Apocalypse, Now and Then

A measured look at the serious policy implications of recent changes in San Francisco newspaper ownership

So I was sitting there doing nothing more worthwhile, really, than vaguely feeling good about Thanksgiving and a day off when it struck me that on Thanksgiving morning, I'd be reading two "new" daily newspapers, one of them Ted Fang'sExaminer, and then I seized on those rumors about R.U. Siriusand Fred Dodsworthand even (jeezus, not again, nonoNO) HUNTER THOMPSON, and that tweaked me, somehow, into remembering that not too long ago Warren Hinckle had called San Francisco "a swinging, multiethnic, Pac-rim, new media, dot-com city," and I just plain panicked -- PANICKED! -- as I realized that we here at dowdy oldSF Weekly could be doomed -- DOOMED! -- if Warren and Ted put together a paper that featured journalism anywhere near as suh-wingingas Warren and Ted are themselves, and then the panic went nuke-u-lar (get used to it: thanx to THE BAY GUARDIANand the other leftist puristswho endorsed Ralph Nader, we'll probably be listening to this mispronunciation for four years) because, hey, after all, my paper had just likened new Fangxaminer(TM)Executive Editor Marty Steffensto a really scary HUMAN-LIVER-EATING MUTANTfrom last Thanksgiving's X-Files marathon, so I asked myself: Even if I wrote like a young Tom Wolfeand used lots of swinging italics and multiethnicexclamation points !!!! and repeated my words a lot, just how, how, !HOW! could I ever get theWeekly to swing hard enough to fend off the vast store of talent and energy now assembled at the Fangxaminer(TM), and ### I ******** just ^^^^ couldn't &&&&& ..........

Actually, I just couldn't torture you with an entire column of swinging-'60s, typographic-nightmare prose, even if the new Examinerdoes seem to be staffed, in some part, with attenuated retreads from eras past. But I did want to say it has been way weird, indeed, to contemplate not just Ted Fang with his hands on a metropolitan daily newspaper, but also John Oppedahl as the new publisher of the new, Hearst Corp.-owned San Francisco Chronicle.

Now, I want to make clear, right off the bat, that I've never met Oppedahl, and that I've had a couple of decent journalists tell me he was, at least once upon a time, a quality newsman. But these news stories the dailies keep inflicting on us about just what a tip-top job Oppedahl did as head editor and then publisher at his last posting, the Arizona Republic, are, shall we say, incomplete. I was editor of the alternative weekly Phoenix New Timesfrom 1993 to 1997, four years when Oppedahl was the top editor and then the publisher of the Republic. I am therefore in a position to know exactly what a Chamber of Commerce-hugging, story-burying journalistic laughingstock the Republicwas back then.

It's difficult to convey the vapid foulness that the Republic wafted at the public on a regular basis while I was there, because the Republic was like no other paper I've ever read. I'm not talking about bad writing, or laziness, or unquestioning reportage, although the paper exhibited all those traits, in spades. No, I'm talking about a paper whose management could be counted on, it seemed, to suppress almost any negative story about almost any major business or politician in town -- almost every time a negative story popped up, like clockwork, as if Republic editors all had Ph.D.s in anti-First Amendment activity.

The most evocative of these cover-for-the-establishment shenanigans involves a sex party, and not just any sex party, but a party hosted by Cedric Ceballos of the Phoenix Suns the same day the team had been knocked out of the NBA playoffs, a party where superstar Charles Barkley had instructed the attendees as to proper orgy deportment. As it happened, this sex party wound up being described in affecting detail in a lengthy Phoenix police report taken from a young woman who felt misused after being deposited in a bedroom with then-Suns center Oliver Miller (a large man with a talent for passing the basketball who somehow has acquired the charming professional nickname of Pig).

Now, this sex party was known in all its embarrassing details to the Republic, because the Republic had a copy of the police report, for weeks, but the Republic did not bother to inform the public, because the Republic paper had somehow decided that it was no news at all if a woman complained to police that she had been taken advantage of during a sex party arranged by professional basketball celebrities who, it seems, ought to have been mourning a bitter end to their professional season. (No charges were filed, but the official police report made clear that the woman felt both humiliated and abused in the incident, and that the police investigators were attempting to determine whether sexual assault had occurred.)

Of course, that the Phoenix Suns were damn near gods in Phoenix had nothing to do with the Republic's decision not to write about the sex party (until the paper I edited ran the story). Nothing at all.

The sex party was, to my journalistic eye, no isolated misjudgment. While I lived in Phoenix, the Republic scarcely laid a finger on Gov. Fife Symington for years as the federal government investigated, indicted, and eventually convicted him of savings and loan fraud. Then, while John Oppedahl was editor, the paper actually endorsed the governor for re-election in 1994, even though the federal criminal investigation of the governor was well known. After Symington won re-election, a Republic editor (no, not Oppedahl, but someone not all that far under him) actually told reporters to lighten up on the governor.

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