I am probably dating myself, but I remember a running gag in the early days of Spy magazine that revolved around a mathematical equation. The equation was long, with a great many fractions containing a great many variables. At bottom, though, the equation established the news value of a person's life if lost in Manhattan, in comparison to, say, a life lost in Bangladesh, as calculated by the New York Times. As I remember, the equation included allowances for the distance from the center of civilization (that is to say, the Times' midtown Manhattan offices), the nationality and race of the victim, and several other factors. When multiplied and divided in the proper way, those factors established that (for imaginary instance) one white investment banker murdered by his mistress at home on the Upper East Side should get approximately the same size and play of story as 8,000 brownish Bangladeshis drowned in the storm surge of one of those typhoons they're always having over there.
Of course, back in the distant 1980s, the Times didn't use an algebraic formula when deciding to cover mass death in distant lands with 4-inch-long news briefs, and nowadays, the paper is renowned for its international coverage.
Nowadays, the San Francisco Chronicle isn't renowned for much. But it sure can play meaningless stories affecting the swells of Pacific Heights as matters of life and death, and life-and-death stories about the blue-collar Bayview as briefs about strange folks living way, way round the world.
A recent example of the Chrondescension I'm talking about came late last month, in the form of the paper's breathless, top-of-metro-section, banner coverage of the vast danger posed by a dozen barrels of “toxic waste” that had, supposedly, been buried in the Presidio. The initial report on this frightening prospect, published July 29, said ex-Presidio employees did not know what was in the buried barrels but had been warned it was “so dangerous it could burn off your flesh.” This flesh-burning menace was so, well, menacing that, according to the Chronicle account, U.S. Reps. George Miller (D-Martinez) and Nancy Pelosi (D-Pacific Heights) felt compelled to write a letter of concern to the trust that oversees the Army base-cum-national park.
Twelve days and a few moronic follow-up stories later, the paper revealed, in a large metro-front centerpiece story, that the Presidio had been “cleared,” after environmental regulators looked where the ex-workers said the fiery barrels should be — and found exactly nothing.
That a Chronicle reporter wrote an overheated story about something of vanishing import is certainly unsurprising. (For confirmation, see today's Chronicle. No matter what day today is. Just about any section.) That a couple of congresspeople wrote a letter of concern based on complaints sent to them is, indeed, quite ordinary. That federal agencies rushed in and immediately investigated allegations of wrongdoing is, when you think on it, actually laudable.
That a nonevent in the Presidio would draw congressional interest, EPA action, and significant coverage by a major daily newspaper is, on the other hand, utterly, absolutely predictable. The Presidio, you see, adjoins the Pacific Heights and Sea Cliff neighborhoods of San Francisco. And we really can't ignore possible danger — even remote, unverified danger — to go uninvestigated near a residential neighborhood. Can we?
Just two days after the Chronicle's investigative prowess had been laser-focused on the vague possibility that 12 barrels of something-or-other vaguely bad had been buried at the Presidio, there was actual revelation across town. In the third segment of her investigative series on contamination at the former Hunters Point Shipyard, SF Weekly staff writer Lisa Davis quoted a witness who said he had buried, almost at random on the shipyard, the carcasses of numerous animals irradiated during nuclear research at a top-secret lab at the former naval base. Davis found and quoted another witness who said he had helped remove the interior fixtures from an aircraft carrier irradiated during atomic bomb tests, and then helped install them in a shipyard building.
In earlier stories in the series, known as “Fallout,” Davis showed that scientists at the shipyard oversaw the dumping of tons of radioactive sand and acid into San Francisco Bay; spread radioactive material on and off the naval base, to practice decontamination; burned radioactive fuel oil in a boiler and discharged the smoke into the atmosphere; sold radioactive ships as scrap metal without warning buyers about radioactivity; and dumped large amounts of nuclear material in a major commercial fishery just 30 miles off San Francisco.
Davis' series, based on 16 months of research (give or take), doesn't stop at radioactivity. Her stories show that, even ignoring things radiological, the shipyard, which the city hopes to remake as a mixed-use community, is rife with a stew of cancer-causing chemicals. It is probably one of the most polluted pieces of property on the planet, and it directly adjoins a San Francisco neighborhood.
But the neighborhood is not Pacific Heights or Sea Cliff, it is the Bayview. And in the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle, “Fallout” might as well never have been written, and unless they connect somehow to gang shootings, the drab denizens of the Bayview just don't equate with the celeboisie of Pacific Heights.
In the list of altpress stories that I despise, those complaining about the failure of the mainstream press to attend to the really important stories rank high. (Lord, aren't we all sick of hearing the Bay Guardian's Bruce Brugmann bleat on about the vastly conspiratorial evil that is done by Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and ignored by the other press, even while his own “newspaper” covers PG&E badly, and most of the real news about the firm is broken in other outlets?)
So let it be known far and wide: I don't care if the San Francisco Chronicle ever follows on the nuclear contamination issues raised in “Fallout” in any way, shape, or form. In fact, I prefer that the paper continue to ignore the story, so Ms. Davis can explore it without significant competition.
But the leaders of the Chronicle have made it clear that they want the paper to be acknowledged as great, or if not great, at least as being better than the joke it was when it focused much of its energy on the quality of coffee and alligator hunts in Golden Gate Park. In the time since the Hearst Corp. bought the Chronicle and merged the old Examiner staff into it, there have been some improvements in the combined paper. Every now and again, something resembling in-depth journalism comes out of the enterprise desk. David Lazarus continues to beat the pants off most everybody in regard to Bay Area (and even California) business. By my lights, John King writes the best urban design pieces in America.
But I've listened for years now as residents of the Bayview, including political leaders, have bemoaned the sorry, slim, condescending coverage the Chronicle has tossed at their community. (A recent Chronicle attempt to treat the Bayview as a real place inhabited by actual people was subverted, in a darkly comic way, by treacly, cloying execution — and by what one might call an extraordinary combination of personnel problem and bad timing. On July 21, the Chronicle Sunday magazine published a story headlined “View From the Inside: In Defense of Bayview-Hunters Point,” written by Craig Marine. The story itself is unintentionally hilarious and embarrassing, quoting and paraphrasing Bayview residents to the effect that their neighborhood is not a filthy, frightening, drug-dealing, gangbanging hellhole — and organizing the quotes, paraphrases, and surrounding prose so they convey the wide-eyed, breathless, oh-my-Lord tone occasionally used in accounts of journalistic ventures into deepest, darkest, scariest Africa. Then there is that other little thing: The story was published 12 days after Marine was arrested, as the Chronicle itself put the matter, on “child-rape and drug charges for conduct that allegedly involved a teenage girl.” Conduct that involved an allegation that Marine had [again, in the Chronicle's own verbiage] “assaulted her with a knife, burned her breast and thigh with cigarettes, and cut her back.” One can only presume the story was written, and the Sunday magazine printed, before the arrest. And although it's an academic question at this point, one can probably be excused for wondering if the Sunday magazine would have been distributed had the alleged child-rapist been quoting the finest citizens of Pacific Heights about their neighborhood's allure.)
The Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood of San Francisco has been systematically poisoned, and shortchanged of governmental services, and generally screwed over, for decades, and the major daily newspaper in the city is partly at fault, because it has assaulted the area with what might be charitably described as unintentional contempt. I don't really know what internal dynamic leads the city's largest paper to so drastically distort city news. I do know that covering flea farts near Sea Cliff as 7.2 earthquakes, and treating the Bayview as a land full of incomprehensible wogs who don't know enough to get in out of the cyclone, is no formula for journalistic excellence.