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November 14, 2001
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editor's note

The shame of Hearst

by bruce b. brugmann

WHEN JOE NEILANDS wrote our first PG&E-Raker Act scandal story in l969, he charged that the daily papers had censored out the story for decades and were largely responsible for the scandal dropping from sight. The old San Francisco Chronicle family, he said, had family connections with PG&E and had always come down on the side of PG&E and against public power. Hearst, he said, had been a strong supporter of public power but had done a mysterious reversal back in the late l920s.

To me, the Raker Act story was the biggest scandal in American history involving a city, and I was fascinated by how the local dailies could censor and/or distort the coverage of such a major story for so long.

Through the years, I would often ask daily reporters, when they missed yet another Raker Act story, if they had censored the story themselves or if their editors had. Their response: Mumble, mumble. I never once got a straight answer from anybody.

This fall, after watching the now-Hearst-owned Chronicle continue this policy of blacking out the scandal, infuriating public power advocates with the paper's steadfast refusal to cover the historic campaign, I decided to confront the Hearst organization with some questions they could no longer duck. I launched a guerrilla e-mail campaign.

I started on Oct. l0, about four weeks before the election, with a note to every news executive on the Chronicle masthead, plus a batch of reporters. I tried to write a catchy e-mail head: "How can the Chronicle ever be a world class newspaper if ..." and then bored in with the point, "... it continues to black out or distort the PG&E/Raker Act scandal and now, in the midst of the energy crisis, refuses to properly cover the local public power/solar part of the story and in particular the mud/charter initiatives to replace PG&E with public power?"

I quoted from an old Hearst San Francisco Examiner editorial of July 25, l925, which eloquently blasted PG&E and argued strongly for municipal ownership of Hetch Hetchy power. "Hetch Hetchy is the people's," I quoted the editorial as saying. "The people paid for it. Its profits and benefits ought to have remained with the people. It is wrongful and shameful to turn those profits over to Pacific Gas & Electric Company, under any excuse, instead of conserving them for the people."

I concluded with the key questions: Why did Hearst reverse its early "steadfast and eloquent" pro-public power position and impose censorship on the story, which lasts to this day? Would Hearst now reverse the censorship policy and cover the MUD election? If not, why not?

I got no answer.

As the election drew closer, and the censorship got more pronounced, I kept up a steady drumbeat of e-mails with even more specific questions. Why did David Lazarus, the Chronicle's lead energy reporter, consistently leave the local public power angle out of his reporting on the energy crisis? Why did the Chronicle have 38 business staff writers but not one assigned to this major local business story? Why did the Chronicle have a batch of business writers but not one real labor reporter? (Labor had made a historic policy shift on public power, and there were endless major labor stories as labor became a major player in a public power campaign for the first time in decades.)

Why did the two TV critics (John Carman and Tim Goodman) not go after the local angle on their beat (that AT&T, the local cable company, had contributed a total of $l50,000 of free ad time for attack ads against the MUD, while blacking out any real MUD coverage in its programming or its AT&T News Hour show)?

Why had the city hall reporters and political writers refused to cover the story properly, while at the same time kicking a competing reporter (Marie Harrison) and her paper (the San Francisco Bay View) out of the City Hall pressroom for, among other things, campaigning against PG&E and fighting to close down the poisonous PG&E plant in Hunters Point?

Why was Laurel Wellman, with her new city feature column, the only columnist on the paper to devote a full column to the issue? Why couldn't the Chronicle's investigative reporters ever, ever, ever investigate the local PG&E scandals? Why couldn't Hearst environmental reporters cover the environmental aspect of a story that started more than l00 years ago with John Muir and the Sierra Club fighting desperately to keep the city from damming Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park?

Why did the news blackout so slavishly follow the editorial line? (Hearst did not interview any of the 24 MUD candidates and endorsed strongly against both public power measures.) Was the story too boring, or too complex, or too controversial for a Hearst reporter and editor? Was the concept of a federal law mandating public power for San Francisco (the Raker Act of l9l3) and a U.S. Supreme Court decision backing it up too much for a Hearst reporter or editor to handle? Were they scared of PG&E? Why in the world could they not cover the story?

Again, no answers.

Just before the election, Hearst reached the low of the lows in its coverage. On Sunday, two days before the election, the Chron had no coverage, except a page 2 story announcing that Lazarus had been chosen as Journalist of the Year by the Society of Professional Journalists for his energy coverage in the Chronicle. The story quoted editor Phil Bronstein as saying, "We are proud and pleased that our peers have recognized the work of these Chronicle staffers as the best journalism in the Bay Area." The story omitted an illuminating fact from the SPJ press release on its annual awards contest: that a Bay Guardian reporter (Rachel Brahinsky) had been chosen as Outstanding Young Journalist in print for doing what no Hearst reporter had been able to do for decades: cover the PG&E-Raker Act scandal and then the MUD campaign.

I immediately sent another e-mail to the Chronicle, asking for an explanation and correction before the election. Again, Hearst did nothing, and I heard nothing, then or later.

The second low of the lows was on Monday, the day before the election.

The Hearst news blackout was now in full swing. There was but one line on the public power initiatives in the standard "a light turnout, so why vote tomorrow" story by Ilene Lelchuk. The big, timely PG&E story by Bernadette Tansey (the supposedly bankrupt utility's parent reported record profits) was neatly buried way, way inside beneath the fold in the business section, without a single reference to the election or the MUD. (By contrast, the new San Francisco Examiner, with a huge Dave Burgin-type headline, got the timely, front-page scoop and trumpeted it forth: "PG&E's greedy grab – profits up 300%," with a subhead that read, "Election-eve revelation may sway public-power vote.") And there was not a real story nor letter nor column nor op-ed piece on public power or the election, just an assy anti-F-and-I Tom Meyer cartoon and the standard Hearst endorsements backing up PG&E and knifing the two public power initiatives.

It was as if W.R. Hearst the original were breathing down the neck of every Hearst executive, editor, reporter, and columnist, down to the operators on the press, the drivers in their delivery trucks, and the newsies in the kiosks, making sure that no one on his payroll violated the terms of the horse-trading deal he made back in the late l920s with PG&E, via Herbert Fleishhacker and his bank, whereby he would reverse his pro-public power crusade and instead support PG&E and crusade to keep city hall safe for PG&E forevermore.

There are serious costs to this historic Hearst blackout of a big national story in a major daily that's making claims to becoming a world-class newspaper. The Associated Press, which relies on Hearst for its local news, did not carry much, so this internationally important San Francisco story had to be carried by the out-of-town press (the Sacramento Bee, the Los Angeles Times, the Mercury News, and the New York Times). The local mainstream radio and TV stations, taking their blackout leads from the Chronicle, didn't do much coverage. And the mainstream media, print and broadcast, were happy to take the big chunks of advertising money from the $2 million utility media blitz, while holding down coverage and never, ever challenging a single lie in the Big Lie campaign of the utilities.

And so the citizen campaign, already starved for funds, gasping for media oxygen, was forced to spend even more in money and energy to get its message out against the PG&E Protectionist Media.

It is now eminently clear that if Hearst had done a halfway decent job, the way any marginally credible small-town daily would have done, the way my first paper (the Lyon County Reporter) would have done in my hometown of Rock Rapids, Iowa, then the public would have understood the issue, and F and I would have won, and PG&E would have lost.

Instead, in San Francisco, media monopoly supports utility monopoly, and the people get screwed on all fronts.

This is a reflection of perhaps the biggest problem facing democracy today: if the big media don't do a minimally adequate job of covering major political issues, then big money carries the day every time.

In sum, my guerrilla e-mail campaign helped nail down the point beyond refutation: PG&E really does control the editorial and news policy of Hearst on this key local scandal story and has for generations. There really is institutional censorship at this Hearst paper. But nobody at Hearst wants to own up to it.

I will send this piece over to the Chron, by e-mail, and see if any executive, editor, or reporter has any response. Stay alert.

P.S.: The story is boring By the way, I did get one illuminating response to my e-mails. James W. Artz, the Chronicle's vice president for human resources/labor relations, e-mailed back:

"BORING. There must be some productive work to better fill your time."

I replied, "Our paper is covering the biggest scandal in American history (involving a city). What is your paper doing?"

Artz replied, "Whatever our paper is doing we aren't spending time sending e-mails to half your staff."

I shot back, "Sorry, but that is the only way most people can communicate with the Chronicle, since they are still not doing local news of any kind." I offered to send him our Clean Slate card on endorsements and keep him posted.

P.S.2: And now Hearst buries the story again Once it became clear on election night that the irregularities were piling up, Chronicle reporters did show a burst of energy (they did not bother to check out much on their own, but they did quote public power people who were blowing the whistle, and they did get some front-page attention for a couple of days, showing they could do the story if they were allowed to).

However, by the morning of Nov. l2, the final tally showed a razor-thin PG&E 533-vote victory, in an election chock-full of problems and irregularities, Hearst had reverted back to form. The Chronicle formally buried the pesky little issue, in a six-paragraph story, with no byline (it was dubbed a "Chronicle staff report"), below the fold at the bottom of the third page, Al7, in the Bay Area Section, with no real hint of any problems with the count or the election. (The Monday Examiner, by contrast, properly put the story on the front page with a decent head and text. And the S.F. Gate, which is owned by the Chronicle, even put up a better and more complete story, from the AP's Ritu Bhatnagar, than did the Chronicle in its kiss-off final story on Monday.)

Quite obviously, there is much more to report, about the election and public power and about how the battle goes on, but I doubt if you will read much about it in the Hearst Chronicle.

P.S.3: The Hearst horse-trading deal with PG&E The Hearst horse-trading deal with PG&E has perhaps been best explained in the new book The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst, by David Nasaw, who is the chair of the doctoral history program at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Nasaw writes that Hearst and his old Examiner were for 40 years promoting "full municipal ownership and control of Hetch Hetchy water and power." Hearst was opposed by the "business and banking communities, led by [Herbert] Fleishhacker, a board member of several of the transit and power trusts, who hoped to be able to privatize at least some of the Hetch Hetchy resources." Fleishhacker was also the president of the London and Paris National Bank of San Francisco and Hearst's chief source of funds on the West Coast.

Thus, Nasaw writes, "the basis for a Hearst-Fleishhacker alliance was obvious. Hearst needed Fleishhacker to sell his bonds, while the banker needed the Hearst newspapers to promote his [privatization] plans for Hetch Hetchy." Nasaw outlines the deal: Hearst got his desperately needed cash; Fleishhacker and PG&E got a Hearst reversal of policy to support PG&E and oppose Hetch Hetchy – a policy that has lasted up to this day and through this election. "No longer would the Hearst papers take an unequivocal stand for municipal ownership," Nasaw wrote, based on Hearst correspondence with John Francis Neylan, his West Coast lieutenant and publisher of the Examiner. "No longer would they employ the language and images that had been their stock in trade."

P.S.4: The Fang/Hearst synchronicity on endorsements Former Fang publisher Ted Fang used to say to me, "I am beholden to Willie Brown." And so once again the Fang family papers (the Examiner/Independent/Asian Week/Warren Hinckle column et al.) moved in lockstep for Mayor Brown, still a key PG&E ally in city hall. They all came out strong against public power (F and I) and against the proposition that they claimed would limit the mayor's powers, and they put their hitman Hinckle to work savaging public power proponents and their cause. Mother Florence has fired son Ted as publisher (for Ted being Ted, I suppose), but the Fang policies continue on.

Significantly, both the Fang-owned papers and the Hearst-owned Chronicle demonstrated once again in their identical positions and endorsements on public power, as well as their (all but one) identical endorsements on the mayor limitations props, that they are all still quite "beholden" to the mayor's horse-trading politics and policies. Hinckle chipped in with his endorsements against public power and reform in his column and in the Argonaut, the election night attack publication he put out with paid ads from the PG&E front groups and allies.

Let us remember that it was Brown who was the key political player in the classic horse-trading deal that got Hearst off the hook with the U.S. Justice Department on the issue of the sale of the Examiner and the purchase of the Chronicle (so Hearst could continue its march to monopoly), and got the Fangs a "competing" daily paper with a $66 million Hearst subsidy. Where all the horse-trading will end knows only God.

P.S.5: Where was Warren Hinckle on election night? Yes, where was Warren Hinckle on election night, Warren Hinckle the San Francisco native journalist who has never taken on PG&E and the Raker Act scandal all of his years of living and working in the city? Hinckle, the local muckraker who never rakes muck except when it can benefit Willie Brown, Jack Davis, Joe O'Donoghue, or the Fangs – or when it can work against their many enemies. Hinckle, the hit columnist who wrote with such rhetoric and relish about how on election night he could find no irregularities, just a wild bunch of public power proponents "raging against the winds of the electoral process." Hinckle wrote that I was "stomping around the basement of City Hall like some peg leg pirate who had inhaled too many poppy seeds, ranting about anthrax sabotage of the ballots and some wacko concepts about the theft of an election."

Hinckle has perfected a new journalistic form: the "I-was-there-and-I-saw-it-all-and-I-was-dreadfully-shocked-and-I'm-going-to-give-you-the-real-scoop" personal journalism. The problem for Hinckle is that he is often not there, and he often doesn't bother to check with those who were, going by the old journalistic theory that if you check the story, you might lose it.

For example, I didn't see Hinckle in City Hall on election night. And in checking around, I couldn't find anybody else who saw Hinckle in City Hall on election night. So how could he write with such authority and bombast? Where was Hinckle on election night? Do any of his editors at the Examiner know? I called over to the Examiner and put the questions to Chris Merrill, the city editor, who said he would pass them along. I also e-mailed the question to publisher Florence Fang, editor in chief C. David Burgin, executive editor Zoran Basich, managing editor Richard Defendorf, news editor Jane Montes, and P.J. Corkery, the city columnist.

The two questions: Where was Hinckle on election night? Does the Examiner have a policy about requiring reporters to make clear in their copy whether they were at an event they are describing or whether the information came secondhand and, if so, from whom?

Defendorf sent an e-mail relaying the answer from Burgin: "Hinckle was meeting secretly with the FBI at their request on election night, discussing the possibility of ultra-left-wing sabotage of the election."

I heard Hinckle was in New York, at his apartment, so I called him there and got him. No, he says, he was not in New York on election night. He was in Hawaii. And where was he the next day? "I can't remember," he said. Besides, "it's none of your damn business."

There you have it. A snapshot of how the dailies in San Francisco cover the biggest scandal in American history involving a city.



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