because it is so asinine."

Ish says he's airing "a private beef." In the July issue, he explains, he ran "a nice little write-up without any strings attached" on the occasion of Smith & Hawken's new store.

"Everyone gets a free shot" when they open, Ish explains. However, "we don't have fire walls between editorial and advertising." According to the Ish publishing theory, "you go back as an ad salesman the following month."

Smith & Hawken, following a different theory, chose to spend its ad dollars where it thought they'd work best. "It's a novel way to solicit advertising revenue," comments Heather Itzla, media coordinator for Smith & Hawken. "We won't be advertising [with Ish] in the future," she says. "It's just not a nice way to go."

Mark Harris, a libertarian-leaning stockbroker who's lived in the neighborhood for four years, was moved to write a letter of support to Smith & Hawken with cc's to local groups and Ish. "I had never seen this paper before. I was in complete disbelief that someone would take a position like this," he says.

Just because a paper is "small and independent" doesn't make it a good advertising vehicle.

Ish says he's heard positive responses, too. His fellow editors in the San Francisco Neighborhood Newspaper Association ran his open letter in their papers, he says. "I'm not through with this issue yet," he adds. Next month's New Fillmore is slated to have more coverage, if that's what it can be called, of the controversy.

Our breath is bated.

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