Did the Examiner Go Easy on Mayor Brown?

An analysis of four months of The San Francisco Examiner’s editorial pages shows the paper became more positive toward Mayor Willie Brown after its publisher offered the mayor more favorable coverage on August 30.

But the Examiner editorials did not give the mayor a free ride after its publisher, Tim White, offered Brown a more positive slant in exchange for the mayor’s support of the sale of the Chronicle to the Hearst Corporation.

For the hundreds of thousands of readers of the Chronicle and Examiner the journalistic ethics of the Hearst corporation--which is poised to take over the Bay Area’s largest paper--represent the key issue in the on-going anti-trust suit brought by Clint Reilly. 

Grade the News analyzed all Examiner editorials, editorial cartoons and columns on the editorial pages for two months before and two months after the Aug. 30 offer.  The results:

Taken as a whole, the evidence suggests 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.

The Examiner's position

Examiner Editorial Page Editor James Finefrock has categorically denied any interference from White or Hearst. In a letter on the editorial page of last Sunday’s Examiner, Finefrock wrote: “I don’t know what Tim White said or meant in his conversations with Willie Brown, but I do know that Tim has never asked me to go easy on Brown or anyone else on our editorial page. Nor would he have succeeded had he tried.

“Our editorial policy,” Finefrock explained, “has been, and is, to place Brown and other politicians under tough scrutiny and to write about them without fear or favor.” (See reaction to this analysis below.)

The Grade the News analysis does not necessarily contradict Finefrock. Events involving the mayor change over time. Nor is the contrast revealed in this analysis black and white.

Still, the more favorable tone on the Ex’s editorial page over such a short period raises questions. Many more news stories contained material critical of the mayor in September and October-- as the Nov. 2 mayoral election neared--than those during July and August. Thus, Examiner editorials became more favorable of Brown as the political and news climate became less so.

A contrast in tone

In July and August, the Examiner’s editorial tone was generally negative, almost snide. For example, the mayor was described as aspiring to “a second term as lord mayor of San Francisco” and having “perfected” the late Assembly Speaker Jess Unruh’s system in which money becomes the “mother’s milk of politics.” 

One Examiner political cartoon was particularly harsh.. On August 15, a caricature of Brown--diminutive body, massive head, smug smile--was drawn standing in a small spotless circle surrounded by a vast garbage dump. Clumps of garbage were labeled “SFO” and “Human Rights Commission” and “Minority Contracting”--issues city hall has been accused of mishandling. Two FBI agents were sketched looking through the garbage with a magnifying glass--signifying the Bureau’s investigation of the administration. The cartoon’s caption read: “Mr. Clean.”

After August 30, Brown was cartooned sympathetically--being pounced on by mayoral candidates Frank Jordan and Clint Reilly, who were depicted as pro wrestlers. The two negative cartoons were mild. One showed Brown and Reilly each sitting on a pile of cash criticizing the other for over-spending on the campaign. The other, on Halloween, portrayed a horrified resident opening his door to all three mayoral candidates trick-or-treating.

Even though the issues raised in the Examiner’s critical editorials in September and October were more serious than those in July and August, the Ex’s editors appeared to pull their punches after August 30.

Rather than demand that the mayor investigate allegations--reported on the Examiner’s front page--describing influence peddling at city hall, the September 22 editorial said:  “We doubt that our current mayor enjoyed reading disturbing reports by the Examiner’s Lance Williams and Chuck Finnie on attempts at secret influence peddling at city hall.” The editorial went on to downplay the problem as structural and endemic to municipal governments: “Political temptation is nothing new.”

On September 17, an editorial mentioned  the FBI’s investigation of Brown supporter and friend Charles Walker. “Walker did prison time in the 1980s for bilking city minority contracting programs. He has gotten $825,000 in set-aside contracts in the last four years--despite the initial reluctance of city staff to allow him to participate in the program.”

Of Brown himself, the editorial said, “The FBI probe is a source of uneasiness for Brown in his re-election campaign, though definitive results may be far in the future.” The editorial concluded with praise for Board of Supervisors President Tom Ammiano’s interest in reform--perhaps an implied criticism of the mayor.

On October 17, the Examiner ringingly endorsed Brown. (The Chronicle also endorsed Brown.) After praising Jordan and Reilly, it said Brown “stands head and shoulders above the other two in his force of personality, depth of experience, range of ideas and leadership potential.”

--John McManus

Examiner Editor Finefrock Responds

            In a telephone interview Editor of the Editorial Pages James Finefrock rejected the way the Grade the News’ analysis was conducted, its conclusion of a change of editorial stance toward Mayor Brown after the meeting between Brown and Examiner executives, and the notion that the pattern reported can be used as evidence of whether the Examiner bartered its editorial integrity for mayoral favor. 

            “I just think you’re engaged in the most unresponsible act here,” Finefrock said. “I just don’t buy your method. It’s not even any evidence” of a lack of integrity on the Examiner’s editorial page. “I don’t think this is an honest study. You are leaping to conclusions.”

            Finefrock said he was not convinced that the Examiner was any less critical of Mayor Brown after August 30. But if it were, he explained, “anything in the universe could have had an effect on me and the editorials.”

            Asked if the mayor had perhaps begun to act in more praiseworthy ways in September and October and thus more favorable editorials were justified, Finnefrock replied: “Around Labor Day Willie Brown cleaned up his act. He was flying under the radar screen. He was trying to clean up Muni [the municipal transportation system]. He was preparing for the campaign.”

            As the Nov. 2 mayoral election neared, he added, “it’s possible we were watching the candidates and evaluating them during the campaign with an eye towards reaching an endorsement later.”

            Finefrock insisted that it was not fair to count the period after October 17 when the Examiner endorsed Brown for mayor. “After you endorse someone, you won’t find negative comments. No newspaper [does that].”

            Finefrock also said he had not looked out for corporate interests by treating the mayor more gently on his own, independent of any guidance from the publisher.


            Editor’s Note: I did not contact Mr. Finefrock for comment until the day after the story was published on the website. Instead, I quoted Mr. Finefrock’s definitive statement in the Sunday Examiner that there had been no corporate interference in the Brown case.  I should have given Mr. Finefrock a chance to respond to the analysis itself before publication. I have apologized to Mr. Finefrock and I apologize to you.  --John McManus

Full Rebuttal from Examiner Editorial Page Editor

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