Sunday, September 9, 2012

Reich Should Stick to the Economy

     I've long admired Robert Reich, the former Clinton labor secretary who is now a professor of public policy at UC Berkeley. I still do, but I have some advice for him: don't teach journalism. I read his opinion piece in Sunday's Insight section of the San Francisco Chronicle in which he lambasted Republican attacks on the major league news media.
    I was with the AP when I first realized Reich was a man of integrity, a man of his word who wanted to do the right thing. I covered a labor convention in San Francisco and heard him tell the delegates that President Clinton, who spoke a day earlier, was sorry for not mentioning possible "anti-scab" laws, then the top priority of unions. I thought that took some guts because it showed that Clinton was really out of touch with the working class. My editor didn't want to use that angle It was a long time ago, but I think he might have settled for burying it. He was in a humble mumble mood the next day when a leading columnist - I think it was the late Alexander Cockburn - wrote his entire day's offering about the oversight. I note this because Reich's piece dismisses GOP assertions that the mainstream media is run bv "liberal elites." We all know that the "liberal media" is a myth, right up there with global warming. "Liberal incompetents" would be closer to the truth.
   The news media has (I use the singular for the same reason I employ it when referring to the United States) always been a liberal bastion. No harm in that. Business is a conservative field. So what? A reporter can be liberal and be unbiased, or, at least aware of bias and still write a balanced report. I think that's the way it was until around the 1970s or so when a lot of news people brought their agendas to work. 
    Reich hits particularly hard at "Rush Limbaugh and his yell-radio imitators." Believe me, folks, Rush and his bunch wouldn't have a market if the traditional news outlets had been doing their job. When Limbaugh made his debut, the news media had grown so powerful it could limit "choice" to one subject. The newspapers are no longer the only game in town and they have tons of critics on the Internet. But they still can dictate the agenda. Think not? The sheriff soap opera in San Francisco is reported to the puke point by the Chronicle - and thus everyone else in the news biz - yet five years ago the fire chief's similar troubles were kissed off in a day or so. And how did "marriage equality," a term that should cover any consenting adults, come to be limited to the debate about same sex couples?  Inquiring minds in Utah want to know. And so do a lot of cousins.
    Professor Reich, your facts just don't add up.


Tuesday, July 24, 2012

"Season of the Witch" is a Reason to Bitch

    David Talbot, son of movie actor Lyle Talbot and founder of, has written a book entitled "Season of the Witch" that chronicles the horrific history of San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s. Sounds a lot like "Philips Code" so naturally some people wondered if  I knew Talbot. The two books deal with the same time frame, but that's about all they have in common. My book makes no claim to being a history. It's a critique of the news media, one I hope was done in an entertaining way.  I tried to contact David Talbot  several times, but to no avail. Even his underlings did not return my messages, which led me to conclude that while the post office is "snail mail" contemporary communications methods are often "fail mail." I met David Talbot only once. That was more than a decade ago when I interviewed his father who lived in San Francisco, resulting in one of those "you-know-his-face-but-not-his-name" stories. Later, I wrote Lyle Talbot's obituary. His son's book is subtitled "Enchantment, Terror and Deliverance in the City of Love," which I think should be changed to "San Francisco History for Dummies." If you are not a native of San Francisco - and Talbot isn't -  "Season" is a good place to start your education.

   The book recounts a terrible time that saw the Zebra killings, the Symbionese Liberartion Army  (SLA), the mass suicide by the Peoples Temple followers of Jim Jones, the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. etc., etc., etc.  If the sources listed in the back are any indication, the author did gumshoe work during his research. However, he seldom cites a source in the text, which can be jarring when he writes about something or someone the reader knows. For instance, he said Tom Cahill, San Francisco's police chief at the time, "urged fathers to use the rod on their children - and their wives." Talbot fails to note where that information came from. I knew Tom Cahill. A friend of my wife's family, he was at my wedding at Star of the Sea in 1962, and, of course, we connected during my work at UPI. I can't think of anyone less likely to beat his wife. I concede Cahill may have made a remark in jest, but if so the information should have been clarified. The book also mentions - barely -  "sociologist Todd Gitlin" for observing that the SLA was the graveyard of the 1960s New Left. It fails, however, to note that Gitlin, one time president of the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society, but known to many as Shit Disturbing Students), wrote the powerful book, "The Whole World is Watching," which postulates that mass media is the incubator for radical movements, a theory proven almost every day. For example, any protest that drew four "occupiers" was good for some coverage while 35,000 anti-abortion protesters marching on the San Francisco waterfront were virtually ignored.

    I wish Talbot had gone more deeply into how the news media shaped San Francisco's reputation and clout during this time, which is what I  tried to do.  He quoted Herb Caen and some local reporters, but did not go in to how AP and UPI, which both had well-staffed bureaus in San Francisco, carried the city's story to the rest of the nation. After all, this was a time when newspapers were just about the only game in town. They were powerful enough to support two major wire services, unlike the moribund empress dowagers newspapers are today, a description that could apply to San Francisco itself.
    The author describes San Francisco Examiner Guy Wright as a "conservative," an adjective that's a kiss of death from Talbot. Wright, he said, "sounded" like killer Dan White "himself" when, after the assassinations of Moscone and Milk, Wright told his readers San Francisco had become "aberration city ... a city without a norm." If Wright left a journalistic legacy it was not this. It was his lone wolf crusade to show that fire department recruitment standards were lowered to the point "that skin color and gender will count for everything and ability for next to nothing."  A few years later the fire department would be devastated by the so-called "swastika incident," which was a pure fabrication aided and abetted by the Chronicle and the wire services. Then there's the Zebra killings, which saw whites killed for no other reason than their skin color. Talbot writes that the killings that went into double figures "faded" from the city's collective memory. How does something that terrible "fade" unless it is allowed to do so?
      Also unnoticed is the role Ramparts, the muckraking San Francisco-based magazine, had in shaping San Francisco into an outpost of radical change. (See earlier posting) Warren Hinckle, the power behind Ramparts, is noted but once. The book reports that Diane Feinstein tried to dump a drink on Hinckle, an amusing incident that was news to me. I find the omission of Hinckle strange because Catholics seem to be favorite targets of both men.

      Talbot blasts the "old boy" network of Irish and Italian Catholics he said ran the city (strange that one never sees terms like "new boy" or "old girl"), forgetting that the likes of Mayors George Christopher or Elmer Robinson hardly fell into either of those camps. The police department was a bastion of a "rosary and billy club culture," he said. Talbot concedes that the Irish values were "family oriented" but says it's a good thing they were replaced by today's San Francisco values of "live and let live." He postulates that San Francisco was healed from its time of terror by "learning how to take care of its sick and dying," a reference to AIDs. He should have talked to someone old enough to recall a time when "Catholic values" helped bring about a string of emergency hospitals throughout the city, emergency hospitals that did not charge. Even the ambulance service was free.

     For all the ranting against Catholics, there is only one person in the book who strikes me as someone I wish I had known and  he was Catholic: John Barbagelata, Moscone's main political rival. Barbagelata knew of Moscone's sexual escapades but refused to use the information. "Barbagelata was old school, and he believed you don't do certain things to another man's family, no matter how passionate the feud," Talbot writes. Sounds like good values to me - even if they might be Catholic or conservative.




Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Chen Story: A lesson in Oz reporting


   Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng finally got out of China. Looks as though he will be attending New York University Law School. I hope he finds time to lecture at the Columbia School of Journalism.

   I read today's New York Times report about  Chen's arrival in New York. Quite long. I had to read all the way to the last paragraph to find out his protests were about forced abortions and forced sterilizations. I already knew this, but only because I had searched the Internet for background when I read earlier stories or heard news reports about him on television.

   The Chen story is a fine example of  the journalism courses taught at the University of Oz where the first rule is "pay no attention to the man behind the curtain."

    The Times report described Chen as a "blind legal advocate." Does that mean he wants the law to be blind? I read earlier news accounts that labeled him a "blind dissident." For a long time I thought he was protesting for more guide dogs or a Chinese version of the ADA.

    The major league media weren't the only opinion makers to dance around abortion and sterilization when writing about Chen. Susan Ariel Aasronson, a prof at George Washington University, was given a column in the San Francisco Chronicle. She was described as "the author of books and articles on trade, corruption, Internet freedom and human rights." She never once mentioned forced abortion in her piece headlined "China's corruption plight." She did say Chen "worked to expose government human rights abuses, including mistreatment of the disabled." That was all.
     Some will probably blame this oversight on "media's liberal bias," but we all know that is a myth - like global warming, Sure, there's a liberal bias, but that doesn't mean a reporter with backbone can't do the right thing. Besides, a "pro-choice" backer can see that this is a matter of  choice, thus making government force the issue. No. I think the problem results from quickened technology. It is just too easy to go along with whatever the omnipresent media banter dictates.

      Remember Steven Mosher? A student at Stanford University a few decades ago, Mosher exposed forced abortions in China, but the issue quickly became the quality of his scholarship.
     "Chen Guangcheng and I have been fighting the same battle for years," Mosher said in a news release in which he said he had witnessed "forced abortions, coercive sterilizations and infanticide in China." Yet, even he described Chen as a "blind, self-taught attorney" and saved the abortion reference to near the end of the news release.


Saturday, January 14, 2012

The story NOT on page 1

In just one week, three San Francisco Bay area teachers were arrested on sex abuse charges. I'm not surprised if this is news to you. I saw very little in my local papers. The latest case involved a Union City high school teacher who is accused of having sex with a 16-year-old student. The earlier cases involved a teacher and a 14-year-old. The other was a case of sexual assault by a teacher whose students include second and third graders. All in one week!!

My first reaction was "what if these people had been priests?" I bet the story would be on page one. Today the San Francisco Chronicle ran a six graf story about the latest case. Pretty short, but enough to gain 175 comment postings under the story in around six hours. Few of the comments noted the difference in coverage. That is to be expected. Please see this blog's 2007 entry on the AP teacher sex abuse series that few newspapers ran, even though it was too little and much too late.

All this is more evidence that news is what newspapers say it is. Think not? I wonder where the Occupy movement would be if the MLM (Major League Media) covered it the same way it covered anti-abortion marches. There's an anti-abortion demonstration coming up this month in San Francisco, an event that in the past drew 35,000 people. You didn't know? Again, I'm not surprised.