Mecklin

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.

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