Extra! Hearst blacks out the word progressive


"Ultra liberal?" "Far left political factions"? In San Francisco? Hearst, Mayoral Press Secretary Nathan Ballard, and an "ultra liberal" supervisorial candidate from the Excelsior District comment on this astounding election development

By Bruce B. Brugmann

Audrey Cooper, assistant metro editor of the Chronicle/Hearst, has admitted that the Chronicle "has decided to stop using the word 'progressive' to describe the more liberal of San Francisco's political factions." (See my previous blog).

Does this mean that supporters of the Clean Energy Initiative are suddenly and unexpectedly given the derogatory terms "ultra liberal" and "far left." Does this mean Aaron Peskin and a majority of the board of supervisors? Assemblyman Mark Leno? Former PUC General manager Susan Leal? Former Mayor Art Agnos? A majority of the Democratic County Central Committee? A batch of supervisorial candidates? Labor leaders? The Sierra Club?

Here's the email Cooper sent me this afternoon responding to questions from the Bruce blog and the Guardian. Cooper, let us stipulate upfront, has one of the toughest jobs going, trying to explain why Hearst suddenly banned the word progressive in the middle of a PG&E offensive against the Clean Energy Act. More: Hearst banned the word progressive in one of the world's most progressive cities, in a city that spawned the famous progressive Hiram Johnson and his successful fight against the Southern Pacific Railroad, and on the newspaper founded by a publisher who called himself at one time a progressive and ran for mayor of New York on a platform of municipal ownership of utilities. In San Francisco, Hearst campaigned vigorously on a pro-Hetch Hetchy public power, anti-PG&E platform until he reversed himself in the late 1920s because of a PG&E loan from a PG&E-controlled bank. Hearst's pro-PG&E, anti-public power position has remained in effect to this day. (See previous Bruce blogs, Guardian stories, and David Nasaw's authoritative biography, "The Chief.")

Cooper wrote:

"Hi Bruce.
I'm Wyatt Buchanan's editor -- he passed your e-mail along to me. Sorry that it took me a day to get back to you. In general, feel free to ask anything about our coverage. I'll always answer as quickly as I can (that is, when it's an issue I have control over).

I've also sent versions of this explanation to others who have inquired. (I'm only telling you that in case you get a similar e-mail forwarded to you -- it's just easier for me to explain it the same way to everyone.)

In short, just because a label is embraced by a political group does not mean it's the best way to report a story. As you've probably noticed, we generally eschew political labels when possible. In some stories (such as the fight for the DCCC and Board of Supes), this is not as easily done. In those cases, we choose adjectives we think are as politically neutral as possible.

We decided to stop using the word 'progressive' to describe the more liberal of San Francisco's political factions because it is a politically loaded term that doesn't mean much to our readers. And while 'progressive' may be the preferred term of some politicians — and, of course, they are free to use it to describe themselves — it doesn't describe where they sit on the traditional political spectrum.

We believe using adjectives such as 'far left' and 'ultra liberal' more accurately describe city politicians and policies in that broader context.

Thanks for your time. Feel free to call me if you have any questions.


Reliable sources told us that the mayor's campaign had complained to the Chronicle about the use of the word progressive and that means Eric Jaye, who runs the Newsom's gubernatorial campaign at the same time he works for PG&E as a paid consultant to PG&E.

Cooper and Nathan Ballard, the mayor's press secretary denied this. Cooper said:

"Also, I should tell you that we did not make this change in response or after complaints from anyone in the mayor's office. The mayor's office does not dictate what words we use.

"Nobody from the mayor's office has ever contacted me about this issue as far as I can honestly remember. And I can't recall them saying anything about it over the last two weeks, either."

Ballard said:

"Personally I've never really complained to the Chronicle about this subject. It just wasn't very high on my to-do list. In fact I don't recall ever having any conversations about this topic with anyone from the Chronicle until after Heather Knight's article about the far-left takeover of the DCCC ran.

"I have to admit that I'm pleased to learn from you that the Chronicle will no longer be using the term 'progressive' to describe politicians who aren't. It always struck me as Orwellian doublespeak to describe somebody who wants to legalize sex trafficking and force lobbyists to wear badges as 'progressive.'"

Executive Editor Tim Redmond responded to Ballard:

"Well, it's true that the progressives of the early part of the century tended to be against prostitution and drugs and were prohibitionists, a description that I don't think would accurately describe, say, Aaron Peskin. But over time the term has evolved, and most progressives today are at least open to the idea that sex work should be legalized. Almost all progressives support the legalization of marijuana (and I think Mayor Newsom does, too.)

"I don't think far-left even remotely describes people like Peskin, whose economic views are pretty close to the mainstream of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. Jake McGoldrick clearly isn't 'far left.' I'm not sure even Tom Ammiano could accurately be called 'far left.'

"I say this as someone who has been called all sorts of names, including Communist, because I advocate higher taxes on the rich and government spending on social services for the poor. At one time, that was pretty much the mainstream opinion of the Democratic Party.

"So who in SF government do you really believe is 'far left?'"

Ballard responded back to Tim:

"Tim, do us all a favor and count me out of this dorm-room style debate. I never really cared that much whether the Chronicle called these guys progressives, just like I never really cared that much that CW Post calls them Grape Nuts even though they are neither grapes nor nuts."

George Avalos, a supervisorial candidate in the Excelsior District, also asked Cooper about her designation and sent us her answer and then his comment to her answer. Question: how did Avalos and other progressive candidates in other districts suddenly become "ultra left" and part of a "far left faction?"

Subject: Dude, the preferred nomenclature is . . .

Dear Audrey:

"Thank you for your reply. I was throwing in a little humor here, albeit obscure -- a reference to the Big Lebowski.

"Having said that I do believe the Chron's use of 'ultra left' and 'far left' is completely biased. After all, who's the arbiter here about what 'ultra left' and 'far left are?' What standard are you using and where did it come from? Seems pretty made up to me. Very rarely or better yet, never do I hear progressives talk about themselves in these terms. The Chron's making it up out of whole cloth.

"It's unbelievable, that you would even try to justify your use of this language.

"Lastly, if any term is completely meaningless it's 'moderate.' I don't recall there being a moderate political movement or ideology. A Classical Greek philosophy maybe, but not a political movement like the Progressive Movement. Progressives established labor laws, the women's right to vote and regulations of our workplaces and food production.

I don't believe Moderates can claim any such movement or transformation of our government institutions. If there's something they can champion it's ameliorating the effects of change or fighting against perennial progressive issues such as single payer health care, taxing high profits and rent control.

Thank you for your response. I really appreciate your sharing with me the Chronicle's rationale, however shakey it may be.


John Avalos"

B3 sums up this historic announcement:

So there you have it: a timely snapshot of Hearst double standard ethics: Let Willie Brown do a featured political column on Sunday without disclosing that he is a paid PG&E lobbyist ($200,000 last year alone). Brand all clean energy politicians opposed by PG&E as "ultra liberals" and "far left factions." And for God's sake, don't cover the election in an honest and professional manner and tell us who PG&E is buying off. (See Amanda Witherell story, "PG&E's blank check, who's the utility buying off Start with Newsom, Feinstein, and Willie Brown.") Question: so what will Hearst call the politicians who PG&E buys off? We call Willie PG&E's Secret Agent Man.

B3, who insists to Cooper he is still a Rock Rapids (Iowa) liberal, and she says she will not challenge it.