Chron insiders hate Willie Brown's new column

In 2004, apparently unbeknownst to his employers, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Phil Matier cut a deal with Mayor Willie Brown and KRON-TV for a Sunday show to be named Live with Willie and Phil.

“For us, that was not a tenable situation,” Chronicle editor Phil Bronstein told then-SF Weekly editor John Mecklin, “because it went from Phil having some kind of presence on-air with Willie as a guest to them having some kind of business enterprise together.” Bronstein scotched the deal.

But Bronstein, a onetime Pulitzer finalist, was put out to pasture in January with some ill-defined job at the Chron's parent company, Hearst Corporation. He was replaced by Ward Bushee, a former editor of the Arizona Republic, who appears to lack Bronstein's news judgment.

And now Willie Brown has his own column in the Chron.

The apparent logic behind our paper of record's most recent hire is that Brown is foppish and connected, like Herb Caen was. However, the Chronicle didn't bleed one or two million dollars a month when Caen was around. In this spirit, Brown's debut column consisted of separate about-town-type items resembling Caen's trademark format. But despite their similarities and famous friendship, the men are worlds apart, journalism-wise. The current situation is no more tenable than Live with Willie and Phil would have been.

Caen was a hard-working interviewer and a note taker. Brown is legendary for making a point of never writing anything down. Nor did Caen burden his employer with ethical baggage collected during a lifetime as the most notorious pay-to-play politician in California history.

Until 2005 Brown was a registered lobbyist whose business and political dealings continue to cut a swath through most of the Chronicle's coverage areas. He has included as political, financial, and lobbying allies Governor Schwarzenegger, PG&E, Lennar Corporation, and some of the most important Democratic politicians in the state. Given Brown's history of allegations of inappropriate self-dealing, his new column promises to make a joke of the paper's guidelines governing “ethical news gathering” and “conflicts of interest.”

People in and around the Chronicle newsroom — which still includes news scribes dedicated to the pursuit of truth — are sickened by the new Willie deal.

“Real journalists in the room were appalled by it,” said one insider familiar with the mood at the paper. “And the people who weren't are people who don't put journalism first or who have a very shallow understanding of San Francisco politics, or of who Willie Brown is, or of the reporting done in Hearst papers on Willie Brown.”

“People have major concerns about violations of every journalistic principle that's out there,” another Chronicle insider says. “It's government too close to the press and vice versa.”

“He's still a newsmaker,” another newsroom source adds. “He's still a political player. He isn't the mayor anymore, but he might be as important a power broker as there is in town. It's sort of a question of who gets access to the news pages.”

Former Mayor Art Agnos said the arrangement creates a double standard for newspapers, which are wont to complain when politicians include lobbyists on their staff. “Does this mean it's open season now?” he said.

For some, these kinds of qualms might seem like news-business self-importance, or insider baseball played according to an unfathomable journalistic druidic code. But journalism ethics spare readers the burden of having to ask themselves whether the news is distorted to suit a writer's business, personal, or political interests.

That's why newspaper columnists usually aren't allowed to write about subjects in which they have a personal interest. For Chronicle writers, this is spelled out in 4,400-word guidelines banning freebies, nepotism, or any other benefit that conflicts with the activity of objective news gathering.

Were Willie Brown to follow such guidelines, California politics might become cleaner overnight.

Chronicle reporting during the weeks before and after Brown's first column does not suggest a propitious start. Ten days before Brown's debut, the paper reported that its soon-to-be columnist was the sole witness for the defense in the federal criminal trial of Julie Lee, a Brown political ally who was convicted of fraud and witness tampering in connection with a fund-raising scheme. The story made no mention of Brown's pending employment.

The day after Brown's first column appeared, a Chronicle story noted he was called to testify before a federal grand jury investigating state Senator Don Perata. Again, the paper made no mention of Brown's role as a columnist.

Equally bothersome was the column itself. For Chronicle staffers, reading it became a game of Where's Waldo, in which players sought to find the greatest number of violations of the paper's ethical code.

Brown made the game easy. In his debut column's first section, he makes an indirect case for the vice-presidential aspirations of the wife of his personal friend Bill Clinton. The second section touts the keen skills of political operative Steve Schmidt, with whom Brown does lobbying business. Next is an item declaring the end of the line for Jesse Jackson, Brown's former employer and longtime rival for the title of most important black politician in America. Brown weighs in on the supposedly excellent chances of his political progeny Gavin Newsom becoming governor, not long before jetting off to Newsom's Montana wedding. Brown touts the fine food and ambience of a Fillmore restaurant that was launched with a $1.7 million San Francisco Redevelopment Agency loan granted just as he stepped down as the city's legendary “juice” mayor. To finish with a conflict-of-interest bang, Brown brags about a freebie dinner, and gives a shout-out to Carmen Policy, who just helped him lead a successful campaign for a ballot initiative to allow for the construction of a new stadium at Hunters Point.

In closing, Brown tips his columnist's hat to attorney Steven Kay without noting that the two share an office, or that Kay serves as secretary of the Willie L. Brown Jr. Institute on Politics and Public Service, where Brown has drawn a salary as chairman and chief executive officer.

There's a feeling in the Chronicle newsroom that this would never have happened with Bronstein as editor. For years, the corporate suits behind the Chronicle have conducted a strange moth-and-light-bulb dance with Brown. The paper's current incarnation was born of a Brown deal in which the Hearst Corporation paid his political allies $66 million in subsidies to take over the Examiner. In exchange, Hearst presumably received a promise from the mayor not to use his influence with federal antitrust officials to block its purchase of the Chronicle.

Under Bronstein, however, efforts were made to treat Brown as a news subject rather than a business partner. In 2001, reporters Chuck Finnie and Lance Williams produced “Willie Brown Inc.,” a five-part series detailing how, as mayor, Brown had turned the city's contracting operations into a cashbox for friends and allies. Brown spent the last three years of his term publicly lashing out at the Chronicle.

Ward Bushee was brought aboard as the Chronicle continued to bleed tens of millions of dollars per year and Bronstein's leadership wasn't turning the financial situation around. Insiders now say they fear Bushee will merely channel the whims of publisher Frank Vega, who is desperate to revive the unprofitable paper. (Bushee and Vega did not return calls requesting comment.)

But at a time when the newspaper business is sinking because it can't sell enough ads at high enough prices, it seems odd that the Chronicle would promote Willie L. Brown Inc.'s personal, business, and political interests for free.

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