The Daily Lickspittle

Journalism has a lot of problems, but too many of them are manifestations of a sycophantic attitude toward the big-e Establishment

San Francisco's mayor decided recently to borrow an additional $120 million to help rebuild the Laguna Honda home for the elderly; the new loan would come atop $299 million in borrowing allowed by 1999's Proposition A. When $299 million in voter-approved borrowing quietly balloons to $419 million, you might think a headline writer's job would be easy.

Not at the San Francisco Chronicle, apparently.

"$100 million turns up, debate ensues. Laguna Honda work might benefit -- but mayor isn't sure" was the utterly confusing headline topping a story drawn from the press event in which Mayor Gavin Newsom revealed the new borrowing.

When the mayor drags the city through four budget-slashing years, while somehow managing to keep intact a city payroll that had expanded enormously over the previous half-decade, the headline scribes on the copy desk would seem to have a straightforward task at hand.

Not in the alternative universe at Fifth and Mission streets, where the mayor's patronage-preserving record was portrayed in this way: "SF payroll explosion halted under Newsom. Dip indicates break from spree years."

Inside the news business, its practitioners fret terribly about Web logs, or as they are more commonly known, blogs, personal Web sites often devoted to politics or news, seen from a particular ideological point of view. On Web sites that aim to be read by journalists, this type of fretting's particularly overheated. Comments I gleaned searching a blog frequented by journalists included the following.

"Blogs are a horrible way to deliver journalism. Forget them."

Blogs are "cliquish, they're arrogant, they get things wrong."

When not pulling their beards in frustration with -- and fear of -- the Web, journalists worry about plummeting newspaper readership. Well they might: The Associated Press reports that newspaper circulation dropped 1.9 percent nationwide over the past six months, with the San Francisco Chronicle losing 6.1 percent of its subscribers during the same period.

Finally, of late, journalism insiders have worried themselves into a nearly paralyzed state wondering whether anyone trusts the news media anymore, what with the New York Times' JaysonBlairgate, CBS's Dan Rathergate, Newsweek's QuranInTheToiletgate, and other (in)accuracy-related scandals.

My recent reading of our main daily newspaper's efforts to distort reality suggests the news business' three primary fields of fretting can be placed within a single theme.

Stand-alone Internet journalism and commentary is emerging as an alternative news source -- and thus preoccupying traditional media -- because the most popular such sites are anti-Establishment, whether coming at the Established from the left, the right, or some other direction. Bloggers write in this fashion because they know that their millions of fans find discord -- and, particularly, a discordant struggle against the abuses of the powerful -- interesting. In this light, the Internet has served as a detailed, nationwide market survey that has produced the following result: The framers of the U.S. Constitution who wished to nurture the press as a confrontational Fourth Estate check on governmental overreaching weren't mere philosopher-statesmen. They were psycho-savvy economic planners, launching one of the longest-lasting, most profitable industries in world history.

When newspapers such as the Chroniclebecome sycophants to power -- and as you will see, the aforementioned stories cannot be labeled as much but sycophancy -- they're no longer worth their four-bit cover price. That newspaper is in crisis mode, and there's an overarching reason: Nobody trusts a toady.

After reading the Chroniclestory about Mayor Newsom's supposedly successful efforts to curb San Francisco's city payroll, I paused to wonder how our city's big daily might honor a driver who went from 50 mph to 102 mph to 101 mph as she neared a cliff: "Speed explosion halted under motorist. Dip indicates break from acceleration," perhaps?

The headline, lead paragraphs, and next couple of hundred words of the payroll story posited the mayor as a fiscal hero who'd popped the ballooning city payroll. The facts in the story, however, tell a different tale. Faced with a $352 million budget deficit this time last year, the mayor slashed city services while nonetheless keeping total pay to members of the city employee unions -- unions crucial to the mayor's 2003 election -- virtually intact. Now, he did cut the city payroll by $913,464 -- all the way down to $2.05 billion.

That's to say, the Chronicleportrayed Mayor Newsom as the man who reversed the city's payroll explosion after he cut payroll by about four one-hundredths of 1 percent. Not 4 percent. Not four-tenths of a percent. Yes, .04 percent.

Nice coverage, when you can get it.

However helpful to the mayor the thrust of the May 23 budget story may have been, its propagandistic value paled in comparison to a dispatch published three days earlier. That story devoted 722 words to a mayoral plan to finance construction of a $700 million nursing home, yet didn't explain that the new scheme encumbers the city with $120 million in new debt.

To back up and explain: In Laguna Honda, a 1,200-bed nursing home in western San Francisco that has been deemed vulnerable to earthquakes, Gavin Newsom faces a daunting political problem. The powerful Service Employees International Union, which encompasses many of San Francisco's highly politically active city employees, wants the facility completely rebuilt to preserve hundreds of jobs, even though the original $401 million cost estimate for the project has ballooned to somewhere around $750 million (not to mention an unfunded, $50 million to $60 million bill for yearly operations).

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