Unspun

The Crack-Up
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.

Hazen drew Brugmann's ire over the handling of the annual Project Censored story, which AlterNet routinely carries. Brugmann thinks it's his exclusive province. Hazen disagrees. The matter's still unresolved.

Hazen clearly goofed in allowing his nonprofit institute to be linked to the protest with no consultation whatsoever with its members or board. He claims it was an inadvertent error, and the sponsorship was indeed withdrawn. "They were sponsoring it, but now they're not," says Media Alliance's Andrea Lewis.

There may once have been valid journalistic questions here, but they've long since been buried in a sump hole of personal politics.

Upside's Downside
Clinton Fein's annoy.com Website has Upside magazine, well, annoyed. Fein and his lawyers are using the site as the legal vehicle to challenge the constitutionality for the "intent to annoy" provisions in the Communications Decency Act (see "License to Annoy," Unspun, Feb. 5).

In a scolding column that accuses Fein of being more interested in self-promotion than free speech, Upside writer Tish Williams observes with some disgust that annoy.com includes "epithets," "crotch shots," and "butt crack" pictures. Perfectly true, and maybe even perfectly disgusting, but we fear she rather misses the point. Protecting First Amendment rights for what is nasty, ugly, and politically unpopular is the problem. That's why there are civil liberties lawyers in the first place.

Williams also finds it "curious" that Fein had help from another company in constructing his Website, implying that this somehow diminishes the legitimacy of testing a constitutional issue other CDA critics apparently overlooked. A bit nit-picky, we think. Or maybe just sour grapes. We, by the way, find it curious that none of those famed Silicon Valley libertarians, many of whom are Upside readers, bothered to rise to the challenge.

It's a dirty job, Tish, but somebody had to do it.

Annoy.com's Full Court Press
Fein's attorneys, Bill Turner and Mike Traynor, meanwhile are savoring a small but potentially significant procedural victory in their effort to win a preliminary injunction against the CDA.

In an unexpectedly swift and thorough order reviewing the law, U.S. District Court Judge Maxine Chesney has said that a full three-judge panel should be assigned to hear the case.

"She went way beyond what's required," says Turner, noting that all Chesney needed to do was pick up the phone to ask that 9th District Court Chief Judge Procter Hug assign the additional judges. Instead, he says, "she wrote a four-page order and specifically finds that this is a proper case for having a three-judge court because it legitimately calls into question the constitutionality of the CDA."

Chesney's order came just a day after the Fein case was filed on Jan. 30, but Turner says it will be a month at the very least before Fein actually gets his day in court for a hearing on the preliminary injunction request.

Earlier this week, Turner and Traynor covered the rest of the legal bases by filing a friend-of-the-court brief in a separate challenge to the CDA brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and other First Amendment groups now pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. "This was always a two-pronged effort," Turner says. "We wanted to be heard in the Supreme Court as well." The Supremes are expected to hear oral arguments this spring, and a decision is expected by late June.

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

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