The Newsrack Non-Problem
There's a loony little paper called SF Frontlines that takes great joy in proclaiming that SF Weekly has committed amazing sins against journalism, the progressive cause, and innocent children everywhere.
If you believe SF Frontlines, the Weekly has plagiarized repeatedly from Frontlines' vast trove of journalistic coups; attempted to cover up for a city official who was "profiteering from the AIDS pandemic"; and allowed one of the authors of this column, because he is the Weekly's editor, to append his byline to the column, without actually doing any work on it.
Of course, none of these brain spasms comes within light-years of touching truth. And of course, all of them are written with the sort of disregard for syntax, logic, documentation, and rhythm that makes one wonder, "Have they let the Unabomber out of prison so soon?"
Still, every time we pass one of the little green Frontlines boxes, we look inside, to see if a new issue is out yet. We look inside -- as we look in news boxes for a dozen other small publications -- not because Frontlines purveys good journalism, in the Pulitzer Prize sense of the term, but because Frontlines is a small part of something that's extremely right with San Francisco. (OK, a very small part, but let's not quibble.)
Boston may be the cradle of liberty. New York certainly does have an impressive stable of national newspapers and magazines. But San Francisco has grown the full, gory, glorious, absurd, contentious, and -- yes -- interesting garden of competing political ideas that the authors of the Bill of Rights hoped would bloom from the First Amendment. Nowhere that we know of offers its citizens a broader range of local periodicals -- or a broader range of viewpoints on matters of civic interest, large, small, and in between.
If you don't like SF Weekly, there's the Bay Guardian. If both those "alternative" weeklies are too tame for your taste, there are scads more, coming from almost every political, sexual, and ethnic direction imaginable. Everyone, it sometimes seems, publishes a newspaper or a zine in San Francisco, many of them are free, and damn if more than a few aren't fascinating, for some reason or other.
So, of course, now the city government wants to pave this garden of free speech, build some yuppie appliances on top of it, and plaster advertising all over them.
We speak of Mayor Willie Brown's plan, presently steamrolling its way through the city's legislative process, to ban all individual newsracks in the city, and replace them with what the bureaucrats call "pedestal mounted" racks. If this plan is approved, the city will license contractors to build 1,000 "pedmounts" -- single installations from which multiple newspapers can be distributed -- to replace some 12,000 individual newsracks scattered throughout the city.
Under the pedmount plan, the city would declare parts of San Francisco "Fixed Pedestal Zones." (No, we aren't inventive enough to have made that name up.) Private contractors would then compete for the rights to install the centralized newsracks in those zones. Individual newsracks would be banned. All newspapers would have to be distributed from the multirack pedmounts. All newspapers would have to pay the city for the right to be so distributed.
If this plan is approved, the city director of Public Works (!) will get to decide which newspapers are, and are not, allowed to distribute their publications in newsracks. And, therefore, which publications you can, or cannot, read.
And if this plan is approved, you can wave goodbye to some of the small and alternative publications that make San Francisco such a garden of ideas, because some of those publications won't be in the land of the financially living by this time next year.
The finance committee of the Board of Supervisors is expected to hold hearings soon to consider the pedmount legislation. At that hearing, if form holds, city bureaucrats will most likely assert many things that are not true. So here's a cheat sheet for those who plan to attend the hearing:
The First Falsehood: There is a newsrack problem to solve.
Yes, there are a few corners downtown that probably play host to a few too many newsracks, including some that seem to have been last painted during the Summer of Love. But ask your friends to name the top 20 problems in the city. If any of them says, "Newsracks!" without prompting -- well, you need to introduce that friend to Muni ridership.
The Department of Public Works probably will repeat its claim that a survey shows the public is overwhelmingly in favor of centralized newsracks. But that survey isn't a survey. The people who responded were not chosen randomly. Their answers are therefore meaningless.
Let's repeat this point, so that even the most statistically impaired government official can understand: What the DPW claims as a survey of public response to centralized newsracks is not a random survey, its results are not scientifically valid, and those results, therefore, mean nothing. This is a simple matter of the science of polling that any university professor who conducts surveys can confirm.