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.


Slava is right that Nathan Ballard is either misinformed or being disingenuous when he obliquely refers to Proposition K as seeking to "legalize sex trafficking."

Possibly Ballard picked up the terminology from unscrupulous opponents of the measure who will apparently say almost anything to distract voters from the fact that they are defending the practice of SF authorities spending millions of dollars a year to prosecute people for completely consensual private sex, at a time when the city has a budget crisis, a record homicide rate, a huge backlog of streets that need paving, etc., etc.

Nevertheless, I agree with the Chronicle's dropping of the term "progressive." The adjective obviously derives from, "progress," which is a very subjective term. Every political faction will tell you that what they stands for represents "progress," but that doesn't necessarily make it objectively true!

Also, one of the original meanings of the term "progressive" was "pro-development." I recall for instance seeing an old newspaper article from 1800s San Francisco which referred to a citizen group seeking to extend Polk Street northward to the Bay as "progressives." Today, by contrast, most self-identified "progressives" tend to be rather hostile to development.

On the other hand, "liberal" is also a poor term to describe people on the political left, because in most of the world outside the United States, "liberal" is used to refer to a support for less government intervention in the economy.

"Leftist" is an OK term because it's neutral, and has a more universally accepted definition, but "left" and "right" have become so muddled over time that it's no longer as informative as it was back in the days of the French Revolution.

Better would be just to say whether a person favors more individual liberty, or more government control in a particular area of public policy. The terms "libertarian" and "statist" accurately describe those positions, but often a politician will have libertarian views in some areas and statist views in others. This is probably true of most leftists in San Francisco. So those terms should be applied with caution when used to describe a person's overall philosophy of government.

Posted by Starchild on Aug. 26, 2008 @ 4:08 pm

Hey Burke, it has been the progressives which have tried to drag the SFPD kicking and screaming into the light of day so that civilian authority might manage that dysfunctional department and keep us safe. There is nothing left or right about public safety, except that the POA is so corrupt and the "moderate" politicians who are in thrall to them so timid that somehow, foot patrols have been made controversial.

Motorists are currently killing the planet, not to mention cyclists and peds, for their convenience. What to do with people who are causing serial damage yet refuse to take personal responsibility for their destructive conduct and blame those who point out that they are literally driving us all off of an ecological cliff? Does the notion of 125F summer temperatures and the cost of cooling to livability appeal to you? But, yeah, its the bicycle's fault.

Apparently, only Honduran teenagers are made to take responsibility for their actions.

As far as the Department of City Planning goes, the lead planners simply lie to citizens and demonstrate nothing short of contempt for us. Visit 3d and King, a precursor of Planning's view for the Eastern Neighborhoods some warm evening and tell me that they've created a vibrant neighborhood. What they've created is a luxury ghetto where the streets are not used for walking rather for autos. That is no improvement over a vacant lot by my estimation.

MUNI, on the other hand, put forth a staff-initiated plan that was as ambitious as it was detached from reality. Faced with public feedback, staff Did The Right Thing and tempered their plan, producing something that has a good chance of seeing the light of day and moving towards a faster, more efficient MUNI.

Planning, not so right thing.

In a one party town, the Republicans have all joined the Democrat Party and become moderates, willing to tolerate social liberalism up to a point, but the moment that economics becomes involved, local Democrat moderates abandon their own party's platform and jump towards the "free market" ideology typical of the Republicans, an ideology, like all ideologies, left and right, that is being relegated to the dustbin of history by its own internal contradictions.

Sometimes problems are best solved by the private sector, sometimes by the public sector and sometimes by a partnership. Those whose ideology forces them to either extreme are the problem, as the are not willing or able to pragmatically consider the best approach to solve the problem at hand. Add to that the use of City government as a trampoline for higher office, and the delivery of service takes a back seat to the kind of corruption required to translate city spending into political chits.

Now, even though you've paid your property taxes, you'd better get out and clean in front of your house because the DPW, run by the "moderate" Mayor, not the "far left" supervisors, can't be bothered.


Posted by marc salomon on Aug. 27, 2008 @ 3:43 am

On the progressive side, IN GENERAL, if you came of political age before the fall of the Berlin Wall and had any sort of radical critique, you tended to be a leftist. If you came of age politically around the fall of the Soviet Union, then one tends to be an anarchist.

I don't see anyone organize to abolish private property, nor do I see any vanguard political parties being promoted.

What I do see are San Franciscans successfully organizing to win political office and the immense pain this causes the people who think they own this city and who profoundly detest those of us who live here.

There are leftists within the progressive coalition, but they usually lose. Just like the mainstream media showed the wing nuts trying to levitate the Denver Mint wearing spooky 1960s hippy costumes, the Chronicle can be counted on to marginalize San Franciscans using typical Hearstian techniques.

San Francisco needs a progressive daily newspaper.


Posted by marc salomon on Aug. 26, 2008 @ 5:07 pm

why not adopt the European usage of center-left, far-left, centrist, center right, far-right. These, I think are more meaningful to most people and allow for the continuum that has developed in the US 2 party system.

Posted by sfsoma on Aug. 26, 2008 @ 10:16 pm

Marc Salomon's comments are interesting but a bit confused. As far as I can tell it is the progressive's who detest the people who live here. They are the ones who hate cars (instead prefering the 2% of the people who bike to work) and, of course, any attempt to improve the City (that evil trend they call gentrification) is immediately opposed. And of course their opponents are all yuppies or NIMBY's or some such nasty thing -- just because people want the city to focus on things like crime and the muni and rather than what we put in our garbage cans. Though I am sure, things seem different at the pot club, the fact is that it is Marc who is the hater.

Posted by SFBurke on Aug. 26, 2008 @ 8:56 pm

This made me go downstairs to buy Grape-Nuts.

Posted by Brock on Aug. 26, 2008 @ 5:29 pm

Haha SF IS Ultra-Liberal!! And proud of it!

Posted by SF Young Lady on Aug. 27, 2008 @ 1:26 pm

I cannot believe the misinformation going around about Proposition K. This measure will not "legalize sex trafficking." "Orwelling double speak" involves lying, like when the mayor's office insists that they care about the issue of sex trafficking, when there hasn't been a single prosecution for sex trafficking in the past two years. It is our side that actually cares about the issue of trafficking. Places that have legalized prostitution have had a better track record in dealing with trafficking because clients and sex workers are not scared to go to the authorities when they see evidence of it.

Posted by slava on Aug. 26, 2008 @ 3:26 pm