Peter's principles (or lack thereof)

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By Steven T. Jones

Before hitting the latest news of ethics problems in the mayor's office, and the brilliant segment that KGO-TV's dogged investigative reporter Dan Noyes has done to highlight them, it's important to offer some context and perspective.
Mayor Gavin Newsom imported veteran Democrat Party flack Peter Ragone to be his press secretary upon taking office three years ago. Ragone didn't really know San Francisco that well, but he seemed to understand the national political landscape and therefore became a trusted adviser to our ambitious mayor. The gay marriage move was brilliant, shoring up Newsom's support in the city's queer community and positioning him as a civil rights leader for future campaigns.

Yet along the way, Ragone seemed to forget that Newsom was the mayor of San Francisco at a time when progressives controlled the Board of Supervisors and couldn't simply be dismissed. Over and over, Ragone spun stories to reporters about the incompetence and/or malevolence of progressives or other critics of the mayor -- often attacking or belittling the journalists when they expressed skepticism -- until he had very little credibility left with any of us (something I say as someone who regularly talks with journalists from all the other major news outlets in town).

So when the SFist discovered that some posters to their site were actually coming from Ragone's computer, and Ragone avoided answering questions about it and opted to instead claim on the site that allegedly pseudonymous John Nelson was a real person, his best friend actually, who often stayed at Ragone's house during the early morning and late night hours when he posted -- most people simply assumed Ragone was lying.

I wanted to give Ragone the benefit of the doubt and asked whether I could meet John or otherwise get some verification for his existence. Ragone said no, and said, "I don't think I'd like to see my friends and family put through the wringer of San Francisco politics."

Let's examine that for a second. Supposedly, both Nelson, Ragone's wife, and another "person" in their household known as Byorn were posting regular comments on local political boards, so they were already voluntarily stepping into the wringer that Ragone wanted to spare them. I calmly explained to Ragone that given his propensity for misrepresentations to the media, and the implausibility that a middle class couple with a new baby would have a blogger buddy regularly sacked out on their couch, it was not an unreasonable request to have him somehow back up his claim. He didn't see it that way, telling me, "What's driving most of your questions is that you don't agree with certain political perspectives out there."

This is a fairly standard Ragone tactic. Whenever we do a story about something questionable the mayor has done, we're always just out to get him and hopelessly out of touch with how real San Franciscans feel. Or we're just dupes of Sup. Chris Daly. Or we're bad journalists. But in Ragone's world, there is never a legitimate story that doesn't sing the mayor's praises. If you want to hear a standard if heated exchange between the two of us, cut to the middle of this audio from Newsom's last bit of political theater. And remember, Ragone is the key aide who has long advised Newsom to ignore Prop. I and refuse to engage in a dialogue with Board of Supervisors, something he's been hammered on for the last two months by friends and critics alike. Instead of evaluating their decisions, they've instead adopted a sort of Nixonian bunker mentality and lashed out all the more strongly.

But such transparent tactics rarely work for long, particularly with veteran journalists like Noyes, who won't give up on pursuing a good story simply because Ragone is being insulting or obstructionist. Noyes, as the video referenced above shows, is more than willing to give flacks like Ragone enough rope to hang themselves. Because it's no small thing when the president of the Board of Supervisors says the mayor's communications director is unethical and should be fired. Will Newsom listen? Don't bet on it. But we're not giving up either, and I have an appointment to meet with Ragone tomorrow afternoon to discuss our differences (including my three-year-old request for Newsom to meet with the Guardian's editorial board) and all these issues. Stay tuned.

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