Public Comment

Commentary: The Pre-Election Distortions of the Chronicle, Tribune

By Paul Rockwell
Friday November 17, 2006

“The past is prologue,” wrote William Shakespeare. 

When a courageous candidate loses a fair and free election, there is a natural desire to lick wounds and forget. But unfair elections should never be forgotten. Our future depends on setting the record straight, rectifying wrongs. 

In the last week of the election in District 2 in Oakland, a series of misleading and hostile articles appeared in both the Oakland Tribune and San Francisco Chronicle. The anti-Aimee Allison columns by Heather MacDonald (Tribune) and Chip Johnson (the Chronicle) include two erroneous claims: that Allison sent out “hit pieces,” a negative mailer against Kernighan; that Allison organized a “push-poll,” a phone bank that spread negative information. Both writers, one a columnist, one a reporter, whitewash the role of the Oakland Chamber of Commerce, which defied the will of Oakland’s voters by overturning a measure establishing campaign limits. And both writers—in contradiction to the actual record—portray Kernighan as an upright, positive campaigner, while they transform Allison into the villain of dirty politics. 

The Chip Johnson column is directed against the so-called “Allison flyer.” According to Johnson, a new, little-known group called “Oaklanders for New Leadership” published a negative mailer. Johnson calls it a hit piece. Then comes the sleight of hand. In the next sentence, Johnson refers to the “Allison flyer.” Suddenly, Allison is linked to a group over which she has no control, a group completely independent from Allison’s campaign. Johnson continues to link Allison to outside groups the way McCarthyites used to link Democrats to Communists. Once the link is established, he calls Allison “the aggressor,” and charges her with dirty campaign tactics. 

In response to Allison’s denial of the charges, Johnson sneers “Uh-huh.” It’s a sleazy way of making unsubstantiated charges—that Allison is a liar, that she broke the law (it is illegal for candidates to collaborate with independent groups)—without bearing responsibility for his claims. Talk about hit-pieces! 

There are no “uh-huhs” following Kernighan’s many claims about her faithfulness to campaign ethics. The press has two different yardsticks: one for Kernighan, another for the African-American candidate.  

Johnson’s column includes a second, wild accusation, that “her campaign has run push polls, the kind made famous by Presidential advisor Karl Rove.”  

What are the facts? Allison never conducted a push poll. Such tactics contradict not only the spirit, but the actual record of her two-year campaign. The image of Allison as a negative campaigner, a hit-piece candidate, was manufactured by hostile and unethical columnists in the last days of the campaign.  

The press attacks are not only misleading, they are defamatory and can only be seen as an attempt to undermine Allison’s career and dash the hopes of young Oaklanders who became involved in civic life for the first time. 


MacDonald charges 

The same kind of charges and innuendoes appear in Heather MacDonald’s Oakland Tribune articles. Without investigating the facts, MacDonald—in the last moments of the election, when Allison is helpless to respond—associates Allison with push polls and negative literature. 

Reporters have a responsibility to check facts and demand evidence. Yet in three successive articles, one day after another, MacDonald parrots the vindictive claims by OakPAC chair Michael Colbruno and Kernighan.  



Not only are the major claims about Allison unsubstantiated, they are false, contrary to evidence that was available to both writers. Neither MacDonald or Johnson took time to look over the record of either candidate, to compare the literature. 

If we review Allison’s literature as far back as 2005, her campaign is positive, sometimes inspirational. Her pamphlets include concrete proposals for change, and the strong critique of Kernighan policy failures is reasonable and fair. In view of the homicide rate in Oakland and the failure of the City Council to deal with crime effectively; in view of Kernighan’s claim that she is a successful crime-fighter, Allison’s criticism of Kernighan’s failure of policy is reasonable, and actually long overdue.  

Contrary to both Johnson and MacDonald, it is Kernighan, not Allison, that has a documented record of dirty campaigns. Did MacDonald even review her own newspaper’s archives?  

On April 30, 2005, in the midst of Kernighan’s first campaign, the popular, respected writer Peggy Stinnett published an article entitled: “Council Candidate Takes Campaign to the Gutter.” Pretty strong language from a popular, moderate editor. The subhead reads: “Kernighan Takes the Low Road with political hit piece.” 

There were four victims of Kernighan attacks. Aimee Allison was one of them. “Kernighan’s piece disparages four of them in an outright attack.” Stinnett, unlike so many reporters who avoid the issue, comments on the racist implications of Kernighan’s literature. She wrote, “The flier tried to smear her opponents as unqualified to hold office.” 

Stinnett’s commentary on Kernighan was based on the actual literature produced by Kernighan. The columns of MacDonald and Johnson are based on wild accusations contrary to the historical record.  

Both writers also misrepresent the role and views of Mayor-elect Ron Dellums. Their articles, through a misuse of context, give the impression that Dellums’ known aversion to negative campaigning is directed at Allison. Johnson obscures the issue by blending and confusing separate issues. The reference to Dellums’ general view about campaigning in the context of Johnson’s false charges against Allison is an attempt to mislead readers into thinking that Dellums blames Allison for the breakdown of ethics under the impact of money!  

I called Dellums’ office to get the full story. According to both Deborah Ford and Mike Healey, Dellums never charged Allison with negative campaigning. He was, of course, upset that independent groups, who were not party to his negotiated truce with the Chamber, spent money beyond the limits. But Johnson puts Dellums’ views in an anti-Allison context, and the net result is that Dellums is misrepresented. 

It is not a minor error. The press in the U.S. has a long history of fomenting suspicion, pitting black leaders against each other. The Tribune and Chronicle columns smack of what Malcolm X once called “white-press journalism.” 

There is an old story, a joke about Lyndon Johnson, a crafty politician who was known for hardball politics in Texas. As the story goes, Johnson came up to his campaign manager and said, “I want you to get our reporters to put out a story that my opponent has sex with farm animals.” 

“What?!” the manager exclaimed. “The charge is false.” 

“I know that. I just want to hear him deny it.” 

The story captures the essence of the anti-Allison campaign. Allison was forced to defend herself against outrageous charges in the last two days of the contest. Her detractors in the media just wanted to hear her deny them.  

What galls me most of all about both MacDonald and Johnson is their holier-than-thou attitude. They pretend to be neutral interpreters of events, trying to clean up dirty politics. But their own hit-pieces, presented as “reporting,” are more damaging than any campaign literature.  

MacDonald and Johnson do not tell their readers that the corporations for which they write are members of the Chamber of Commerce, the organization which played the primary role bringing dirty money into the contest. Both the Tribune and the Chronicle opposed the Clean Money Initiative. Is it any wonder that Tribune and Chronicle employees whitewashed the OakPAC and the Chamber? 

Is it possible, in the present climate, to reach higher ground? Dellums’ call for a “new day in Oakland” is a great challenge for all of us. But there can be no real peace and harmony, mutual respect, until the falsehoods about Allison are retracted. Healing begins with respect for the truth. 


Paul Rockwell is an Oakland writer.