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Unspun 

Wednesday, Aug 20 1997
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Union Hits at KGO
Recently, Channel 7's newscast has had something worth watching: genuine, unscripted, spontaneous moments. This was not, however, a result of journalistic enterprise. Rather, the credit goes to supporters of the National Association of Broadcast Employees & Technicians-Communications Workers of America (NABET-CWA), one of the unions that represents workers at KGO, which is owned and operated by ABC.

KGO union members are taking a cue from NBC strikers, who propped signs containing pro-union messages in a window across from the Today show set, where they would be picked up as background by studio cameras. KGO's NABET-CWA faithful (Local 51) have started slipping signs with their subversive message -- that KGO/ABC is "bad news for working families" -- into KGO's live news broadcasts. Mindful of possible repercussions against their own members -- perfectly justifiable repercussions, since such action amounts to tampering with a newscast -- the union has been recruiting volunteers who have no direct connection to union members at the station. Sandi Vincent, a local official for NABET-CWA, says the tactic, first deployed in May, has spread to other ABC-owned stations.

At issue is the new four-year contract between ABC and NABET, affecting a potential pool of some 3,500 workers nationwide. (Here at KGO, the number of people affected is roughly 300.) The contract expired on March 31, and talks broke off then. They resumed this past week. Neither side expects a settlement soon.

The union is charging that Disney and its ABC subsidiary are "bad news for working families," because ABC is trying to increase the number of temporary workers it hires, restructure to reduce the work force, and cut its contributions to workers' pension funds.

Whether that makes ABC bad news for working families is arguable, but the slogan is well-designed to make Disney, which has invested in its pro-family image for decades, squirm. However, with an average yearly salary of (according to ABC) $80,000, NABET families may not fit the demographic mold usually thought of as working class.

Vincent claims the attempts to insert the "bad news" message in local newscasts has succeeded eight to 10 times so far; recent "scores" include a sign placed in live coverage of the Critical Mass confrontation with police. KGO spokeswoman Abbie Hartley says the number of "hits" is three.

The union local has extended its sloganeering, using a plane to fly a pro-union, anti-KGO banner at high-visibility events and times of day. Unspun spotted it recently keeping pace with the westbound traffic in the morning commute on the Bay Bridge.

To date, though, none of the gestures has gained NABET significant attention in San Francisco.

That's not the case elsewhere.
In New York, some 2,000 to 3,000 pro-union demonstrators -- including at least one wearing a Mickey Mouse head -- protested at ceremonies for the opening of Disney's New Amsterdam Theater on 42nd Street. The vision of Mickey being hauled away by NYC cops proved irresistible to the New York tabloids.

In L.A., the Los Angeles Times and the Hollywood trade papers reported on the union dispute after NABET-CWA placed ads in the trades satirizing ABC's current TV-is-dumb-and-good-for-you ad campaign. (That campaign uses one-liners that jokingly set old-time arguments against TV-watching on their heads; one ABC ad suggests that people have plenty of brain cells to spare, so, presumably, it's all right to watch neuron-killing television.)

Essentially, NABET-CWA is arguing that mismanagement has put the network in third place in the ratings war, and union members should not be forced to pay for management mistakes.

ABC, in turn, argues that NABET has already given concessions to NBC, the No. 1 network, and that ABC has to lower its costs -- the highest in the industry -- if it is to compete successfully with other networks.

The union dispute has yet to be covered by ABC's network or San Francisco newsmongers.

Which suggests that NABET-CWA will have to continue to get on the news the old-fashioned way -- by sheer sneakiness.

Carroll's Golden Silence
The effort to fill the void left by Herb Caen has sent various San Francisco Chronicle columnists thrashing into deep and unfamiliar waters. Lively Arts columnist Jerry Carroll is the most prominent and recent drowning scribe; a three-dot format is, perhaps, the only resemblance between his daily column and Caen's.

For five days last week (and counting, as of press time), Carroll has been taking "time off." Unspun wondered whether this lengthy absence from print was a vacation or a prelude to the column's demise (and hoped it was the latter).

But Unspun is not greedy. In the short term, Unspun would settle for an end to the idiotic italicized blurbs the Chronicle has printed to explain Carroll's absence:

* "Jerry Carroll has just learned there are another 12 volumes to Proust. He's taking some more time off to read them," read the one on Aug. 11, referring to a few tag lines used to explain his absence in July.

* "Only 11 more volumes of Proust to go: Next up, Bridges of Madison County." -- Aug. 12

* "Jerry Carroll has discovered books on tape. He's taking some time off from his column, Lively Arts." -- Aug. 13

* "Jerry Carroll is finding it hard to get through The Bridges of Madison County without the Oxford English Dictionary. He's taking some time off from his column, Lively Arts." -- Aug. 14

* "Jerry Carroll is still weeping over the ending of The Bridges of Madison County. He's taking some time off from his Lively Arts column to pull himself together." -- Aug. 15

As Lively Arts columnist, Carroll spins press releases into "items." Jer seems to have had a hard time completing even this simple, almost non-journalistic task. Scarcely a week goes by that he isn't forced to correct a goof. (Recently, for example, he mistook the current ABC TV-is-good ad campaign for bus graffiti.) And boy is he weary. He's been on the beat for a mere 20 weeks, yet his latest bout of "time off" comes within a month of his return from a three-week vacation in July.

Carroll's bosses should stop assaulting readers with perky reasons for his absence and let it quietly lengthen into permanence.

Exed Out
The Examiner of Sunday, Aug. 10, 1997, is a prime example of the squandering of a journalistic franchise.

The debacle started on Page 1 with two newsless stories that sucked up to high-society types (Charlotte Mailliard Swig and the opera crowd).

Then, on the op-ed page, in honor of founder William Randolph Hearst's death on Aug. 14, 1951, and as a goofy reminder of the feudal Hearstian hold that still grips the newspaper, a major chunk of space was given over to a daft poem likening the water cycle (precipitation, runoff, evaporation, etc.) to immortality.

Finally, the Examiner Magazine assaulted readers with a multiarticle parade of self-serving puffery. And the puffery was edited sloppily, to boot.

Swig's name should be banned from the front page unless she kills or is killed. To fawn over her so repeatedly in such prominent placement makes the Examiner look mindless and The City (as the Ex is wont to refer to San Francisco) seem like Tiny Town. When an aging second-rate socialite marries an aged former diplomat, it simply is not -- by any definition -- front-page news. The editors who keep putting Charlotte on Page 1 should stare in a mirror, read the dictionary definition of journalism seven times, and hope the news fairy grants them a new supply of news judgment.

As for the Opera House reopening: It's certainly news that the renovations are completed, but music and dance critic Allan Ulrich needs to be restrained, perhaps physically, from inflicting vast paragraphs of purple prose on unsuspecting news-seekers. ("[The Opera and the other performing arts] make the hungry forsake their dinners, they induce the love-struck to desert their mates, they force the mortgaged to miss their payments." Of course they do, Al, but please, calm down.)

The Rosebud problem is easy to fix. Next year, when Aug. 14 rolls around, the Examiner editor in charge of recycling the water-cycle poem for yet another year should simply have a summer intern throw him- or herself on his or her sword for the journalistic cause and "lose" the poem until after the paper has closed.

The Examiner Magazine has more serious and complicated problems. Chief among them: The magazine is obviously being produced on a starvation budget. The Aug. 10 edition shows that anything in manuscript form will be printed. Anything.

The cover story on designer Larry Halprin was written by -- ding, ding -- Janice Ross, who is writing the biography of Halprin's wife, Anna. Nary a contrary word about Mr. Halprin was to be heard. Should one have been expected?

The magazine's second story was Frances Butler's attempt to sing the praises of a shade garden that, to judge by the photos, is, well, shady. The shade garden she was writing about, "surfeited with sensual pleasures, visual devices, and intellectual mnemonics," was -- ding, ding -- her own.

But the capper, the piece de merde of the entire issue, was an excerpt from the autobiography of Chuck Williams, as in Williams-Sonoma, which he founded in 1956. The magazine's editors were so fond of the excerpt that they apparently felt it needed no editing whatsoever. The text of the excerpt refers to other parts of "the book" which -- ding, ding, DING -- were not reprinted in the magazine. Meanwhile, a recipe for salade nicoise was printed with incomplete directions. And on the whole, Williams' account read like copy for his cookware catalogs -- or his advertisements.

About The Author

Phyllis Orrick

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