The Feb. 17 protest by Media Alliance against the New York Times for its coverage of the San Jose Mercury News' crack-CIA-Contra series was a pretty thin exercise, though it did serve to raise questions about so-called "advocacy journalism" and the tortured logic that undergirds it.
Case in point is the schizophrenic response of Bay Guardian Publisher Bruce Brugmann, whose stated mission is "to raise hell." We've always been a bit confused by the reasoning behind Brugmann's journalistic principles, but they're especially befuddling in this case; and they've been further distorted by nasty personal politics.
Brugmann last week endorsed the protest but forbade his staff from participating in it. His professed rationale doesn't jibe with the imperatives of his professed advocacy; it's more likely a thinly veiled justification for attacking a fellow member of the alternative press with whom he happens to be feuding at the moment.
Let's start with Media Alliance, little more than a vestigial '60s protest club whose members fancy themselves serious social critics oppressed by the babbittry of contemporary journalism. They have too much time on their hands.
The group called for pickets outside the Times' San Francisco bureau to denounce Bureau Chief Tim Golden for a "Media Snow Job." They contend his (at times critical) coverage of the Merc series carried the CIA's water. Merc reporter Gary Webb originally posited the CIA as the source of the L.A. crack epidemic in the early '80s, a conclusion his own paper has since modified without explicitly backing down from the story.
From a purely tactical standpoint, there might have been some sense in picketing the entrance of the actual New York Times building on West 43rd Street in midtown Manhattan (which another group did). That at least establishes the dim connection between the protest and the alleged media cover-up. But it's a most peculiar sort of logic that assumes a band of protesters waving signs in front of an anonymous skyscraper in the Financial District that just happens to house the NYT's San Francisco bureau is going to register much symbolic impact. The few passers-by who noticed the half-hour display were visibly underwhelmed. The 30 or so pickets -- accompanied by news crews that numbered about half that -- were no match for the Presidents Day sales at the nearby Embarcadero Center stores.
If Media Alliance members are so upset about a journalistic conspiracy of silence, why aren't they home pounding their word processors instead of the pavement? Or, more to the point, why not picket their own local papers, which completely ignored the story, even though one of them, the Ex, had much of its outline 10 years earlier?
Golden says, "People have a right to demand some kind of accountability," but he adds that "I take exception that I and [other reporters] are considered shills for the spooks." He points out that he has been writing critically about U.S. governmental involvement in Latin America since the start of his career and that his stories have frequently drawn the ire of official agencies, including the CIA.
Brugmann applauds Media Alliance's action. He is a fan of the series (as was our sister paper in Los Angeles, which reprinted it), as well as Webb, whom Brugmann invited to serve as keynote speaker at a recent journalism conference. And Media Alliance and Brugmann have joined together in other crusades. All of a piece with his practice of using his paper to advance causes.
But when he discovered that the sponsors of Monday's protest included the Media and Democracy Institute -- a nonprofit offshoot of the 106-member trade association to which the Guardian and this paper belong -- he angrily renounced any affiliation between the Guardian and the event. Why?
"We are a very political paper, but we have always been very careful not to sponsor political events, even when I was picketing during Vietnam. We want to be able to report on our friends fairly and squarely," he said last week.
"The last thing we want is for [Examiner media columnist] David Armstrong to say, 'You're part of the story,' " Brugmann added. He has gone so far as to extend the gag order to the entire company: "I've said nobody can picket."
All of which sounds reasonable on its face. But Brugmann has made a habit of injecting himself and his paper into "the story." Take his decades-long campaign against PG&E. "I go down to the [Board of Supervisors] and testify every month" against the utility, he readily concedes. And that isn't becoming part of the story? "In a way it is. We'll cover it, but it's open. There's no secrecy about it."
The distinction seems to lack a difference. At the core of Brugmann's vitriolic response lies a long-running personal feud with one Don Hazen, whose numerous alternative-press hats include leadership posts with the aforementioned institute as well as the Institute for Alternative Journalism (IAJ), a nonprofit arm of the same trade association, the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (AAN). Oh, and IAJ also operates an AAN-subsidized wire service, AlterNet. Did we say labyrinthine? Maybe Byzantine is a better word.