Express Stumbles When They Borrow From Chronicle

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Wednesday March 18, 2009 - 06:16:00 PM

For some time now, I’ve been commenting on the methods used by my good friend, Chris Thompson, in writing items for the Seven Days column and the 92510 blog of the East Bay Express. In case you missed it, I pointed out how Mr. Thompson didn’t actually attend the events or meetings he wrote about in these blogs and columns, but would simply take accounts of these events from other stories posted online, and then write them up as items adding his own interpretive spin. It’s a spectacularly bad form of “journalism,” if it even qualifies to be considered as journalism, even more so when Mr. Thompson made outright errors in fact, as he once in a while did. 

Anyways, I have now been informed that I should probably cease and desist making any more comments about Mr. Thompson’s journalistic practices. But I’ll get to that in a second. 

Last Feb. 18, in a Seven Days column entitled “BART Cop Craziness,” Mr. Thompson wrote, in part, about a chaotic Feb. 12 BART Board of Directors meeting that was taken over, for a time, by protesters upset about BART’s actions, or inactions, following the death of Oscar Grant. Mr. Thompson, who was not at the BART meeting, wrote that “Oakland City Councilwoman and impulse-control-impaired poster child Desley Brooks led a mob into a meeting of the BART board of directors, where they shouted and screamed and generally raised hell over l’affaire Grant.” 

I attended the Feb. 12 meeting and wrote a story on it for the Daily Planet. Rachel Gordon of the Chronicle also attended and wrote a story the following day (“Board Meeting Challenged By Storm Of Protests”) from which Mr. Thompson apparently drew his own story, since many of the phrases and descriptions included in the Gordon and Thompson stories were almost identical. 

With two distinct exceptions. 

Ms. Gordon did not describe the citizens who protested at the meeting a “mob,” but only as a “crowd.” And nowhere in her report did Ms. Gordon say, even directly or by implication, that Ms. Brooks “led” anyone either into or during the meeting. In fact, she did not. The bulk of the protesters were members of the Committee Against Police Executions (CAPE) and the Bay Area Black Panther Alliance. Ms. Brooks attended the BART meeting officially representing the Black Elected Officials and Faith Based Leaders of the East Bay organization, on behalf of whom she spoke and delivered a letter to the BART Board of Directors. 

Why would Mr. Thompson embellish his story about the BART meeting in such a way as to make Ms. Brooks into a mob leader? Damned if I know, other than the fact that Ms. Brooks is a favorite target of many local journalists, and it is part of the pack mentality of so much of our journalism that once one dog takes off after someone, the rest of the pack must go howling and galloping after them, without bothering to first justify why. 

In any event, it would seem that the lack of corroboration in Ms. Gordon’s account of the BART meeting would appear to make Mr. Thompson’s characterization of Ms. Brooks’ actions libelous. Someone at the Express seemed to think so, because on March 11, the paper printed the following correction: “In our Feb. 18 Seven Days column, ‘Bart Cop Craziness,’ and in the Feb. 13 blog post on which it was based, we erroneously wrote that Oakland City Councilwoman Desley Brooks led a mob of angry people as they took over a meeting of the BART board of directors. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, upon whose account our description relied, Brooks attended the meeting and argued with BART director Joel Keller, during which several members of the audience briefly charged Keller. But there is no evidence to suggest that Brooks was responsible for the crowd’s actions.” 

There was no reason given why it took the Express almost a month to make the correction, including any mention that Ms. Brooks currently has a civil lawsuit in California Superior Court against the San Francisco Chronicle and their East Bay columnist, Chip Johnson, over Ms. Brooks’ contention that Mr. Johnson printed libelous statements about her in one of his columns. 

One would hope that this whole affair would have served to make our friends at the Express re-evaluate the manner in which their reporters riff on stories originally printed in other papers. Unfortunately, that would mean giving up one of their most favorite targets, Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums, and in a March 9 article by Bob Gammon called “Dellums Aide Caught Up in Chauncey Bailey Case,” we have the following about the events leading up to the 2007 assassination of the Oakland journalist Mr. Bailey: 

“[A story by San Francisco Chronicle reporter Jaxon Van Derbeken] reveals the role Barbara Lee’s office played in the dispute between [Yusuf] Bey IV and Saleem Bey [over control of Your Black Muslim Bakery],” Mr. Gammon writes. “Lee’s office sided with Bey IV at least twice, thereby allowing him to win the internal battle between to the two factions, and apparently emboldening him to go after Bailey. First, Leslie Littleton, a then aide to Lee, wrote a letter on behalf of Bey IV that was hand delivered to the federal bankruptcy judge overseeing the bakery’s finances and Bey IV’s handling of them. The letter effectively refuted Saleem Bey’s allegations that Bey IV was responsible for the bakery’s problems and should be replaced. Littleton then refused to even listen to Saleem Bey’s complaints about Bey IV, including what turned out to be accurate accounts of Bey IV’s many alleged illegal activities. Because of Littleton, Bey IV’s grip on the bakery tightened and Saleem Bey’s efforts to wrest control were stymied. After the two factions’ last meeting with Littleton, Bey IV came away the winner in the internal bakery war, and Saleem Bey, the loser. Two days later, Bailey was brazenly assassinated in broad daylight on a downtown Oakland street.” 

Mr. Gammon’s recreation of the Chronicle story appears to draw the conclusion that by siding with Mr. Bey IV, Ms. Littleton, who was later hired by Mr. Dellums as his deputy chief of staff, was responsible for the events that led to Mr. Bailey’s death. 

But is that what was said in the original Van Derbeken Chronicle article, from which Mr. Gammon draws his analysis? To put it bluntly, no. 

In the March 8 article “Bakery’s Power Struggle Swept Up Journalist,” Mr. Van Derbeken writes that according to Ms. Littleton, Mr. Bey IV and “an entourage of bakery followers” showed up at Ms. Lee’s the day before a Bankruptcy Court hearing on the Your Black Muslim Bakery case, asking for “a letter of support for the bakery from Lee.” Ms. Littleton wrote the letter over the Congressmember’s signature, not to the bankruptcy judge but to the Internal Revenue Service, a bakery creditor in the bankruptcy action, asking the IRS to delay a demand for $250,000 in back taxes so that Mr. Bey IV could “present a reasonable strategy for fulfilling his financial obligations.” According to the Chronicle story, it was another Lee staffer, Sandra Andrews, not Ms. Littlejohn, who took the Littlejohn letter to the bankruptcy judge and not the IRS, where it was supposed to go. Ms. Andrews is quoted in the Chronicle article as saying that Mr. Bey IV was “like a son” to her. 

Why did Mr. Gammon slough over the way the letter got to the bankruptcy judge, making it look like Ms. Littleton was responsible for interceding with the judge, rather than Ms. Andrews? We’ll get to that in a second. 

According to Mr. Gammon, as you remember from the above account, Saleem Bey and Mr. Bey IV, leaders of opposing factions fighting over control of Your Black Muslim Bakery, met several times with Ms. Littleton after the bankruptcy court letter trying to get Ms. Lee’s support for their respective sides. “Because of Littleton,” Mr. Gammon concluded, basing that conclusion on the Chronicle article, “Bey IV’s grip on the bakery tightened and Saleem Bey’s efforts to wrest control were stymied. After the two factions’ last meeting with Littleton, Bey IV came away the winner in the internal bakery war, and Saleem Bey, the loser.  

But that’s not the conclusion one gets from reading the original article. Mr. Van Derberken wrote that Littleton said that “a couple of days after the [bankruptcy] hearing, Bey IV returned uninvited to Lee’s office asking for another endorsement for the bakery. This time, however, Littleton told him there would be no more letters.” After Saleem Bey saw the Littleton-Lee letter at the bankruptcy hearing and tried to get Ms. Lee’s office to take his side in the dispute, Mr. Van Derberken continued that “over the next two weeks, Saleem Bey continued to call Lee’s office about Bey IV’s alleged wrongdoing, and Bey IV and his entourage showed up at the office several times, creating disruptions each time, Littleton told prosecutors [in the Bailey murder case]. Littleton decided she had had enough. She told prosecutors that she had called a meeting with Bey IV and Saleem Bey, both to try to get them to patch up their differences and to tell them that Lee’s office ‘would no longer be involved in this issue.’” 

While Mr. Van Derberken’s story says that according to Ms. Littleton, Saleem Bey seemed dissatisfied with Ms. Lee’s office’s decision to back out of the power struggle and Mr. Bey IV appeared satisfied, it would not appear to be a fair conclusion based upon the Van Derberken story, as Mr. Gammon concludes, that “because of Littleton, Bey IV’s grip on the bakery tightened and Saleem Bey’s efforts to wrest control were stymied.” Or, further, that because of Ms. Littleton’s actions, Chauncey Bailey was killed. 

But why does Mr. Gammon appear to be weighing the scales so much against Ms. Littleton? The answer appears in the final paragraph of Mr. Gammon’s article, in which he writes “Incredibly, Dellums then hired Littleton to be his deputy chief of staff. Jesus. Any woman who defends a thug like Bey IV, and refuses to even listen to legitimate complaints, has no business being anywhere near public office. Sources have told the Express that Littleton was hired to actually be the de facto chief of staff to the mayor’s wife, Cynthia Dellums, whom many consider Oakland’s second mayor. Nice.” 

And so all of this straining and sifting of the original Van Derberken article by Mr. Gammon—normally such a careful and insightful investigative reporter—appears to be a way of getting at a favorite East Bay Express target, Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums, giving the impression that Mr. Dellums has somehow got the blood of Chauncey Bailey transferred to his hands. That’s a right pitiful effort on Mr. Gammon’s part, as they say back South, and my good friend can do better than that. 

Oh, and that thing about why I should cease and desist making any more comments about Mr. Thompson’s journalistic practices? That’s because Mr. Thompson doesn’t seem to be practicing journalism at the Express any more. His name no longer appears as a contributor on the masthead, and the Desley Brooks/BART column appears to have been his last entry.