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The All-Mandel Team or How to Staff One Great San Francisco Newspaper - By - March 1, 1995 - SF Weekly
SF Weekly

The All-Mandel Team or How to Staff One Great San Francisco Newspaper

Before I unveil my dream team to staff the One Great San Francisco Newspaper the city could have if our two JOA-hobbled dailies wisely melded, this statement:

Although as a journalist I've covered ugly, dangerous, profoundly depressing stories — drug-war shootouts in Valencia Gardens and Frank Jordan's inauguration — as a reader I'd rather be tickled than mugged. The writers I've picked for the All-Mandel Team can cover the hardest news with San Francisco wit and elegance without taking themselves too seriously.

I hate self-seriousness. Remember all the self-dramatizing, sackcloth-and-ashes breast beating printed in both papers after last November's newspaper strike? You'd think striking writers had barely survived the siege of Stalingrad, not walked picket lines for 12 days.

The Columnists
Will Hearst once asked me, “If I could hire just one person away from the Chronicle, who would it be? And don't say Jon Carroll.”

(Will hated the idea that Carroll can write a popular column in his pajamas while Hearst's the kind of guy who wears $1,500 European suits and by noon his shirttail is billowing.)

We quickly settled on Chronicle society writer Pat Steger. Steger would bring with her the 400 rich, fashionable, powerful readers whose endless rounds of balls, lunches and air-kisses she covers plus the many thousands who relish Steger's droll dissing of the Upper Crust.

What Steger writes may seem like straight reportage to irony-proof socialites, but to the rest of us she's an ace satirist.

Herb Caen remains the class of Bay Area journalism. Sure, he'll be 80 soon and he sometimes writes like a lecherous, crotchety 60-year-old, but he makes nocturnal rounds like a curious puppy of 25. Caen does something very hard so gracefully that he makes it look very easy. (See: “Not taking yourself too seriously.”) There's always talk that Caen's many assistants actually write his column, but in fact he has just one assistant, Carol Vernier, and only Caen himself can wrap so much varied material into a seamless read.

Caen seems melancholy that he'll finish his career as “only” Mr. San Francisco, not the 20th-century Mark Twain. But his readers know he's magic: Caen defines San Francisco's legend to itself. When he's not in the Chronicle, the paper seems hollow.

As long as Herb Caen wants to write his column, I want him on my newspaper, but San Francisco is no longer the small town Caen could cover in a night of quick stop-ins. I'm starting a second people/items column by Leah Garchik, who now writes the “Personals” feature in the Chronicle. Though “Personals” is drawn from published sources — magazines, wire services and the like — Garchik has the wit and enthusiasm to develop original material with a younger, more ironic flavor.

Jon Carroll, the best pure writer currently working for a San Francisco daily, is on my One Great San Francisco Newspaper, but with these provisos: Get out of those pajamas. Get off the WELL a few hours a day. Cut down on Mondegreens, funny fractured foreign attempts at English and cat stories. Get out of the house.

I'm bringing back Alice Kahn. The Chronicle was wise to hire this brilliant, satiric social critic — the woman who coined the word “yuppie” — but not wise enough to use her properly, and eventually lost her. She understands the passion, humor and desperation of everyday life and can write about it all with laughing horror.

Tales of the city shouldn't be confined to Tales of the City, and for that reason I'm offering a column to Armistead Maupin. In the same way Herb Caen burnishes San Francisco's legend, Maupin illuminates secret chambers of the city's soul.

Speaking of soul, here comes Examiner columnist Stephanie Salter. Against a rising tide of cynicism, Salter manages to value values without being a scold or a bore. She loves San Francisco with a transplant's misty-eyed reverence, so pure and strong no one can dismiss it. She unashamedly champions goodness with lithe language that can tickle or sting.

Every newspaper needs a tough-guy news columnist who stalks the city's back alleys in a trenchcoat state of mind, writes his columns with a tomahawk, knows where all the bodies are buried and out-cops the cops. My candidate is the Examiner's Scott Winokur.

I'm giving Warren Hinckle the same deal he had at the Chronicle: Whatever you write, I'll print, and print splashy. But I'm not expecting anything from you, Warren, so you don't have to screw me over just to honor your pathology.

Finally, whatever happened to that wonderful, funny, versatile, brilliant, soulful, unpredictable, nearly psychic Bill Mandel?

The Critics
The 1978 death of Chronicle Yber-critic Jon Wasserman left a gap in San Francisco's critical array that has never been filled. (Certainly not by his putative successor, Gerald Nachman, whose mind was as closed as Wasserman's was open.) I'm upholstering the Jon Wasserman Critic-of-the-World Chair for Cintra Wilson, the playwright, performance artist and advice columnist whose “Cintra Wilson Feels Your Pain” dish-fest runs in each Friday's Examiner Style section.

No slave to Generation X's seen-it-all dismissive exhaustion, Wilson, who is in her late twenties, bridges the gap between irony and wisdom. And she's viciously funny.

Joyce Millman, the Examiner's television critic and a Pulitzer finalist in criticism, will expand her focus to include any form of culture or stimulation that can be consumed in the home, from new telephone technologies to frozen food. Millman is my Queen of Cocooning.

John Carman, the fine Chronicle TV critic, keeps his job.
Ben Fong-Torres, a founding editor of Rolling Stone, host of KQED-FM's Fog City Radio, managing editor of the radio newsletter Gavin and the guy who invented magazine rock-and-roll journalism, is my radio critic/reporter. People care a lot more about “their” radio station than about “their” TV station, yet neither newspaper assigns someone full-time to radio. I will.

In Barry Walters, we have the clinically insane rock critic. When Walters first started reviewing for the Examiner, some were put off by his ultra-personal point of view, his dating life revelations and his injection of a radical queer stance into nearly everything he wrote. Over time, though, Walters has emerged as that rarity: a critic who can cover a scene and shape it. [page]

Though it's wise to limit music critics' tenure to 10 years, Phil Elwood comes aboard under the Herb Caen Rule: As long as he can keep it up, I want him. Elwood has maintained his bubbling delight with roots music for nearly 40 years. When punk hit San Francisco in the late '70s and younger critics dismissed it as undisciplined noise, ancient Elwood embraced its revivifying energy.

Thanks to Jesse Hamlin, the Chronicle was there at the rebirth of jazz in San Francisco. Trad, bebop, hip-bop, acid-jazz, jazz-funk, the many flavors of fusion — Hamlin makes words count in an art form that isn't about words. “Cool newspaperman” is almost an oxymoron, but the dapper, low-key Hamlin comes close.

Classical music: Joshua Kosman, Chronicle.
Dance: Allan Ulrich, Examiner.
Theater: Barbara Shulgasser, now an Examiner movie critic and co-screenwriter of Robert Altman's Ready to Wear, I'd reassign to the stage.

I'm stocking my One Great San Francisco Newspaper with these specialized film critics:

Scott Rosenberg, of the Examiner, can take any film, no matter how foreign, complex or obscure, and let us know whether ordinary people like us are going to enjoy it. And you can count on him not to be out-thunk by any filmmaker.

Going to the movies sure sounds like fun when you're reading the Chronicle's Mick LaSalle. Behind his everyman, can't-argue-with-Sharon Stone's-legs pose is a deep empathy for character and the tenderized heart of someone who's obviously suffered in love.

As a dad myself, I really appreciate Peter Stack of the Chronicle, who reviews kids' pictures — the bulk of Hollywood's output — without bringing all his adult faculties to the task. Kids, as Stack knows, often like unredeemed drivel; he provides a reliable guide to the right drivel.

Michael Sragow, late of the Examiner, is currently underemployed at the New Yorker. The running time of a Sragow review often surpasses that of the film under discussion, so on my paper Sragow is going to write those blockbuster Sunday cinema pieces that people argue about over brunch in North Beach.

Speaking of brunch arguments, my man Gary Kamiya, on books and media, is going to trigger a ton judging by his irregular Examiner column on magazines and ideas. It's not every day that newspaper readers are confronted with allusions to Foucault, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Derrida, Barthes and de Man in the same article.

General coverage of Bay Area arts intelligentsia: Joan Smith, Examiner.
Restaurants: Patricia Unterman, yet another marquee name the Chronicle paid to retire, now writing freelance reviews for the Examiner.

Art: David Bonetti of the Examiner. He wears patchouli oil and does a creditable job of making some sort of sense out of the gaseous air that passes for art in our sad culture. His San Francisco-is-provincial lectures are bracing.

Feature Writers
Julian Guthrie is the Roger Maris of Bay Area journalism: She'll always have an asterisk next to her name. During last November's strike, the 28-year-old went to work at the Ex as a scab, a strikebreaker. Guthrie was the only replacement worker kept on, and has been given the frozen shoulder by her unionized colleagues ever since.

Guthrie's primary talent is getting folks of all strata, especially celebrities, to answer her probing questions in unusual, entertaining ways. One of her first pieces for the Examiner was a delightful story about Wilkes Bashford and Harry Denton — two guys so overcovered it makes me yawn to type their names — and Sister Patricia Burns, the no-nonsense nun both men worship.

Cynthia Robins, late of the Examiner's “Cyn City” column, is also in my first wave. Although Robins is from Ohio, she has a Brit's unapologetic appetite for celebrity. Face to face with the famous, Robins gets inside their heads. Burt Reynolds liked this so much he threw Robins out of his hotel suite and canceled the entire publicity tour for his autobiography.

Even if she didn't have one of the best names in journalism, Mandy Behbehani, of the Examiner, would still be my fashion writer. Behbehani (pronounced “Beh-beh-hani”) can make a designer, unusual clout since so few people read the Examiner. I want Mandy to try bitchy society coverage. My tag team: Cynthia Robins vs. Mandy Behbehani covering the same story.

Were it not for Jon Carroll, Craig Marine and Edvins Beitiks of the Examiner would be nominees for best natural writers working at a San Francisco newspaper. Marine comes from a Generation X/smartmouth-longshoreman/Keith Richards/rock-and-roll perspective, Beitiks from that of a Vietnam-vet/blue-collar/blue-Hawaii/beer hound. Both are far more sensitive than they let on, giving ordinary people miles of slack, celebrities and stuffed shirts almost none.

Steve Rubenstein and Carl Nolte are excellent writers the Chronicle doesn't know what to do with. No argument with Chronicle editors who killed Rubenstein's column — it always hit the same note of churlish immaturity. But as a feature writer, Rubenstein has a big heart, a supple vocabulary and a point of view worth sharing. Nolte, who captivated readers with his accounts of the Liberty Ship Jeremiah O'Brien's improbable voyage to the 50th anniversary of D-Day, is a classic newspaper writer: clear, amusing, knowledgeable and concise.

No doubt you've heard somewhere about the vicious reaction to Nina Davis, the welfare mother of seven who gave her life saving three of her children during a late-January fire at the family's Hunters Point apartment. The story was carried on most Bay Area TV stations: Plenty of angry people disputed Nina Davis' being called a hero, concentrating instead on welfare and seven children.

The story originated with Annie Nakao, an Examiner writer who covered the fire and then realized, from the heated messages regarding Nina Davis pouring into her voicemail, that there was a larger story to be told. Like all the writers on my features team, Nakao has a special knack for people. [page]

Sports Section
I'm taking the entire Chronicle sports staff — Scott Ostler, C.W. Nevius, Joan Ryan and everybody else except Glenn Dickey — and adding Examiner columnist Ray Ratto to cover baseball, Examiner outdoors writer Tom Stienstra to continue his Jack London-esque reports from the wild, Merv Harris on prep sports, and 49ers/track-and-field writer John Crumpacker, who, if he were ever allowed to show it, is one of the funniest writers in the Bay Area.

I'd also make sure that Examiner photographers John Storey and Mark Costantini, two wizards of catching sports action on film, were at every game possible.

Photographers-in-Chief
Pulitzer Prize-winner Kim Komenich, an amazing artist, and Katy Raddatz, of the Examiner; Scott Sommerdorf of the Chronicle.

Beat and General Assignment
City Hall: Rachel Gordon, Examiner.
Politics: Jerry Roberts, Susan Yoachum, Chronicle.
Sacramento: Tupper Hull, Examiner.
Editorials: Lynn Ludlow, Examiner.
Urban planning: Gerald Adams, Examiner.
Environment: Jane Kay, Examiner.
Legal affairs: Harriet Chiang, William Carlsen, Chronicle.
Science: Keay Davidson, Examiner.
Medicine: Lisa Krieger, Examiner.
Real Estate: Corrie Anders, Examiner.
High-tech: David Einstein, Chronicle.
Retailing: Gavin Power, Chronicle; Louis Trager, Examiner.
Business columnist: Herb Greenberg, Chronicle.
Economics: Jonathan Marshall, Chronicle.
Asian affairs: Steven Chin, Examiner.
Religion: Don Lattin, Chronicle.
Latino affairs: Susan Ferriss, Examiner.
Criminal justice: Leslie Goldberg, Examiner.

Investigations: Carla Marinucci (employer abuse of immigrant workers; Town School sex-molestation coverup), Lance Williams (executive-pay and Harboy Bay Isle-related scandals at the University of California), Seth Rosenfeld (fire dangers of Saab 9000 fuse boxes; disfiguring ruptures of Dow-Corning silicone breast implants), Examiner.

The Christianne Amanpour Wherever-There's-a-War Beat: Phil Bronstein, Examiner.

Great Staff Writers: Michael Dougan, Carol Ness, Eric Brazil, John Flinn, George Raine, Gregory Lewis, Erin McCormick, Jim Herron Zamora, Paul Avery, Vicki Haddock and Dennis Opatrny of the Examiner.

Glen Martin, Susan Sward, Aurelio Rojas, Bill Wallace, Pamela Burdman, Sylvia Rubin, Benjamin Pimentel, Sam Whiting, Stephen Schwartz, Evelyn White and Michelle Quinn of the Chronicle.

Editors
The staff I've assembled is brilliant, but I can't nominate anyone local to lead it because in 25 years of newspapering I've worked for only one supreme editor who is sufficiently humane, creative and inspiring to be worthy of this group, and he's currently taking a break from retirement to be managing editor of the New York Times: Gene Roberts.

With all this talent, management may not be a major issue if the managers know enough to get out of the talent's way. Let's consider the All-Mandel Team for One Great San Francisco Newspaper journalistically equivalent to the juggernaut 1927 Yankees of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and other members of Murderers' Row.

Who managed the 1927 Yankees? Who cares?