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Skin-deep journalism

The Chronicle covers "Porn 101."
(Chronicle photo by Kurt Rogers.)

So I'm reading the new Chronicle feature "Skin," attracted by the photo of a man pointing a video camera into the lap of a bosomous corn-rowed blonde wearing a nose stud and apparently nothing else.

All three -- blonde, cameraman and camera -- are udderly engrossed in events unfolding there.

Headlined "Porn 101 -- A beginner's class sheds light on a low-budget, down-and-dirty industry thriving behind closed doors" (red ink in the original), it describes a day in the life of a New York "porn producer" in town to film "Crack Whores of the Tenderloin."

At 3,078 words, this is the longest story in Wednesday's Chronicle. Sexually suggestive photos have been a front-page story lately -- a national embarrassment over the actions of American prison guards in Iraq. But this story appears in the Datebook section and seems completely unaware of the new context of pornography.

Reporter John Koopman has signed up for a class at the Park Hyatt Hotel about how to make a porn movie. Perhaps for extra credit, he spends the following day with the film director, taking us along, chronicling the ins and outs you might expect in this line of work.

At one point a crisis of journalism ethics erupts. An actress runs low on "lube" and reporter Koopman is asked to fetch another tube at the drug store.

"Er. Uh," he writes. "I'm thinking about journalistic objectivity. Does this compromise my work as a reporter?"

Maybe it's a joke.

Mr. Koopman risked his life embedded with the Fourth Marine Regiment as they stormed through Iraq last April. In a flak jacket, he covered the most important national story of the year. Now he's writing the biggest story in the paper illuminating how "Crack Whores of the Tenderloin" is made. And he's fretting about a nicety of journalism ethics?

The only ethic operating here is selling newspapers the way a Barbary Coast sidewalk barker might sell a peep show.

John McManus

You might argue that porn objectifies women (and men) and thus a story is justified. Or, were the porn industry returning to San Francisco, that would be a legitimate business story. Certainly the prevalence of HIV in the industry is worth reporting. Or how the industry may take advantage of desperate or strung-out young men and women, or the coarsening of a society that supports such an industry. Or how playing such roles affects actors' family lives. Or...

There are more legitimate angles to this story than coital positions. But none are taken.

There is a fig leaf of information about recent HIV infections in the Southern California porn industry, but this episode of the Chronicle's "Skin" feature was reported before that broke. We learn only that cast members of "Crackhouse Whores" have been tested and go "bare back."

If you slow down and analyze the story, you'll find every clause in the headline unsupported or contradicted:

So what is it?

The journalistic justification for "Porn 101" is skimpier than a G-string.

Although the Chronicle's Newspapers in Education department may be embarrassed about using Wednesday's issue to encourage school children to read, the article isn't pornographic. Merely titillating.

"The women remove their tops," Mr. Koopman writes, "then get naked. The actresses get into it. There is genuine passion, or they're very good at faking it. They lick and kiss and put on a full lesbian sex show."

Journalism's fundamental purpose is to help the public orient itself to reality, to make what's important interesting. Those standards are stricter on the front page than in a feature section like "Datebook." But it's still a newspaper.

You might expect Datebook to be about culture, arts and entertainment. Theater, television and music reviews. How artists interpret society. What's funny or clever. Even the fermentation of grapes (part 29 of the Chronicle's 39-part series on winemaking ran Wednesday).

But Mr. Koopman offers no comment on the merits of "Crack Whores." No "Little Man" snoozing or clapping. The article doesn't describe a trend or signal happening in the world of art, or erotic art. We don't even learn when or where "Crack Whores" opens. Nor is there any insight into why actors and actresses do it, save Dino Bravo's assertion: "...it's simple. Someone offers me a certain amount of money for me to be in a scene. I make the scene. I take my money. Simple."

We do learn of producer Gallant, "He uses real people." And of the cast, "The breasts are real. The tattoos are real. Some women have armpit hair."

Last year Chronicle Executive Editor Phil Bronstein spoke to journalism students at Stanford. He complained that no matter how good the paper has become, it couldn't shed its reputation as the "Comical."

Go figure!

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