Editorial: Over-the-Top Chronicle Has Finally Topped Out

By Becky O'Malley
Friday April 04, 2008

Habits die hard. For almost all of my adult life, or at least as soon as the kids were old enough to fend for themselves at breakfast, I’ve enjoyed taking to my bed with a cup of coffee and the morning paper while it’s still too early to talk to anyone in a civilized way. Of necessity, we’ve stuck with the San Francisco Chronicle all these years, since we just aren’t that interested in reading a lot about Contra Costa County or San Jose. The New York Times is fine for national news, but the last time we subscribed it was delivered at 10 at night, tempting us to stay up too late reading it, and now it’s easier to read it on the Internet anyhow.  

The Chron has made my mornings go faster and faster over the years by squeezing its newshole almost dry, so that a quick reader can now suck down the whole paper in less time than it takes to drink one cup of coffee and eat one piece of toast. One could see that as a plus, perhaps.  

And furthermore, I’ve never believed that it was right to cancel subscriptions to publications just because you disagreed with something you read there. I’ve put up with a lot of Debra Saunders all these years because she’s a good writer and tells me about points of view I might otherwise miss.  

But. It finally might be the time to draw the line. The piece by Carolyn Jones on the prominent upper-left hand side of the front page of Thursday’s Chronicle was easily the worst piece of so-called journalism I’ve seen in a formerly respectable mass-circulation publication in all of my long life. Before I’d even finished my 10-minute Chron read, the Planet’s experienced City Hall reporter was calling me at home before 8 a.m., which she’s never done before, hoping fervently to be able to change her assignment for Friday’s paper so she could do a piece setting the record straight. Of course!  

The topic of the silly story?  

Here’s the headline and subhead: 



Officials say city gets sidetracked by work of 45 commissions 


Now, I know that reporters don’t write heads. So let’s look at the lead: 

Berkeley is finding that having its own foreign policy isn’t cheap. The city’s recent dustup with the U.S. Marine Corps has so far cost the city more than $200,000, while businesses say they’ve been slammed by related protests. 

“And that’s on top of the $1 million the city spends annually on domestic and foreign policy matters hatched by its 45 citizen commissions, which outnumber those in virtually every other city in America and debate everything from regime change in Iran to the plight of non-neutered dogs. 

Can’t anyone over there do math? Forty-five commissions, a million bucks—that’s about $20,000 per commission, providing the city with the unpaid labor of about 400 citizens, many of them professionals with much more experience and much better education than the overpaid city employees whose jobs they often do for them. A million dollars would pay for between five and 10 city employees, especially when salaries are burdened with the lavish pensions public employees have negotiated for themselves lately. It wasn’t citizen commissions that sunk Vallejo.  

The Planning Commission, just as one example, currently boasts architects, attorneys, Ph. D. planners and political scientists, all working for absolutely free. I’ll leave the documentation of what the other commissions actually do to our reporter, but the lazy journalism in the Chron article is breathtaking. Almost every word on the front page of the paper is conclusory rather than factual, and it doesn’t get any better on the jump.  

The silliest thing about the piece is the way it jumbles up legitimate misgivings about the cost of policing the dueling Marine protests with completely off-the-point sui generis attacks on our citizen commission system. The dig about the non-neutered dogs is particularly stupid. For Berkeley’s many pedestrians and bicyclists, roaming horny canines could present more of a problem than potholes, and of course animal lovers in every city are a vocal constituency that has to be reckoned with. 

Gordon Wozniak, District 8 councilmember, is poorly served by this sloppy piece, even though it seems that the reporter was doing her best to make him look like a hero. Wozniak was disturbed by the wording of the resolution on the Marine Recruiting Center that the council passed, or at least by the trouble it caused, and his original solution was to ask that resolutions which originate in the city’s Peace and Justice Commission get considered at two council meetings instead of the current one.  

Critics, however, countered that councilmembers should instead take responsibility for reading everything they vote on more carefully. Now Wozniak has changed his proposal to a much more sensible one, asking that city staff do a better job of posting commission information, including putting agendas, minutes and background documents on the Internet, so that both council and citizens get the facts in a timely manner before crucial votes. No one could object to that. And Wozniak never proposed getting rid of Peace and Justice, despite the Chronicle’s provocative headlines and leads to the contrary. 

The reporter also repeats, with absolutely zero documentation, the urban legend that boycotts caused by the brouhaha about the Marines cost the city of Berkeley dearly in lost revenues. Our reporter has already checked this out, as reported in previous issues of the Planet, and it just ain’t so. But the Chron piece rehashed all of the discredited reports again on Thursday, citing as Exhibit A the possibly canceled golf tournament in Tilden Park.  

One more time, for all you reporters who live in Marin but report on Berkeley: Tilden is part of the East Bay Regional Park District, far from any Berkeley commerce, and the city hasn’t lost a penny in either fees or revenues from any comings or goings of golfers there. And none of the other legends check out either. 

The new executive director of the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce, an amiable fellow who just blew into town from San Diego, once again allowed himself to be quoted knocking Berkeley in this story, again totally data-free: “We’re very concerned about the effect this is having on business.” What effect might that be?  

Well, perhaps it should be someone’s job, perhaps even the Chamber’s or the Chronicle’s, to document the relative change in property values lately between Berkeley and, for a random example, San Diego. Guess what? A whole lot of people are still eager to buy into Berkeley at top dollar, even as home prices elsewhere are dropping like rocks. This isn’t even necessarily the good news—houses here are still too expensive for many of the people we’d like to see moving to town—but it’s the truth, not idle speculation.  

And most of our commercial districts are still coining money despite the recession and certainly despite the minor fuss caused by the demonstrations. Does the reporter ever go to Fourth street, or Solano, or College Avenue, or even Telegraph? Berkeley is continuing to get plenty of revenue from commerce, despite all the whining about homeless people and peaceniks which the Chronicle delights in promoting. Our bond ratings continue to be golden. 

So we’ll miss Jon Carroll, but we’ll see him on the Internet. (I once tried to hire Jon for Pacific News Service when he was looking for work and I was an editor there, but I was overruled by a higher power who thought he was too frivolous.) Otherwise, I think it’s finally time for Berkeleyans to save a few trees and send the Chronicle a message: We’re tired of being the butt of fictitious opinion pieces mislabeled as reportage.  

I just did a quick fact-check, and found out that at our house we’re paying about 20 bucks a month for the privilege of having this dribble delivered to the porch. And here’s the beauty part: The “promotional” rate for Chronicle subscriptions is only about 10 dollars a month anyhow.  

So anyone who can’t quite give up their daily newsprint fix forever has a nifty way of making the point. Cancel now, while you’re mad, and then if your addiction gets the best of you re-upping will only cost you half as much as before. (Their number is 415-777-7000).  

You can even spend the money you save taking out supportive ads in the Planet if you’re so inclined.