By Steven T. Jones
Why is the Chronicle having such a hard time understanding this Critical Mass incident? In my televised discussion with four Chron reporters last night (City Desk NewsHour, Comcast Ch. 11, replaying tonight at 8:30 and Saturday and Sunday nights as well...sorry, not Internet availability) and in today's Chron story, they just can't seem to grasp the meaning of one key fact or smell-test their original version of the story. Here's the key fact, from today's story: "After finding herself in the middle of the ride, she said, she nervously made her way through the bicyclists, carefully watching them." Translation: she used her SUV to nudge her way through a group of bikes. That's not legal, it's not safe, and it's why the bicyclists became upset. Hell, she even admits that her car made contact with a bike, and still she kept driving.
2nd Anniversary flyer illustration by Jim Swanson
Instead of simply admitting that the irresponsible first version of their story wasn't true, the Chron trots out an academic who talks about how eyewitnesses can have different views of the same incident. It would have been better to consult a behavioral sociologist and psychologist and ask these questions: Is it a likely scenario for a group of bicyclists to simply attack a family unprovoked? And is it possible that a woman surrounded by bicyclists in a crowded commercial district would so fear for her family's safety that she'd feel a need to immediately flee the scene? Or is it more likely that she was frustrated and indignant about getting caught behind a cluster of bikes?
I honestly don't know what's going with the Chron over this issue, but I have a few guesses. For one thing, the vote on Healthy Saturdays is coming up, the Chron is generally hostile to the idea, and they'd like to discredit the bicycling community. Feeding this theory is the fact, reported by Bike Coalition director Leah Shahum, that Phil Matier (co-author of the first piece) called her before Critical Mass fishing for information about whether she thought there would be disruptions or other problems at the event, to which she said she had no idea. That seems a little suspicious, like the paper was looking to do a hit on Critical Mass.
But I think a more likely scenario is that every Chron reporter and editor I know drives a car around town. They don't understand or sympathize with bicyclists or other users of alternative transportation. And they certainly don't support social protests like Critical Mass or anti-war marches, which the paper has also treated with a sort of condescending disdain. On the more macro level, the Chron circulation figures show the vast majority of their readers are outside San Francisco and that has translated into a suburban sensibility at a paper that still claims to represent San Francisco. Often, they just don't understand where San Franciscans are coming from. In other words, as the jailer told Cool Hand Luke, what we have here is a failure to communicate.