Let the Sun Shine, You Hypocrites

Journalism is under attack from lefties who promote public access to information.

During the summer of 1999, trucks containing almost 15,000 tons of contaminated dirt made their way from the Altamont Landfill near Livermore to a faraway facility reinforced against the possible leakage of toxic waste. That's 600 semi-truckloads; arranged in a single convoy, they'd span San Francisco.

This massive and necessary undertaking might never have happened if a small S.F. newspaper hadn't foiled plans hatched by developers of the San Francisco Giants' ballpark. The builders had sought to cheaply, quickly, and improperly dispose of the stadium site's dirt, which during a century of industrial activity had been soaked with lead, nickel, toluene, mercury, benzene, and arsenic. In their quest for cost savings, the Giants' developers had classified this as ordinary garbage, rather than as the toxic waste it was. That way they managed to haul it only to Livermore, rather than to a much more expensive hazardous-waste facility farther away.

But this toxic scheme was thwarted by a series of SF Weekly stories beginning in 1997 that alerted readers to the improper toxic waste classification. Thus apprised, officials were alarmed about the possibility of these poisons leaching into groundwater. The Alameda County Board of Supervisors passed resolutions condemning this scheme. The local district attorney complained, and the state Department of Toxic Substances Control was compelled to acknowledge the Giants had sought to bury the chemicals with ordinary garbage. "A total of over 14,460 tons of material has been removed for redisposal as a hazardous waste since July 30, 1999," landfill manager Ken Lewis wrote to state environmental officials.

I bring up this Sept. 1999 letter, which I recently obtained while researching a different toxic waste story, as an example of how journalism can move mountains.

Last week was Sunshine Week, a national initiative sponsored by the American Society of Newspaper Editors to remind students, teachers, librarians, civic leaders, nonprofits, and public officials how important it is to facilitate newspapers' ability to publish information that otherwise might remain hidden.

San Francisco always marches to a different drummer. And here it may as well have been Local Darkness Week, as the enterprise of journalism came under attack from a left-wing clique whose favorite pastimes include hypocritical blathering about the importance of expanded public access to information.

Green Party Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi introduced a misguided piece of "green" anti-journalism legislation, aiming to levy steep fines against the San Francisco Examiner for the offense of delivering newspapers. Meanwhile, a contorted jury verdict and a pending request for an injunction against my employer could have the apparent intended effect of forcing SF Weekly to fire reporters like me. The judgment and the injunction request are the work of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Mirkarimi's longtime patron.

As you might imagine, I am against efforts to stifle journalism. Fortunately, so is the founding ethos of the U.S.A. We have a First Amendment, which was drafted based on the idea that, without reporters to expose them, politicians, bureaucrats, and businessmen will sometimes go so far as to risk poisoning the water we drink.

Mirkarimi made his bones as a political operator by serving as campaign director for 2002's Proposition D, a ballot initiative aimed at creating a city-owned electricity system. The campaign was largely funded by the San Francisco Bay Guardian, a left-wing political pamphlet.

Old alliances apparently die hard. Last week, Mirkarimi potentially aided his old patron by proposing legislation that could harm the business prospects of one of the many publications that compete for advertising dollars in San Francisco. The legislation would levy stiff fines against publishers who deliver free newspapers unwanted onto doorsteps. This legislation happens to be aimed squarely at the business plan of the Examiner, which, despite possessing the storied name of the old William Randolph Hearst flagship, actually counts as a brazen upstart in the news publishing world.

The brainchild of Colorado billionaire Philip Anschutz, the Examiner employs a small team of youngish reporters to provide hyperlocalized coverage of politics, crime, and other aspects of city-limits life. Despite S.F.'s rich media landscape — populated by dozens of neighborhood newspapers, ethnic newspapers, business newspapers, legal newspapers, gay newspapers, alt-weeklies, myriad news Web sites, and Northern California's largest daily — this has actually been a sadly vacant niche. The San Francisco Chronicle's ongoing woes can be described in part as a spirited yet unfocused retrenchment from a years-old project to become a regional, rather than local, newspaper. Everyone else, meanwhile, has covered local news as it has suited a particular demographic or geographic sliver.

So the Anschutz idea makes a certain kind of sense. And his reporters have made the most of it. The biggest public-integrity story of the year — $3.5 million in funds embezzled from a Golden Gate Park garage — broke in the Examiner on March 4. The paper was the first to uncover official inquiries exploring the waste of city bond money designated for libraries and schools. It exposed how police union president Gary Delagnes was being paid for purely union functions from the SFPD payroll; city officials subsequently asked him to go on unpaid leave. The Examiner broke the story that Japantown was being sold on its centenary, and how Elie Wiesel was attacked in his S.F. hotel by a Holocaust denier. When Muni fares went up, Examiner reporters proved that the bus system typically turned a blind eye to fare skippers, which prompted announcements of an official crackdown. Examiner reporters also got one of the more delightful scoops of recent memory, revealing that Ed Jew's family hosted a pot club.

Anschutz has yet to receive accolades as a local civic hero. While the Constitution enshrines news-business entrepreneurship as vital for a healthy republic, ordinary people take this for granted.

"The Examiner is obnoxious. The way they MAKE you pick up their garbage" was a typical comment on the Chronicle's Web site, following the story about Mirkarimi's proposed law.

The Examiner already provides a phone number so residents can request not to receive it, so it's unclear what the legislation would accomplish — aside from creating a tool by which detractors levy fines against a newspaper that happens to have a conservative editorial page.

By deadline, Mirkarimi hadn't responded to my request to discuss this proposed legislation. But motivation-wise, I can surmise this much: His swipe at the Examiner is without great political risk. This is a season of environmentally insignificant, yet symbolically heavy green measures. Mirkarimi got this enviro-opportunism ball rolling last year with an anti-plastic-shopping-bag initiative; Mayor Gavin Newsom parried with an edict ending city purchases of bottled water. Mirkarimi has couched last Tuesday's anti-Examiner attack as anti-litter. And Newsom held a bullshit press conference last Thursday urging restaurants to stop selling water in plastic bottles.

"Excellent!!! I wholeheartedly support this effort," was another Chron reader comment about the proposed law. "Thanks Ross! Once again you make me glad that you're my supervisor and represent my district," was another.

I'll add my own: "Kudos, Ross! You've shown that enviro-grandstanding means more to you than an unfettered fourth estate."

Another Local Darkness Week attack on journalism is closer to home: Bay Guardian Company, Inc. vs. NT Media LLC, SF Weekly LLC, et. al.

For 11 years I've been loath to enter into the sniping that sometimes goes on against the pamphlet published by the plaintiff in that case. For one, I believe it sometimes provides a service to readers: I myself enjoyed a taste-test review of store-bought barbecue sauces it published in, if memory serves, 1997. What's more, I admire anyone who tries to make a go of it in the news business.

That's changed. In early March, the Guardian was awarded up to $15.6 million based on the idea that SF Weekly engaged in unfair business practices.

The notion was that SF Weekly sought to harm the Guardian by selling advertising below cost, then making up the difference with money from our parent company, Village Voice Media. The Guardian now seeks an injunction seeking to force SF Weekly to halt this practice.

SF Weekly was not selling ads for less than the market would bear; rather, it "sold below cost" because its expenses were more than its income.

Key to SF Weekly's cost structure has been the fact it employs more than twice as many full-time reporters as the Guardian does. And on the two occasions I was able to learn what top Guardian reporters earned, the amount was less than half what SF Weekly paid for equivalent positions. In other words, SF Weekly frittered away more money on journalism than the Guardian did, in hopes that eventually the paper would carve out a niche among readers and advertisers.

Guardian attorneys argued that this was the sharp end of a plot to hurt the little guy. As someone who's been the beneficiary of this journalistic largess for 11 years, let me tell you what it looks like from the inside. It's meant that we've been able to spend extra time working on stories designed to make a difference.

SF Weekly stories last month provoked California Assembly hearings on defrauding the elderly. SF Weekly has published exposés about abuses by labor leaders that helped embolden a dissident movement within America's largest labor union. SF Weekly stories exposed the Navy's Hunters Point nuclear activities, and uncovered and halted an illegal plot by SFO officials to siphon millions of public dollars to Honduras. And between 1997 and 1999, the paper's news columnist George Cothran exposed the inappropriate dumping of San Francisco Giants' toxic waste at the Altamont landfill.

This sort of reporting costs money. In the case of the 2001 story "Fallout: How nuclear researchers handled — and grossly mishandled — the Cold War's most dangerous radioactive substances," staff reporter Lisa Davis was relieved of all other duties for a year to dig into historical records, interview former employees and scientists, and set up and manage a cooperative research initiative with the Monterey Institute of International Studies. While this project could theoretically be criticized from a newspaper-business balance-sheet perspective, it had a near-immediate practical effect. Two weeks after the story's publication, Representative Nancy Pelosi and Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer signed a letter to the U.S. Secretary of the Navy demanding information about nuclear waste at Hunters Point Naval Shipyard.

In 1999, staff writer Peter Byrne spent much of the year investigating apparently curious investments involving Willie Brown. The resulting story described how the mayor had made official decisions benefiting business entities that were partners in his private business endeavors.

I flew to Mexico City to report on the international politics of whale migration, and to Tegucigalpa, Honduras, to investigate illegal business dealings by San Francisco government officials in connection with the privatization of that country's airports. The resulting stories provoked officials to halt the scheme. This week's paper includes a story by Lauren Smiley detailing how a contractor, which was subject to a city nondiscrimination agreement, apparently oversaw apparent systematic racial discrimination as well as extortion of workers.

These are a fraction of the SF Weekly stories that have elevated San Francisco public life. Yet the Guardian has argued that by spending this kind of money on journalism, SF Weekly somehow sought to cause harm to the less fortunate. This is a perverse idea of social justice.

"Who bloody cares? Tempest in a teapot!! Does anyone actually read these rags? Let's save a few trees. A plague on both their houses," was a typical reader remark on the Chronicle story announcing the Guardian-Weekly verdict.

Who indeed?

If, two decades from now, Alameda County children are not brain-damaged by lead exposure, nobody will wonder why. If there are no unusual clusters of cancer of the skin, lungs, urinary tract, bladder, and kidneys of the types typically caused by arsenic, it's doubtful anyone will pause to reflect on the stadium's worth of toxic dirt that filled a convoy bound for a safer repository in 1999. That's old news.

But to my admittedly biased way of thinking, it's news that deserved to see the light of day.

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