Unspun

Don't Get Mad -- Get On-Line
That's what Tony Raymond, former Web master for the Federal Elections Commission (FEC), did when it became clear that the FEC had little real interest in making campaign finance reports easily available to the general public on the Web.

Congress approved a voluntary electronic filing program several months ago and even earmarked $2.5 million in the FEC budget to get it going. So what did those clever election commissioners devise? Why a dandy little Rube Goldberg system that will take the electronic filings, print them out on paper, and then, someday, somehow, re-input the whole mess into a user-friendly format. In the meantime, the FEC would be delighted to have you browse its customized electronic file for a mere $20 an hour or simply download the gigabytes of raw data and try to make sense of the numbers.

"I knew that they could do it relatively cheaply, and, philosophically, I just had a problem with the way they were going about it," says Raymond, a 1977 graduate of UC Berkeley's political science department.

While still working at the FEC, he developed, on his own time, a simple software package that would have made the electronic filing system workable. The commission wasn't interested, so he left the FEC, though he still does consulting for his former employer. That was in March. Six weeks later, using that same software, he had his own Website going. You can find it, and a wealth of easily accessible campaign finance information straight from the FEC database, at www.tray.com/FECInfo/. Raymond's FECInfo software is also available from the site, free.

And While We're on the Subject
As we reported last week (see "The New Dark Ages"), termed-out state Sen. Henry Mello was one of three lawmakers responsible for killing legislation that would have mandated electronic filing and Web posting for California candidates. During committee deliberations, Mello said he feared mischief from Web users who might focus solely on his largest campaign contributors.

OK, we admit it, the temptation was just too great. Herewith 10 corporations that gave Mello $1,000 or more as of the most recent filing period. Our thanks to Jean Fisher, a reporter with the California News Service at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, who did the legwork:

TriCal, a Hollister-based soil fumigation corporation, $2,000; Pacific Telesis, $1,150; E&J Gallo Winery, Modesto, the largest corporate contributor in the state and among the top 20 nationwide, $1,000; the Walt Disney Co., $1,000; Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc., Sacramento, $1,000; Wine Institute Fund, San Francisco, $1,000; Genentech Inc., $1,000; ARRDA Legislative Fund, Washington, D.C., resort development firm, $1,000; Glaxo Wellcome Inc., Research Triangle Park, N.C., pharmaceutical research firm, $1,000; Price Waterhouse LLP, Los Angeles, accounting firm, $1,000.

There, now, Henry, that wasn't so bad, was it?

Scoopless
That Bay Guardian sure has to dig deep for its exclusives these days. Just look at its Aug. 28 story on the S.F. Public Library ("Dubious Discards"). "New evidence obtained by the Bay Guardian reveals that the San Francisco Public Library system discarded more than 104,000 items ... between Jan. 1, 1995, and April 1, 1996," reporter Nina Siegal asserts breathlessly in her opening. She goes on to mount yet another assault on the library for the debatable crime of trying to modernize its operations.

We don't know where the intrepid BG obtained its figures on library throwaways, but the rest of us got them in a press release mailed out Aug. 2 -- by the library itself.

Elsewhere on the "as-told-to-the-Bay Guardian front, East Bay Express columnist Paul Rauber tipped us to another not-so-exclusive BG exclusive in his Aug. 24 "Sugar & Spice" (aka "Sticks & Stones").

This time the hubristic hype came via a cover story, "Deadly Disregard," Belinda Griswold's Aug. 14 "expose" of East Bay Hospital, a private, for-profit psychiatric facility in Richmond. As Rauber pointed out, Griswold's piece echoes (in many places charge for charge and anonymous interview for anonymous interview) a series of extensively reported investigative stories published in a 20,000-circulation, Oakland-based homeless paper, Street Spirit. The Street Spirit series on EBH started in the May issue, 3 1/2 months before the BG story ran.

Terry Messman, Street Spirit editor and chief reporter, who single-handedly produced the series, declined to comment on Rauber's tweak of the BG. (The Guardian gave Messman a fleeting mention, as the editor of a paper "whose articles on East Bay have galvanized the patients' rights movement.")

Griswold conceded that Messman pointed her to East Bay, but insisted that he had not delivered actual documents to her, as Rauber implied. By the time she started work on her own at the end of June, she had read Messman's May and June installments.

Asked about one instance where an anonymous nurse was quoted with nearly the same phrasing in both Messman's and her accounts, Griswold replied, "Yeah, some of the sources I was connected with through Terry."

In spite of the resemblances, she said, "I feel that it was a separate story." Did she think Messman received enough credit? "Yeah, I'm satisfied."

Messman told us journalistic glory isn't part of his plan.
That makes one of him.

Phyllis Orrick and Susan Rasky can be reached at SF Weekly, 425 Brannan, San Francisco, CA 94107; phone: (415) 536-8139; e-mail: porrick@sfweekly.com.

 
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