Editor's Notes

The San Francisco Chronicle has a history of firing columnists' with conflicts of interest, so why is Willie Brown an exception?

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Tredmond@sfbg.com

In 2003, after the United States invaded Iraq, a San Francisco Chronicle technology columnist named Henry Norr got fired for participating in an antiwar demonstration. Marching against the war, the Chron's managers decided, was a conflict of interest. Although Norr didn't write about politics, or international affairs, or anything other than computers, he was sent packing.

A year later, Chronicle reporter Rachel Gordon was barred from covering the biggest story in town — Mayor Gavin Newsom's decision to allow same-sex marriages — because she'd married her same-sex partner. Again the paper's editors went up on their big high horses and pronounced her conflicted.

So how come it's fine for columnist and former mayor Willie Brown — who writes about politics all the time — to work as a flak for Pacific Gas and Electric Co.?

Brown was on hand to represent PG&E March 17 at a California Public Utilities Commission hearing on Proposition 16, a statewide ballot measure aimed at blocking public power. He sat with the PG&E executives and said in public that he was there on PG&E's behalf. PG&E has been a client of his private law firm, and he acknowledged that the company "sought my counsel" over the past few years.

Sounds like a lot more obvious conflict than anything Norr or Gordon did.

But guess what? The Chron has a different standard for celebrity former mayors who carry water for corrupt utilities. When we asked Chronicle editor Ward Bushee about Brown's obvious conflict, here's what he said: "Willie Brown writes a popular weekly column for the Chronicle, and readers frequently tell us that they look forward to reading his informed insights and entertaining opinions on issues ranging from politics to movies.

"Our readers like his column to a large degree because he's the Willie Brown with a long and colorful political history and many connections," he continued. "Willie is not an employee or a member of the Chronicle staff but his columns go through standard editing procedures. He understands conflict of interest as well as anyone. I'm confident that he would not use his column to promote or benefit outside interests or clients. But if you feel differently, why don't you contact him and ask him these questions directly."

Um, actually, Mr. Bushee, you need a history lesson. Brown was notorious for using his position as speaker of the state Assembly to promote the interests of his private law clients — something that could have gotten him disbarred in 47 states (but not this one). So he has a long history of "promoting ... outside interests or clients."

And I did try to contact him. The first time I called, he answered his phone but said he was too busy to talk. I've left messages since then, and he hasn't called back.

For the record, I enjoy Brown's column too. And for the record, I have no problem with a journalist taking stands on issues. I speak about issues all the time — on panels, on the radio, at community events ... anytime anyone's willing to listen, I'll tell you what I think. Which is pretty much what you read right here.

But I never get paid for advocating for anyone, certainly not PG&E. And I don't like double standards.

Frankly, Bushee is wrong here. If Willie Brown can show up as PG&E's spokesperson at a public hearing on a major political issue and still cover San Francisco and California politics as a columnist (without, by the way, ever disclosing in his column that a major player in the political world is a private client of his), then the Chron should give Henry Norr his job back. And Rachel Gordon should be able to write about the politics of same-sex marriage. Because this looks really, really bad.

Comments

The Chronicle has always been whimsical and inconsistent about enforcing its supposed ethical rules -- the only thing it's consistent about is being inconsistent.

For that matter, the Chron has allowed reporter Julian Guthrie to cover Willie Brown, even though she used to date him (the Chron's society coverage had even reported on her dating him).

Posted by Displaced Chronicle insider on Mar. 25, 2010 @ 7:52 am

Willie Brown is not a reporter, never has been, and does not purport to be one. He is a former mayor and Assembly speaker whose history has been well-documented, even if every current lobbying job is not. He writes a once-weekly column for his insights on politics, sports, movies and whatever tickles his fancy. The vast majority of Chronicle readers know who he is and was, warts and all.

I wouldn't mind seeing a disclaimer at the bottom of the column saying who he does lobby for, particularly if he writes on the same topic.

The Rachel Gordon example does trouble me, because telling her she can't cover same-sex marriage is like saying an African American can't cover civil rights. Being gay is who she is, and that trumps what she believes. I didn't buy that one then and still don't.

But Henry Norr was a different story. He was a reporter for the Chronicle, and though computers was his beat there were potential conflicts for a supposedly objective journalist. What if he had to write about Halliburton providing technology services to the military in Iraq? Etc...

Readers did not know who Henry Norr was. He was not a public figure such as Brown. The part of his "badge" that read "San Francisco Chronicle reporter" was his identity. Comparing him to Willie Brown is apples and oranges.

Tell Mr. Brugmann "nice try," though.

Henry Schulman
baseball writer
San Francisco Chronicle

Posted by Guest on Mar. 26, 2010 @ 12:56 pm

Willie Brown is not a reporter, never has been, and does not purport to be one. He is a former mayor and Assembly speaker whose history has been well-documented, even if every current lobbying job is not. He writes a once-weekly column for his insights on politics, sports, movies and whatever tickles his fancy. The vast majority of Chronicle readers know who he is and was, warts and all.

I wouldn't mind seeing a disclaimer at the bottom of the column saying who he does lobby for, particularly if he writes on the same topic.

The Rachel Gordon example does trouble me, because telling her she can't cover same-sex marriage is like saying an African American can't cover civil rights. Being gay is who she is, and that trumps what she believes. I didn't buy that one then and still don't.

But Henry Norr was a different story. He was a reporter for the Chronicle, and though computers was his beat there were potential conflicts for a supposedly objective journalist. What if he had to write about Halliburton providing technology services to the military in Iraq? Etc...

Readers did not know who Henry Norr was. He was not a public figure such as Brown. The part of his "badge" that read "San Francisco Chronicle reporter" was his identity. Comparing him to Willie Brown is apples and oranges.

Tell Mr. Brugmann "nice try," though.

Henry Schulman
baseball writer
San Francisco Chronicle

Posted by Guest on Mar. 26, 2010 @ 12:57 pm

Henry,

If you were getting paid as a consultant by, say, the player's union, or Major League Baseball, or the umpire's union, would it be okay to write about baseball as your beat? I don't care how famous you are -- you need to disclose that.

Posted by tim on Mar. 26, 2010 @ 5:27 pm

Do you have examples of Brown promoting interests of private clients through his reporting? Or any other examples, as you call him notorious.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 29, 2010 @ 4:35 pm

dear willie brown: pge, your client, is guilty of negligent entrustment. pge puts their economics above the safety of the public. For example: their fleet management program for c class drivers licenses. when you are first hired by pge, they take a picture of your drivers license and run a dmv check. That is the ONLY time pge will look at your record. UNLESS you kill somebody or cause accidents. Most employees are lifelong employees and develop disease and vices over the years. Some may have suspended drivers licenses but since they are self insured, pge doesnt care. The value of a human being is apparently 1 - 3 million dollars. It is cheaper to admit fault and pay off wrongful deaths then run a fleet SAFETY program. This means that all pge vehicles on the road can be a menace to society and makes pge guilty of negligent entrustment. Something that can not be brought to court becuz they admit liability and pay the 1 - 3 million. BTW willie. PGE has not had a jury verdict, for or against, in the 5 years i have researched. And willie, while we are chatting about your deep pocket client, did you know that pge writes exactly what they want their expert witness to testify to and why they want that witness to say it? I have emails back and forth from pge to expert witnesses explaining what they want the expert to say and why they want him to say it....to get the harmed party to settle in mediation. Anybody out there want to see how ugly pge is, please email me at pynekone3@aol.com

Posted by Guest pynekone3 on Mar. 30, 2010 @ 9:49 am