Investigation Clears Examiner Editorial Page

of ‘Horse Trading’

Commentary by John McManus

Retired federal Judge Charles B. Renfrew has completed his investigation of whether  former San Francisco Examiner Publisher Tim White offered or provided favorable treatment to Mayor Willie Brown in exchange for Brown’s support of Hearst’s purchase of the Chronicle 

Mr. Renfrew concluded that no real offer was made or acted upon.

News reports are available from the Chronicle and the Examiner. So far, the Hearst Corporation has only made an executive summary of the Renfrew report public.

I sincerely hope Mr. Renfrew’s findings are true. The stakes are high. Hearst now controls Northern California’s largest newspaper. The company’s ethics will affect us all.

Grade the News’ analysis of Examiner editorial pages for two months before and two months after the lunch at which Publisher White testified he made the offer of editorial favoritism found a “subtle, but troubling shift” toward Mr. Brown after the August 30 lunch. The analysis did not, however, find an unambiguous bias toward the mayor.

The Hearst Corporation made the proper response, launching an apparently independent investigation. Its conclusions would gain credibility if the Renfrew report were released in full. They may need it. Judge Renfrew’s conclusion contradicts both the sworn testimony of then Publisher White and the statement of the judge at that trial, Vaughn Walker, that Mr. White seemed more truthful than Hearst executives who denied there was an offer.

Publication of the full report, however, will not completely settle the question. Here’s why.

Even with a court’s full power to compel witnesses to testify and to threaten perjury should their self-interest corrupt that testimony, cases in which one must prove someone’s intention are inherently difficult. We simply don’t know what was in Mr. White’s mind when he spoke to Mayor Brown.

Similarly, proving that Mr. White acted on his statement to the mayor is difficult. Abuse of power is almost always cloaked. Had the publisher told  his editorial writers to go easy on Mr. Brown to keep him from interfering with Hearst business interests, he would have faced journalistic protest. Any effective intervention on his part would have been subtle.

But this was not a trial, but a private investigation. There were no subpoenas. (In fact, Mayor Brown refused to testify.) There was no threat of perjury.

It is overwhelmingly in the self-interest of  Mr. White and the two other parties at the lunch--the mayor and Executive Editor Phil Bronstein--to claim the intent was merely jest. It gets the journalists off a hook sharp enough to puncture their careers. Mr. Brown avoids evidence of strong-arming the press (and U.S. Justice Department) just before a mayoral election.

Somewhat similarly, any Examiner editorial writer who testified to suspicions of his/er superiors would have to be either very brave, very foolhardy, or about to leave San Francisco journalism (or perhaps any corporate journalism). From now on, Hearst will sign everyone’s paycheck.

The only way to erase the stigma of this episode is for Hearst to build a powerhouse newspaper in San Francisco that practices the highest ethical standards. It now has the staff to do just that. 

We wish them well.