“The column wasn't killed,” Finefrock said. “We chose not to run it.”
Stephanie Salter's column for the Sunday, March 16, Examiner would have been headlined “A Showcase for Twisted Values,” if editors more interested in business than free expression hadn't spiked it. Through a genuine if grim comedy of errors, the column — killed because it treated S.F.'s newest major newspaper advertiser, Nike, as a profane four-letter word — did accidentally swoosh across the country to be printed on the op-ed page of the Miami Herald. The column even appeared briefly on the Gate, the Website of the Chron and Ex.
But two of the Ex's editors felt Salter's column was so unfair to Nike and its new Niketown store in Union Square that there was no way the piece could be printed here. Oddly — no, weirdly, bizarrely, crazily — both editors readily acknowledged that Salter's column was killed at least partly for business reasons. Nike, they explained, had agreed to be a sponsor of the Ex's largest annual promotion, the Bay to Breakers race.
So by all means let's stop the presses.
Salter's euthanized column was based on her conviction that the new Niketown is built on and panders to “twisted values” that have elevated style over substance and corporate greed over corporate responsibility across America. The column called Nike obscenely greedy and used a newspaper convention throughout (“N–e” for Nike) to highlight the alleged obscenity.
The proposed headline was apt for her column; it could, however, just as well describe the craven reasoning that the Ex's two top editors, Editor and Publisher Lee Guittar and Editorial Pages Editor Jim Finefrock, used to justify killing the opinion piece.
Salter, who had filed early so she could take a long weekend, didn't know her column had been killed until she got back into town the following Tuesday. Apparently, her editor, Finefrock, didn't think she merited a phone call on the editorial killing. She met with him Wednesday.
“It was pulled,” Salter confirmed in an interview last week. Finefrock “had a list of things he felt were wrong with the column,” she said, among them that she had been “unfair to Nike.” Specifically, she said, Finefrock disapproved of her decision to refer to Nike as “obscene.”
But, she said, the “last thing he told me” was that the Ex was negotiating with Nike to be a Bay to Breakers sponsor — along with Southwest Airlines, Crystal Geyser, the Hyatt Regency of San Francisco, Nordstrom, and AT&T. It would damage the paper's integrity to be attacking Nike at the same time the athletic gear company was underwriting the daily's event, she recalled him telling her.
“That's an interesting use of the word 'integrity,' ” added Salter, who's been writing three columns a week for 11 years. As for Finefrock's other criticisms, she simply said she stands by her column.
When questioned about Salter's column last week, Finefrock uttered a soundbite worthy of living through the journalistic ages as a symbol of precisely why it is that most newspaper writers despise most newspaper editors.
“The column wasn't killed,” Finefrock said. “We chose not to run it.”
Actually, Salter's column was written, edited, and set in page proofs for the Sunday paper before the Guittar-Finefrock team killed it — too late to prevent its posting on the Gate and its being sent out over the Ex's wire service. Miami Herald editors read Salter's tirade against Nike on the wire and decided it was worthy of picking up for the Herald's op-ed page on March 19. (It can also be viewed on the Herald's Website; the headline is “Crossing the line into hypergreed land.”)
So, if the column wasn't slaughtered in a last-minute financial-promotional panic, how did it wind up running in Miami and not in San Francisco?
“It was erroneously put out on the wire,” Finefrock said, noting, even as he continued denying the column had been killed, that a “kill notice” was either disregarded or didn't take effect in time to stop the column from hitting the wires. (The column has since disappeared from the Gate, though perhaps it was merely shifted to a new URL — http://sfgate.com.killed/editors/craven.)
Oddly — no, weirdly, bizarrely, crazily — Finefrock didn't bother to deny that the Ex had stepped all over the ethical boundary between the editorial and advertising sides of the paper by allowing Nike's sponsorship of the Bay to Breakers race to be a factor in the decision to pull Salter's column. He just tried to distance himself from the Ex's decision to lick Nike's Air Jordans.
“To the extent that [the sponsorship] was a consideration,” Finefrock said, it would entail “a certain amount of hypocrisy to allow Nike to be called obscene in the pages of the Examiner and then engage in a partnership with Nike in the race.”
Of course, Finefrock disowned holding that opinion himself. Sort of. The notion that it would be hypocritical to allow a columnist to criticize Nike while the shoemaking giant was in promotional partnership with the columnist's newspaper was “not what my thinking was, but what I believe the thinking was.”
Let's try that again.
The sponsorship, Finefrock said, “didn't enter into my thinking. It may have been a consideration in some people's minds.”
And which people's minds were involved in the decision-making on the death of Salter's column? Just two — Lee Guittar's and Finefrock's.
Everyone got that?
It seems that Guittar is among the people who don't get Finefrock's explanation. Speaking after Finefrock was interviewed, Guittar denied the sponsorship ever came up when he and Finefrock discussed Salter's column. Earlier, Guittar said, he casually mentioned Nike's possible involvement to Finefrock.
Guittar, however, denied that the sponsorship was anything close to (as Salter recounts) “the straw that broke the camel's back” in regard to the column. So if it wasn't Bay to Breakers, why was the column killed?
“Stephanie is a powerful writer. Nike is too random a target to lay all the ills of society on,” Guittar said.
Sounds just like a publisher. But Guittar is also the editor. By definition, he's the head of two competing constituencies, the business side, where money is extracted from advertisers in exchange for paid exposure, and the editorial/news operation, whose job it is to hold any and all targets up to scrutiny, no matter how discomfiting such scrutiny might be.
On a purely journalistic level, though, none of Finefrock's and Guittar's explanations for killing Stephanie Salter's column stand up to examination. Salter's job is to have an opinion and to express it. And it is her opinion and hers alone. Her columns don't occupy the same journalistic niche as the paper's unsigned editorials, which are meant to serve as the voice of the paper. It could be argued that having the paper editorialize against Nike as an obscene despoiler of Third World laborers and impressionable young American consumers would be self-contradictory if the paper were also joined in a partnership with Nike. But that wasn't the case here.
Here, a column was written, edited, put into type, put on a national news wire — and then was spiked.
And what about the column? Was it worth running?
The Miami Herald thought so. So, for those of you without access to the Herald's archives, here's a summary of what Messieurs Finefrock and Guittar felt was too unfair for your feeble brain to handle:
(For purposes of this discussion, all quotes come from the piece that appeared in the Miami Herald.)
Salter begins the piece by saying it's just as well she doesn't have children; her refusal to buy them Nike products would lead to constant friction. The kids would pester her for “clothes with the ubiquitous N–e swoosh. … I would annoy them with talk about 'commodity fetishes' and other evil byproducts of unbridled capitalism.”
“To my kids, N–etown would represent a throbbing, high-tech, hip-hop paradise on Earth. To me, the gates of hell.”
At this point in her piece, Salter takes a moment to explain her use of N–e, rather than the full name of the firm. “Well, journalists use dashes when they print obscene or offensive words,” Salter explains. “After a visit to the new N–etown in San Francisco, I believe that N–e has so crossed the line into wretched excess, that it qualifies for dashes.”
Salter's outrage beats steadily. And her passion gives her prose a real spine.
“I'm not talking only about the much-publicized exploitive labor practices. … I mean something bigger.”
“I'm talking about [how Nike's] … power and influence have reached grotesque proportions. Buy N–e, and you buy belonging, the hippest, empty identity available.”
At Niketown, she writes, “twisted values are showcased every day.”
Salter's conclusion — her final expression of outrage — seems to have anticipated the objections of Finefrock and Guittar to her column. “Am I picking on N–e because it's the only company that has crossed the line into the land of corporate hypergreed?”
“I wish,” she answers succinctly.
“I'm picking on N–e because it is the biggest, the coolest. Because it pays the best athletes the most millions to endorse its products. Because you can't walk a block without seeing its logo. Because it is scary to see something as big and influential as N–e with no vital sense of moral responsibility for counterbalance.”
It's almost as if she wrote the script for her own column's wake.