Examiner Editor Offers Rebuttal

Grade the News provided Examiner Editorial Page Editor James Finefrock a list of articles cited in my analysis, and promised full posting of any response he cared to make. That response is provided below in full. At the end, Grade the News responds to several allegations and provides you the list to analyze for yourself.

Dear Mr. McManus:

On the Web site you operate (gradethenews.org), you recently published an article, “Did The Examiner Go Easy on Mayor Brown?” It reported an analysis you performed of the paper's editorial pages for two months before, and two months after, the luncheon at which Examiner Publisher Tim White, according to White's testimony in federal court, offered to cooperate with and support Mayor Willie Brown if the mayor would back the Hearst Corp.'s purchase of the San Francisco Chronicle.

“Taken as a whole,” you concluded, “the evidence suggests [that following the lunch there occurred] a subtle but troubling shift in the editorial position of the Examiner, rather than a propaganda effort in support of the mayor after White's offer.”

In a subsequent conversation with me, you said this “pattern suggests, but does not prove, that [The Examiner] sacrificed its editorial integrity.”

I believe you have no valid evidence to make either assertion.

Your methodology is an exercise in innuendo that would not be allowed in any publication that adheres to accepted research methods or journalistic principles.

Your analysis depends on this absurd premise: That any favorable editorial, cartoon or column published about Willie Brown after the Aug. 30 lunch is a potential black mark against the integrity of The Examiner.

You have absolutely no evidence that a deal was actually consummated between White and Brown, or that the “deal” was put into effect, or that anyone who works on The Examiner’s editorial pages carried out a deal - or indeed that any of us even knew of the Aug. 30 lunch or of White's professed willingness to “horse trade.”

There is no evidence of any of this because none of it is true. All this aside, there is another fundamental problem with your report. It is wildly inaccurate. It is shot through with omissions, mischaracterizations and misjudgments. The result is a total distortion of what actually appeared on The Examiner's editorial pages during that period. An honest evaluation - even according to your methodology -- shows that after the Aug. 30 lunch, The Examiner's editorial pages were actually tougher - not softer - on Mayor Brown.

Therefore, I ask you for a full retraction of your story, together with publication of this letter, on your Web site.

The extensive evidence supporting my view is presented in two sections.

First is the evidence based on the Examiner commentary that appeared before Aug. 30:

1. You rate a July 14 editorial (“She's no Betty Crocker”) as “neutral,” that is, as neither favorable nor unfavorable to the mayor. But this editorial was a strong defense of Brown, and an attack on the legal position of a person who sued Brown after she was injured in a pie-throwing assault on the mayor. Among other things, the editorial said, “Naming the mayor in this lawsuit is especially curious. What's the complaint: That he assaulted their defenseless pie with his chin?”

2. Also favorable to the mayor but completely omitted in your tally is a July 18 editorial cartoon by Mark Fiore showing Lady Justice being hit in the face with a pie, a commentary clearly taking the mayor's side.

3. You rate an Aug. 17 editorial (“Off and running”) as “neutral,” but apparently you didn’t read all the way through. The editorial concludes:

“In the waning days of the mayoral run-off four years ago, the [Frank] Jordan campaign resorted to a shoddy tactic: Placards showing an image of Willie Brown and the word "Trust.' The unspoken message clearly was: You can't trust Willie Brown. The subliminal message may have involved race or a suggestion of corruption. “That offended us, along with many other San Franciscans. The advertisement was the brainchild of consultant [Clint] Reilly. It was unfair and played on the ignorant fears of a small minority of city voters that Brown wasn't worthy of being the guardian of San Francisco’s legacy. “Such trash doesn't belong in a campaign in this city - or any other. Besides its inherent offensiveness, it just takes time away from overdue discussion of the real issues that make a daily difference in the lives of San Franciscans.” This is not a “neutral” comment on Brown, as you say, but rather a highly supportive one.

4. You rate an Aug. 19 editorial (“Shaking up the world”) as a negative comment on Brown. This rating is a mystery because the editorial is all about the general topic of earthquake preparedness keyed to a small quake near Bolinas. It's only mention of Brown is positive. It says this: “In San Francisco this time, the civic emergency response plan was given a test. According to Mayor Brown, who broadcast his appraisal live more than once, the system worked flawlessly, although there was no damage in The City. “It had better work. In a real emergency with dead and dying, it will have to.” A fair appraisal would rate this editorial as “neutral” toward Brown.

5. You rate a reprise of several different editorials on Aug. 27 as “negative.” This apparently is a second reflection of your view that the earthquake preparedness editorial was “negative” toward Brown. Again, “neutral” is the reasonable call. Now, the evidence based on the Examiner commentary that appeared following Aug. 30:

6. You rate as “positive” toward Brown a short editorial (“What's undebatable”) that appeared on Sept. 2. However, the editorial makes what can be construed as both positive and negative comments about Brown. The major point of the editorial is that mayoral debates are a good thing. A better assessment of the editorial's treatment of Brown is “neutral.”

7. You count a Sept. 2 cartoon as favorable to Brown. It shows the mayor being threatened by Reilly and Jordan, who are dressed like flamboyant professional wrestlers. It's not clear how being the object of a twin assault is “favorable” to Brown. In fact, except for its fancifulness, the cartoon is an accurate depiction of what happened at the first mayoral debate. A reasonable assessment of this cartoon is that it is “neutral” toward Brown.

8. You fail to include a Sept. 23 editorial entitled “Renne sues,” although you scold us elsewhere for failing to be hard-nosed enough about the evolving City Hall scandal. City Attorney Louise Renne is an ally of Brown's, and the purpose of the editorial was to applaud her for putting aside political considerations to advance her investigation. This editorial does not name Brown, but it is clear to any reader that he is the subject of this comment: “The investigation must proceed at its own pace, regardless of whose political fortunes are affected.” This editorial should count as unfavorable to Brown.

9. You ignore a tough Scott Winokur column on Oct. 5 entitled “Thugs, drugs and shrugs” on the inability of Tenderloin merchants to get the Brown administration to respond to problems of street crime and homelessness in their neighborhood. The column reports that Mayor Brown never showed up for a scheduled meeting with the merchants and never called to cancel. The column also reports the residents' complaints about Brown's Department of Public Works and Police Department.

10. You rate an Oct. 7 editorial (“Muni's safety promises”) as favorable to the mayor, but it is really a balanced commentary on a Muni initiative on safety. It refers to “belated mandates” and expresses skepticism about the Brown administration claims that Muni's $9 million annual cost for claims and settlements is typical of other transit systems. The editorial concludes with a wait-and-see assessment of Brown administration reforms: “Talk is cheap. We'll have to wait a year or so and then see if new safety programs reduce the number of manglings, broken hips, collisions and draggings.” I'll rate this editorial “neutral” toward Brown, but a case could easily be made that it's “negative.”

11. You rate an Oct. 13 editorial (“Cartography, S.F. style”) as “positive” toward Brown, but it was intended to goad Brown into getting tough on the use of shopping carts by the homeless, a policy he first announced and then backed off from. The editorial reminds readers that Brown hasn't succeeded in dealing with the homeless problem, has failed to provide enough city beds for the homeless and has aped the Matrix program of former Mayor Jordan (which he had derided during their mayoral race in 1995). In its last line, the editorial chides the mayor for failing to give “all that much-needed help Brown professes he's eager to provide.” This editorial is fairly treated as a negative comment on the mayor.

With these 11 alterations to your scoring, the results are reversed. Instead of showing a “subtle but troubling shift” toward favoring Willie Brown, The Examiner's editorial pages are actually tougher on him after the Aug. 30 lunch. In fact, except for the endorsement editorial, a partial reprint of that piece and one other editorial, there were no other editorials supportive of the mayor during that later period. However, there were 6 editorials unfavorable to the mayor after the Aug. 30 lunch. Here's how the new tally comes out:

Before Aug. 30: 4 positive, 2 negative and 2 neutral editorials; 1 positive and 3 negative cartoons, and 3 negative columns. After Aug. 30: 3 positive, 6 negative and 3 neutral editorials; 1 positive, 1 negative and 1 neutral cartoons, and 1 negative and 1 neutral column. (Your original scoring was: Before Aug. 30: 2 positive, 4 negative and 1 neutral editorials; 3 negative cartoons, and 3 negative columns. After Aug. 30: 6 positive, 4 negative and 1 neutral editorials; 1 positive and 2 negative cartoons, and 1 neutral column.)

In addition to outright errors, you make several other highly questionable calls.

12. You count reprints of editorials that have already appeared because, as you told me, it's what the reader sees that counts. But your “analysis” is about our intent, and a reprint is not a new publication. You count as a “positive” mention of Brown our partial reprint of the editorial endorsing the mayor's re-election, packaged on the Opinion Page along with excerpts of all our other endorsement editorials.

13. In judging our endorsement editorial of Brown's re-election, you ignore the fact that five people on the editorial board (columnist Stephanie Salter, Opinion Page Editor Lynn Myers, editorial writer Jim Heavey, Tim White and I) all independently came to the same conclusion that Brown was the best candidate. That contradicts your implicit contention that the editorial “suggests” a “deal” and a subsequent softening of editorial criticism of the mayor.

14. You fault the “tone” of our editorials after Aug. 30. You apparently believe we soft-pedaled the investigation into possible fraud in City Hall contracts. But when asked what we should have written about, you replied, “Willie Brown's influence peddling.” The only problem with that is that Brown has not been accused of influence peddling either by a prosecutor or by newspaper reports. However, plenty of other people have been trading on their purported friendships with the mayor. It pays to be precise about these things.

You seem to think that calling Willie Brown “Lord Mayor” in an editorial and saying he subscribes to the idea that money is the mother's milk of politics is tough stuff. Calling Brown “Da Mayor,” “Lord Mayor” and “King Willie” occurs often, and even affectionately. And I'd bet you could find more than one citation showing that Brown glories in his reputation as Jesse Unruh's spiritual and financial successor.

Had you been a fair and attentive reader, you might have cited the post-Aug. 30 “tone” of an editorial entitled “Snakebitten,” (Sept.. 19) venomously commenting on Mayor Brown's description of San Francisco voters as snakes. The editorial concluded: “On Election Day, how many snakes will turn out to vote? Which mayoral candidate will prove himself most deserving of the snake vote?”

15. You exclude from your review Letters to the Editor. (You might keep in mind your own maxim that it's “what the reader sees that counts.”) Too bad you missed reading, and scoring, the Sept. 26 letters attacking Brown, which were headlined “Will snakes of San Francisco bite Brown, or re-elect him?” Or, the Oct. 12 letters castigating the mayor’s attempts to deal with shopping carts possessed by the homeless (and, incidentally, referring to Brown as “King Willie.”) Or the letters on Oct. 20 that are sharply critical of the mayor.

16. With your funny bone apparently failing you, you rate an Aug. 29 column by Stephanie Salter column as “negative” to Brown, apparently because Salter jokes “she made up San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown.” Well, in the column Salter also “made up” her parents. Is the column, in your opinion, also negative toward them? Journalism demands accuracy. Mr. McManus, you made many mistakes, misjudgments and unsupported leaps of logic in your analysis of The Examiner's editorial pages. So many, in fact, that the errors falsify the point of your study. There's nothing subtle about your report, but there's much that's immensely troubling. You falsely suggest that my colleagues and I may have sacrificed our integrity. You owe us a full retraction.

James A. Finefrock, Editor of the Editorial Pages, San Francisco Examiner

GTN: I invite everyone interested to visit the library and read over the references to the mayor in the analysis period and make up their own minds. I have included the dates and material referenced--editorial, editorial cartoon, and Examiner columnist--at the end of this article to facilitate your inquiry. If you'd care to, send your analysis to Grade the News for publication. Please specify the dates you analyzed and your tallies.

In response to Mr. Finefrock’s letter I feel compelled to make a few comments. Rather than engage in a war of selective quotes, however, I’ll only respond to charges I feel demand a response:

I continue to believe the analysis was fair, accurately reported and presented in the spirit of answering what I believed to be an obvious question. If there really was a deal to give Mayor Brown more favorable editorials, examining what appeared before and after the offer in those pages would help resolve the issue.

To reiterate the conclusion of my analysis: I detected a subtle shift toward a more favorable view of the mayor. Not a smoking gun. That shift could be explained by more favorable behavior of the mayor, or other reasons than the consummation of Publisher White’s offer. In light of that offer, however, the more favorable orientation raises questions of editorial integrity that we all hope Judge Renfrew’s investigation may answer.

I can find no basis for retraction.

Here are the dates of Examiner editorial references to the mayor. Editorials are marked “E”; editorial cartoons “C”; columns by paid Examiner staffers are marked “Col.” Every sentence that referred to Mayor Brown was coded positive, neutral or negative based on whether a reasonable neutral person would tend to think more or less of him after reading it. The preponderance of statements, as well as their strength, determined whether the article was coded as having a positive, neutral or negative tone.

In July: 2 (E), 14 (E), 25 (E), 27 (E & Col).

In August: 1 (E), 5 (Col), 6 (C), 10 (C), 15 (C), 17 (E), 19 (E), 27 (E), 29 (Col).

In September: 2 (E & C), 12 (Col), 17 (E), 19 (E), 22 (E), 27 (E), 28 (C), 29 (E).

In October: 7 (E), 8 (E), 13 (E), 17 (E), 31 (E & C).

The neutrals were not reported in the original analysis, however, so here are the totals with neutrals. I'll leave the shift in tone to your judgment.

For the first two months: Editorials--2 positive, 4 negative, 2 neutral. Editorial cartoons--3 negative, no positive or neutral. Ex columnists--3 negative, no positive or neutral.

For the second two months:  Editorials--6 positive, 4 negative, 1 neutral. Editorial cartoons--1 positive, 2 negative. Ex columnists--1 neutral.

--John McManus