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A Bridge Too Far 

The Chronicle's series of stories on Golden Gate suicides goes "radioactive."

Wednesday, Nov 16 2005
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The day the Chronicle published the seventh and final installment of its "Lethal Beauty" series, a three-sentence Editor's Note lay like a banana peel on the paper's second page. The Nov. 5 note read: "The first installment of a series of stories on Golden Gate Bridge suicides, which appeared Sunday, contained material that had appeared in the Oct. 13, 2003, edition of the New Yorker magazine. The story should have attributed quotations from Ken Baldwin of Angels Camp and Marin County Coroner Ken Holmes to the magazine. It also used language nearly identical to that of the magazine to describe the California Highway Patrol's decision to halt the official count of suicides at 997 and to describe the unofficial 1,000th death."

It was a particularly inglorious end for a project in which the Chronicle had invested no little time and effort -- eight bylines, seven front pages, and more than 30,000 words -- and about which the first thing anyone with a New Yorker subscription said was, "Uh, didn't somebody already do this?" Maybe at another paper, in another era, such a mistake would've been acknowledged and summarily dismissed as one of daily journalism's many misdemeanors. But at today's Chronicle, in today's media culture of self-flagellation, the situation quickly became -- in one veteran reporter's word -- "radioactive."

Few people Dog Bites contacted would speak on the record. Robert Rosenthal, the Chronicle's managing editor, who had the final edit on the series, wouldn't go into any specifics. "We consider this a very serious matter," he said, declining to discuss possible disciplinary action. "We're looking deeply into it, and we're not finished with our look into it." In a memo, Executive Editor Phil Bronstein was moved to lob a thunderbolt or two in the direction of the newsroom: "We believe plagiarism is among journalism's most serious professional breaches, if not the single most grave thing. ... [I]t is a kind of theft of the work of others."

Two years ago, in an article headlined "Jumpers," New Yorker writer Tad Friend wrote at length about the Golden Gate Bridge's "fatal grandeur" and the debate over a suicide barrier. Friend, who declined to comment for this story, wrote about the countdown in 1995 to the bridge's 1,000th suicide victim: "That June, trying to stop the countdown fever, the California Highway Patrol halted its official count at 997. In early July, Eric Atkinson, age twenty-five, became the unofficial thousandth; he was seen jumping, but his body was never found."

On Oct. 31, Chronicle reporter Edward Guthmann, who has been with the paper for more than two decades, introduced the series with a sort of long-shot take on the issue. He, too, touched on the countdown to the bridge's 1,000th suicide victim: "In June 1995, trying to stem the countdown fever, the California Highway Patrol halted its official count at 997. In early July, Eric Atkinson, age 20, became the unofficial thousandth; he was seen jumping, but his body was never found."

Shortly after the installment ran, a reader alerted the Chronicle to the stories' similarities, down to the placement of the semicolon. Guthmann, in an e-mail to Dog Bites, explained the overlap thusly: "During the months I worked on the piece, I gathered a huge amount of research and interview transcripts that I stored in computer files. At one point, I read about the 1,000th suicide in the New Yorker article and pasted two sentences in my text as a 'flag' -- a reminder to myself to mention the fact. But when I went back to the piece, which may have been days later since I had other work during that time, I forgot those weren't my words. I should have set them in boldface or larger type, or not moved them at all. Huge mistake -- and especially heartbreaking, since I worked so hard on the piece and, apart from those two sentences, I think it's my best work." (He initially declined to explain why he didn't attribute to the New Yorker the two quotations mentioned in the Editor's Note. Guthmann later relented, saying in an e-mail: "The piece I wrote was historical in scope and both those quotes were not only two years old, but general enough that I didn't feel it was necessary to say where they originated. I was wrong.")

There were other problems with "Lethal Beauty," the brainchild of Carolyn White, the paper's former deputy managing editor who left a few months ago for a job at National Geographic. Editing is always chaotic where any multipart feature is concerned, but in this case it was made more so by White's departure. Last-minute issues with the paper's bridge-suicide figures cropped up. (That tally, of 1,218 suicides since the bridge was built, likely represents the series' greatest triumph; until now, the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway, and Transportation District had never released incident reports relating to suicides.) When we asked Rosenthal about the late revisions, he bypassed defensiveness and went straight for blustery condescension. "Are you a reporter?" he said. "Do you know what editing is? ... Do you know what the Pentagon Papers were? I was an editorial assistant on that [at the New York Times]. I've been around probably 15 to 20 Pulitzer Prizes. I've had stories stopped, edited, and changed at the last second."

Right. But whatever the project's difficulties, it was Guthmann's error that created, as the veteran reporter said, "a bad scene -- nobody wants to get too close to it." Is this entirely fair? While some of the media world's pointier heads might cry, "Plagiarism!" and mewl over the state of journalism in the era of Jayson Blair, it's worth considering whether the greater crime lay in the conception of a series that all but retraced the New Yorker's footsteps. According to Rosenthal, White had the idea for a story about Golden Gate Bridge suicides long before Tad Friend sat down at his keyboard. "About six or seven months later, the New Yorker did their piece," Rosenthal said. "We had to do it."

But the Chronicle, which on Rosenthal's watch has developed a fetish for long (some might say overblown) series, needed seven installments to reach the same conclusion that the New Yorker arrived at after 5,000 words: that a barrier is a feasible, long-overdue, and potentially lifesaving solution. "What we really tried to do was go much broader and localize it and really show the foundations of the debate here," Rosenthal said. "If you want to call it a crime, it's your call. I don't know how many people in the Bay Area get the New Yorker, and we went much beyond the New Yorker. ... If you want to say it's a crime to send people to Iraq to cover the war because other newspapers do it, I think that's a ridiculous thing [to say] in today's media world. There are basically very few new ideas." (Tommy Craggs)

Pass Perfect

Like liner notes and 35mm photographs, old Fast Passes hold a special place in Dog Bites' heart. One day, perhaps, we'll all have chips embedded into our palms that will allow us to pass through Muni turnstiles, but in the meantime those shiny, two-tone rectangles of paper must suffice. Fast Passes come in such vibrant, unexpected colors -- pink and red in December, blue and purple in October -- that it has always seemed a shame to throw them out.

So we didn't.

For a decade.

Thankfully, John Kuzich showed up before Dog Bites could become one of those crazy hoarders we wrote about last week. Kuzich is a semiretired graphic designer, teacher, and artist who often works with found materials. He's now making a huge four-panel installation (appropriately titled Fast Pass) composed of thousands of S.F. passes, plus sculptural elements that he declines to describe except to say that they're "geometric," "circular," and "interplay with the letterforms as well as the gold and silver holograms." OK .... But he's not being obtuse, really; he's just trying to give the piece "a sense of mystery and surprise," so that when he finally shows it complete -- maybe two years from now -- it'll be more impressive.

The first 7-foot-by-5-foot panel was finished in August 2004; the second should be done by the end of this year. Kuzich, who rarely takes public transportation himself, has gathered about 4,000 passes so far, including an example of the very first one issued, May 1974, but thinks he might need as many as 10,000 to get the most appealing combination of styles and colors (and to account for damaged passes). What he's enjoyed more than collecting the passes, though, is gathering stories about Muni-riding, which he considers its own art form. "When you get on a bus," he says, "you're looking at an abstraction. A busload of people is a piece of abstract art."

Dog Bites isn't sure we like art that smells like piss or conducts loud cell-phone conversations two inches from our ear, but we understand what Kuzich's getting at. "This isn't some kind of highfalutin art thing," he says. "It's kind of a people thing." Amen.

When the entire piece is done, Kuzich hopes to have a public exhibit in a major venue -- or maybe, as he writes on his Web site (www.kuzich.com/muni-art), "encase it in Plexiglas and put it on one of those rolling billboards you may have seen on San Francisco streets, and ... park it at designated locations where passers-by could have a look."

Then again, he's not sure how he'd get Fast Pass out of his studio: The city is so windy, he explains, "just carrying this thing out to the truck is hazardous." (Karen Zuercher)

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