Riff Raff

Ethical Instigation Regular readers know that every once in a while, Riff Raff likes to lean back in our chairs and ponder ethical questions both big and small. One of our favorite publications to think about is the San Francisco Bay Guardian, our well-established competition just across town. So anyway, we've been reading that paper recently, and we've noticed an odd discrepancy between what happens in the front of the newspaper, which is under the aegis of the news staff, and the back of the paper, which is edited primarily by Arts Editor J.H. Tompkins. What we've noticed is that the stories in Tompkins' section of the paper often have what seem to us like conflicts of interest. What's seemingly stranger is that the paper is doing nothing to point out those possible conflicts of interest. For instance, a few weeks ago, the Guardian printed a thoughtful and well-written short review of Victor Krummenacher's recent album, Saint John's Mercy. Now we're fans of Krummenacher, a former member of Camper Van Beethoven, the brains behind the late Monks of Doom, and a solo artist in his own right. We also have a lot of respect for the Guardian's Derk Richardson, who's been writing about pop music for so long that we feel like stumbling naifs in comparison. But what we don't understand about the short review is why Richardson neglected to mention that Krummenacher is a designer at the Guardian. (Howard Myint, music listings editor at the Guardian, repeated the misdemeanor in his preview for the Monks of Doom.) We don't see any problem with writing about a staff member, of course, but it does seem like the reading audience should know that there might be some sort of conflict of interest within the story. OK, we admit that it's a pretty petty oversight. We probably wouldn't have even mentioned it if the Guardian hadn't made a similar journalistic faux pas last week. The misstep happened in a relatively new column called Tempest in a Teapot. The column is written by Windy Chien, who is the owner of this city's most influential record store, Aquarius. Again, we consider ourselves personal and professional fans of Chien. She runs a great store, and she has a fresh voice that is markedly different from the rest of the seasoned rock critics in this town. And we also think that it was a good editorial move to give Chien -- who is extremely bright and knows new music better than almost anyone -- a space to offer her opinions on everything from Norwegian death metal to the failures of the movie Modulations. But last week, Chien made what looks to us like a slight transgression in her column about independent music retailers: She used Tempest in a Teapot to advocate for herself and her store. This is a conflict of interest. Clearly, this was not her fault. Chien is a new writer, and she was presumably hired to write about what she knows best. We called Chien last week and she had this to say: "You never see anyone report about local music stores and how badly we get fucked over by the industry -- that's why I wrote it. Who else is qualified enough to write about the subject?" We agreed with her; Chien should write about independent record retailers. When she does, however, and when she tells people why they should pay more for a record at an independent store than they should at Tower or CDNow, she should also explain that she personally has a vested interest in that reader happily paying more for his records. As we said, Chien is green. She told us that she didn't inform readers that she owned Aquarius because she "didn't want to make it seem like an advertisement for the store." But Tompkins should have known better. He should have, at the very least, written a small editor's note at the bottom of the column indicating that Chien owns an independent record store, as the paper does most weeks. The weird thing is that the news section of the Guardian usually goes out of its way to identify conflicts of interest. For example, in its ongoing coverage of the proposed newsrack ordinance, the Guardian is always quick to identify Dan Brugmann as the son of the paper's publisher. We called Tompkins last week so that he could explain the discrepancy. He didn't bother to return our phone message. So we called Executive Editor Tim Redmond, who conceded that failing to ID Krummenacher was a mistake and blamed his production department for not running a disclaimer on Tempest. And then he said something about Chien's column that was kind of confusing. "Her position is the same as the Guardian's -- there is no question," said Redmond. "I'm not embarrassed about that." So, in essence, after claiming that the paper made a tiny production error, Redmond seemed to be saying that it's OK for Chien to advocate for independent stores because that's an official Guardian policy. "Wow," we thought, "that seems like a really progressive approach to all of those niggling ethics considerations, both big and small." Look for Riff Raff Records this fall. (J.S.)

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