All the News That Fits

Our favorite hometown daily paper writes up a Berkeley controversy over an anarchist's quotes but drops the quotes

On Jan. 14, the New York Times peeked into the San Francisco Chronicle's back yard and delivered a scoop: a front-page story, drenched in irony, about UC Berkeley striking two controversial quotations from a fund-raising letter sent out by staff members at the Emma Goldman Papers Project, a research collection on the Russian-born anarchist that has been housed at the school for 23 years. The stricken Goldman passages address the suppression of free speech and her opposition to war, and Berkeley officials feared they could be read, against the backdrop of the ever-growing War on Terror, as a political statement by the university.

The Chronicle, of course, should have had the story long before it popped up on the front page of the Times, and standard journalistic practice dictates that the whipped, chastened paper quickly produce a follow-up to advance the story and acknowledge the scoop.

Sure enough, the next day, the Chronicleslapped a catch-up story on the front page of its Bay Area section. But the oh-so-smarmy Chrondidn't credit, much less mention, the New York Times until the fifth paragraph from the bottom, well after the story jumped from the section front to the inside. And the Chronicle's piece -- by staff writer Charles Burress out of the paper's Berkeley bureau -- hardly took a new angle or provided fresh facts; in fact, we could scarcely believe our eyes when we saw that the Chronhad managed to produce a 1,000-word, day-old story about controversial quotations without including ... the quotations!

Unless readers actually see the Goldman excerpts, they can't possibly determine whether the statements amount to innocuous rhetoric or inflammatory sedition, and they certainly can't determine whether the university is guilty of the very same censorship Goldman was warning against. Timesreporter Dean E. Murphy, undoubtedly aware that this irony constitutes the crux of the story, saw fit to print Goldman's words in his fifth paragraph, which read: "In one of the quotations, from 1915, Goldman called on people 'not yet overcome by war madness to raise their voice of protest, to call the attention of the people to the crime and outrage which are about to be perpetrated on them.' In the other, from 1902, she warned that free-speech advocates 'shall soon be obliged to meet in cellars, or in darkened rooms with closed doors, and speak in whispers lest our next-door neighbors should hear that free-born citizens dare not speak in the open.'" (Similar excerpts also appeared in next-day stories in the Los Angeles Times, the San Jose Mercury News, and The Chronicle of Higher Education.)

The Chron, in its inimitable style, chose to paraphrase, reducing the Goldman statements to a "1902 warning about the loss of free speech to those who question repressive laws" and a "1915 call to protest against rising 'war madness.'" As Burress explains in an e-mail: "[The quotations] weren't included for space reasons. We tried to relay the essential or relevant point of each quotation. ... [W]hen I was told the maximum length of the story, I submitted the story with paraphrases and sent the full quotes by fax to my editor in case he or someone else along the line found room to add them in."

No such luck, apparently. We're just thankful someone found room on the same page for a scintillating ChronicleWatch about four -- count 'em, four! -- broken basketball hoops that desperately need fixing. A few days later, after exchanging e-mails with Dog Bites, Burress returned with a shorter follow-up story, buried on Page A18, noting that Berkeley was now allowing the quotations to be used. And would you believe it? The Chron dutifully followed suit, running both Goldman quotes.

Timid Berkeley administrators would be proud of the flip-flop.

 
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