Politico on Friday broke the news that our newspaper of record has opted to jettison “freelance columnist” Willie Brown at month’s end, putting a belated conclusion on an inexcusable and, frankly, inconceivable situation.
And it only lasted 12 years. Less time than the Central Subway project or Geary BRT — but an embarrassingly long stretch for something that shouldn’t have happened in the first place.
Brown, former mayor and Assembly speaker, and still very much a mover and shaker, high-level information peddler, and registered and unregistered lobbyist in this town, should never have had a column in the San Francisco Chronicle. Or any newspaper.
The most infamous pay-to-play politician in state history and “San Francisco’s legendary Juice Mayor” should never have been allowed to casually write his own unchallenged history of this city. He should not have been allowed to soft-pedal government officials’ rank dishonesty and billion-dollar lowballing schemes as just one of those things. He should never have been allowed to gleefully plug his clients and/or private businesses and/or political creations and savage their competitors. He should not have been allowed to issue coded advice or threats to members of the political class via a column in the newspaper. He should never have been allowed to elude Chronicle reporters Monday through Saturday before generating his own take on the issues for Sunday — and write articles that must have induced pinball machine noises in Chronicle staffers’ heads as they checked off violation after violation of the paper’s ethics code.
Deciphering Willie Brown’s columns became an exercise in reading between the lines and pinpointing his self-interest and stream of potential revenue in the subjects he was ostensibly “reporting” on. It was never clear if Chronicle higher-ups understood this, or cared.
With Brown, you’d do well to assume there’s a well thought-out underlying motivation or rationale for his actions, even if it’s not apparent. If his editors thought they could stay a step ahead of him — good luck with that. Attempting to match wits with Brown is a bit like attempting to play drinking games with the U.S. Ski Team: You will lose.
So it was also never clear if Chronicle higher-ups understood that Brown — and others — were essentially running a PR firm from within the pages of the newspaper.
Plenty of writers — and editors — understood this. That’s why, when a new editor-in-chief last year took over the paper and asked employees during one-on-one meetings what they’d like to see changed, many made it damn clear where to start.
I haven’t spoken with new Chron EIC Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, but I’d like to think he wondered how the hell this situation was ever permitted to commence in the first place, let alone fester for a dozen years.
It was an open secret that short-timer Chronicle scribe Phil Matier — who also decamps at month’s end — wrote Willie’s column. That only added to the spectacle of this deeply baffling situation. Staffers complained about Brown literally phoning in his column to Matier and “wordsmithing it. Loudly.”
Transcribing Matier and Brown’s rambling and profane lunchtime discussions so that Matier could pen the column was an actual assigned task for a lucky low-level Chron staffer.
I have some of these transcripts from a few years back. In one Brown notes that, as Assembly Speaker, he told his members to never write him anything important: “I don’t give a shit if you put ‘draft’ on it, you are fucked if anybody touches it and it is guaranteed they will touch it … and you are better off having them speculate on what you conceal than confirm what you actually did.”
His interlocutor Matier agreed with this.
But he was right. Somebody wrote it down, and somebody did, indeed touch it. And eventually wrote about it. But not in the Chronicle.
The Chronicle‘s decision to part ways with Brown was the right one. Praise is in order for the paper’s management. Because, make no mistake, Brown’s corrupting presence undermined the good work Chronicle reporters and editors were doing.
Here’s what one reporter told my colleague Matt Smith in 2008, at the dawn of the Willie’s World error:
“Real journalists in the room were appalled by it. And the people who weren’t are people who don’t put journalism first or who have a very shallow understanding of San Francisco politics, or of who Willie Brown is, or of the reporting done in Hearst papers on Willie Brown.”
And here’s what another told me, eight years later:
“Willie Brown is a pox on all of us.” The advent of his column “was a devastating blow to whatever serious work people thought they could do at the Chronicle.”
But this isn’t just about journalists self-righteously clinging to a code of ethics as everything else in our profession crumbles around us. It goes deeper than that.
In 2013, Smith, then writing for the Center for Investigative Reporting, penned a masterful story about Brown’s efforts funneling Chinese visa money into the (persistently radioactive) Hunters Point Shipyard project. Brown brazenly denied knowledge of the enterprise, despite promotional material listing him as its “principal” and Chinese seminars in which he was described as the dong shi zhang — the chairman of the board.
Staff from the office of Mayor Ed Lee — Brown’s political creation — crafted letters, memos and other materials used in these investment pitches for the enterprise Brown denied knowledge of, and one of Lee’s aides ventured all the way to China to help lasso investors.
In short, it was a cracker of a story — and deeply relevant years later, in the wake of FBI investigators rampaging through the city and picking off indiscreet members of the so-called “City Family” in a broad and long-running corruption probe.
A number of these Center for Investigative Reporting deep dives ran in the Chronicle. You’d think the newspaper of record would jump at the chance to publish such a meaty story, and one that ensnared Brown, Lee, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi among others.
Or not. The story, centered around the actions of a high-profile Chronicle columnist, was, for some reason, rejected by the Chronicle. In the end, it ran in SF Weekly, a paper with only a fraction of the Chron’s circulation.
I was at SF Weekly at the time (I wrote the headline “Chairman Willie”). We were thrilled to have this boffo article fall into our laps — but, truth be told, we were also disappointed.
Every San Franciscan should’ve been disappointed.
Hopefully, less disappointing days are now ahead. For this city, and for its fourth estate.