Papered Over

The Chronicle turns its back on the people of Bayview-Hunters Point

I am probably dating myself, but I remember a running gag in the early days of Spymagazine that revolved around a mathematical equation. The equation was long, with a great many fractions containing a great many variables. At bottom, though, the equation established the news value of a person's life if lost in Manhattan, in comparison to, say, a life lost in Bangladesh, as calculated by the New York Times. As I remember, the equation included allowances for the distance from the center of civilization (that is to say, the Times' midtown Manhattan offices), the nationality and race of the victim, and several other factors. When multiplied and divided in the proper way, those factors established that (for imaginary instance) one white investment banker murdered by his mistress at home on the Upper East Side should get approximately the same size and play of story as 8,000 brownish Bangladeshis drowned in the storm surge of one of those typhoons they're always having over there.

Of course, back in the distant 1980s, the Times didn't use an algebraic formula when deciding to cover mass death in distant lands with 4-inch-long news briefs, and nowadays, the paper is renowned for its international coverage.

Nowadays, the San Francisco Chronicle isn't renowned for much. But it sure can play meaningless stories affecting the swells of Pacific Heights as matters of life and death, and life-and-death stories about the blue-collar Bayview as briefs about strange folks living way, way round the world.


A recent example of the Chrondescension I'm talking about came late last month, in the form of the paper's breathless, top-of-metro-section, banner coverage of the vast danger posed by a dozen barrels of "toxic waste" that had, supposedly, been buried in the Presidio. The initial report on this frightening prospect, published July 29, said ex-Presidio employees did not know what was in the buried barrels but had been warned it was "so dangerous it could burn off your flesh." This flesh-burning menace was so, well, menacing that, according to the Chronicleaccount, U.S. Reps. George Miller (D-Martinez) and Nancy Pelosi (D-Pacific Heights) felt compelled to write a letter of concern to the trust that oversees the Army base-cum-national park.

Twelve days and a few moronic follow-up stories later, the paper revealed, in a large metro-front centerpiece story, that the Presidio had been "cleared," after environmental regulators looked where the ex-workers said the fiery barrels should be -- and found exactly nothing.

That a Chronicle reporter wrote an overheated story about something of vanishing import is certainly unsurprising. (For confirmation, see today's Chronicle. No matter what day today is. Just about any section.) That a couple of congresspeople wrote a letter of concern based on complaints sent to them is, indeed, quite ordinary. That federal agencies rushed in and immediately investigated allegations of wrongdoing is, when you think on it, actually laudable.

That a nonevent in the Presidio would draw congressional interest, EPA action, and significant coverage by a major daily newspaper is, on the other hand, utterly, absolutely predictable. The Presidio, you see, adjoins the Pacific Heights and Sea Cliff neighborhoods of San Francisco. And we really can't ignore possible danger -- even remote, unverified danger -- to go uninvestigated near a residential neighborhood. Can we?

Well ...

Just two days after the Chronicle's investigative prowess had been laser-focused on the vague possibility that 12 barrels of something-or-other vaguely bad had been buried at the Presidio, there was actual revelation across town. In the third segment of her investigative series on contamination at the former Hunters Point Shipyard, SF Weeklystaff writer Lisa Davis quoted a witness who said he had buried, almost at random on the shipyard, the carcasses of numerous animals irradiated during nuclear research at a top-secret lab at the former naval base. Davis found and quoted another witness who said he had helped remove the interior fixtures from an aircraft carrier irradiated during atomic bomb tests, and then helped install them in a shipyard building.

In earlier stories in the series, known as "Fallout," Davis showed that scientists at the shipyard oversaw the dumping of tons of radioactive sand and acid into San Francisco Bay; spread radioactive material on and off the naval base, to practice decontamination; burned radioactive fuel oil in a boiler and discharged the smoke into the atmosphere; sold radioactive ships as scrap metal without warning buyers about radioactivity; and dumped large amounts of nuclear material in a major commercial fishery just 30 miles off San Francisco.

Davis' series, based on 16 months of research (give or take), doesn't stop at radioactivity. Her stories show that, even ignoring things radiological, the shipyard, which the city hopes to remake as a mixed-use community, is rife with a stew of cancer-causing chemicals. It is probably one of the most polluted pieces of property on the planet, and it directly adjoins a San Francisco neighborhood.

But the neighborhood is not Pacific Heights or Sea Cliff, it is the Bayview. And in the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle, "Fallout" might as well never have been written, and unless they connect somehow to gang shootings, the drab denizens of the Bayview just don't equate with the celeboisie of Pacific Heights.


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