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Mecklin 

Wednesday, Jul 22 1998
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The Weasels Behind the Headlines
Editors' letters may be the funniest pieces of journalism published on a regular basis in America. No, I'm not speaking of letters to the editor, even though reader letters are often quite silly. By editors' letters, I mean those concertedly idiotic columns, signed by head editors, that run near the start of many publications. Such columns purport to explain for you, the helpless reader, what all those difficult and important articles deep in the body of the magazine mean.

Actually, though, most editors' letters wind up being some variant of John-John Kennedy's babblings in the front of George magazine. These writings, which are absolutely formless despite what appears to be heavy editing, constitute such unconscious parodies of journalism that they make me sputter out loud, month after month. I highly recommend them as an antidote to a bad day.

But I strive not to be unconsciously hilarious in print, so I am purposely not going to tell you very much of what David Pasztor and George Cothran will tell you, if you read the cover story of this week's issue. They spent several months researching the piece, and their investigation explains in cold, clear, conclusive detail the story of a San Francisco Housing Authority that has employed at least a dozen major felons recently, and still defends the personnel philosophies that resulted in those hires.

Instead, I'm going to tell you three small tales that unfolded as the Cothran-Pasztor investigation was under way. I hope these little tales will link together, eventually, to explain something larger about the strange way the press and the political process interact in this beautiful and corrupted city. Whether that higher aim is achieved or not, I sincerely hope these tales embarrass a few people horribly, because they richly deserve it.

The first of my mini-tales has to do with a lawyer. This lawyer works for the San Francisco Housing Authority. His name is Joel M. Blackman Esq. (Yes, he actually uses the esquire designation after his name.) In the early stages of their investigation, Cothran and Pasztor submitted requests for public records to Mr. Blackman. The information requested was largely routine.

Among other things, Cothran and Pasztor asked for a list of Housing Authority employees, which Mr. Blackman provided. Sort of. For some quasi-logical reason, Mr. Blackman decided that the dates of birth of these public employees, who are paid with public tax money, were some kind of state secret. So he deleted them from the list he gave Cothran and Pasztor -- making it impossible to tell, really, whom the Housing Authority employed. Mr. Blackman withheld the dates of birth, he said, as a matter of -- and I can't even write this silly bullshit with a straight face -- as a matter of privacy.

That's right. Mr. Blackman asserted that privacy laws prevented him from telling us (for hypothetical example) whether the Johnny Smith who works at the Housing Authority is the 29-year-old Johnny Smith born during the Summer of Love, or the 59-year-old Johnny Smith who sired him. Or for that matter, whether the John Q. Felon who has been convicted for selling crack is the John Q. Felon listed on the Housing Authority payroll.

Mr. Blackman did not just refuse to let Pasztor and Cothran know who works at the Housing Authority. He delayed them for weeks, claiming he might release such information, if the Weekly did his legal research for him, and showed that the birth dates should legally be released. Then, after the Weekly's First Amendment attorney provided him with case law that showed the privacy argument to be silly, Mr. Blackman still refused to release these top-secret birth dates.

Let's not have any doubt out there about my opinion of Mr. Blackman: I believe him to be an ass-covering weasel who tried to keep a story that would embarrass the Housing Authority out of print. I believe we could have sued and won the right to the dates of birth. (Note to Blackman: Don't relax; we may still sue your sorry little butt.) But Cothran and Pasztor were chasing a story. Filing suit would have delayed it even further. So Cothran and Pasztor went elsewhere to determine whether major criminals were on the Housing Authority staff.

Although I am a proponent of clarity in journalism, the second in our series of mini-stories is going to be vague. But you will get my general drift, and the parts you don't fully understand will be crystal clear to at least one weasel who will be embarrassed by the public airing of his conduct.

As he should be.
Before we get on with the embarrassing, though, we need to set the scene. When Cothran and Pasztor started their investigation, the San Francisco Housing Authority was not much in the news. But as weasel-Blackman delayed their progress, other stories about questionable activities at the Housing Authority began hitting the front pages of the dailies. The Housing Authority and the Police Department were increasingly at odds. Their intergovernmental war was producing fallout. Suddenly, reporters were chasing all kinds of allegations of Housing Authority wrongdoing.

Amid this sudden fit of journalistic competition, Pasztor and Cothran went to one of those well-placed sources you see mentioned every so often in the newspaper. The source agreed to help prove whether drug dealers and other felons were in fact employed by the Housing Authority. But there was a condition for this help. The Weekly had to agree not to print the name of the well-placed source. There was also, of course, a corresponding agreement: The well-placed source would not rat out the Weekly to other journalists.

After several tedious weeks, with the help of the well-placed source, Cothran and Pasztor finally had come close to confirming that disturbingly felonious people had been hired by the Housing Authority. Then, something else disturbing came to their attention: The well-placed source acknowledged that he had ratted off Cothran and Pasztor, giving a list of drug dealers and other nasty felons who might be working for the Housing Authority to a competing reporter.

I am not going to publish the name of the well-placed source here, or say where he works. Promises mean something at the Weekly. But let's be direct about my opinion of this source's deportment: The well-placed source engaged in behavior one usually sees only in weasels. It is the type of boorish conduct one might expect from a suck-up lawyer working at a troubled Housing Authority. It is not the type of behavior appropriate to a well-placed source.

So listen up, source: You owe us. We'll take our payment in exclusive stories.

The third in our troika of small tales is a veritable parable of the digital age. OK, OK. It's not a parable. Still, it's kind of interesting, in a high-tech sort of way.

Despite their diligence and hard work, Cothran and Pasztor appeared to be beaten. A weasel-lawyer had played slow and loose with public records law. A weasel-source had betrayed them to competing reporters. We had just gone to press with our July 15 issue. It seemed certain some daily news organization would put together a version of the felons-on-the-payroll story within the next few days. The Pasztor-Cothran piece could not come out in SF Weekly for a week. We were beaten.

Or were we?
For the first time ever, last week SF Weekly broke a major story in the online version of the paper, sfweekly.com. Cothran and Pasztor finished their story as quickly as was professionally possible, and we posted it to our Web site, simultaneously sending press releases to most every local news outlet in the Bay Area. As they say in the journalism biz, we pissed on the story, marking it as our own. Any journalists coming after would need to credit us as being its original source.

Or would they?
Our story, headlined "The Housing Authority's Dirty Dozen," was published in sfweekly.com on Wednesday evening. Friday morning, the Chronicle came out with a story that said approximately what Pasztor and Cothran had said, only less. The story did not mention SF Weekly. Instead, the Chronicle pretended it had broken the story.

The Examiner ran a similar story that afternoon, also without reference to the Weekly.

Now, it is generally understood in journalism that when another news organization beats you to an important story, you acknowledge your competitor's victory -- and then try to get the next significant break on the story. And it is quite well-known among journalists that only weasels refuse to give credit where credit is due.

I am going to exempt the Examiner from weasel designation here. A high-level editor at that publication has acknowledged to me that the Weekly should have been credited, and has apologized for his paper's failure to do so. Simple mistakes don't make people weasels.

No, I reserve the term weasel for people like Joel Blackman Esq., Housing Authority lawyer and cover-your-ass bureaucrat extraordinaire. I use weasel when I'm confronted with well-placed sources who demand confidentiality for themselves -- and then rat you out when circumstances change. I call people weasels when they have access to all the resources of a major daily paper, but cannot bring themselves to acknowledge someone else beat them to a good story.

I call people weasels when it helps readers understand, just a bit, how full of disgusting behavior San Francisco's public life is, and how much of the news you get is not really completely fit to print.

Just as I finished this column, I picked up a phone message. A reporter for the Guardian had called, wanting to ask about the Weekly's Housing Authority investigation. I'm returning the call, weasel-detector on full alert.

John Mecklin (jmecklin@sfweekly.com) can be reached at SF Weekly, 185 Berry, Suite 3800, San Francisco,

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John Mecklin

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