A Firewall Fraying: Chronicle Election Coverage in 2018

According to a number of experts, and most of us on the natch, the 2018 midterm election has been one of the most hostile and partisan in years. The polarization extends beyond the national two party duopoly and can also be seen in local Bay Area races where blue battles with bluer.

Reporters covering these races for local voters often cover a swath of allegations and counter-allegations. Many are fed by obscure PACS which collect money to advocate for or against candidates and are restricted only by their inability to coordinate with candidate’s official campaigns. With IE spending levels high in the 2018 midterms, allegations have been coming fast and furious, challenging local media outlets to provide unbiased coverage. How did the local newspaper of record, the SF Chronicle, do?

Ethics guidelines for political reporting do exist. The Society for Professional Journalists puts out a helpful and well-regarded set. Among its instructions;

”Part of an editorial page’s responsibility, though, is to take every appropriate opportunity to explain the firewall between news and opinion. Reporters are not columnists or editorial writers. SPJ’s recommendation is that reporters not take a position on an issue, or in a candidate race, that they are covering. They may do so privately, but they definitely should not do so in a public or visible way.”

In one heavily-publicized incident earlier this year, those principles were violated when Chron reporter Rachel Swan used incorrect opposition research to grill then-mayoral candidate Jane Kim on her supposedly privileged upbringing. The questions contained several pieces of notably incorrect information that had not been verified. After Kim fought back, asking in a charged Medium post why the false allegations had not been fact checked, and where they came from, The Chronicle did issue a mea culpa. Kind of.

In a formal statement, the paper declared;

“The reporter and her editor concluded that they had asked questions based on incorrect information and, as a result, no story was written. However, those written questions were inappropriately worded and insufficiently researched. They failed to meet the journalistic standards of The Chronicle. We strive to try to avoid bias in our reporting as well as the appearance of bias, and because of that we have assigned a new reporter and editor to cover the San Francisco mayoral race.”

While the newspaper was true to their word, the editorial page continued to aggressively dog opponents of their endorsed candidate, London Breed. The paper went so far as to pen an editor-endorsed op-ed only days after the mea culpa accusing Breed’s opponents of “gaming the system”, by conflating the use of a slate strategy with implications of cheating, when it is nothing of the kind.

The Chronicle’s May 2018 problems were self-induced. In the run-up to the November 2018 election, the paper has embraced several headline-grabbing developments in local races with breathless coverage of completely unproven allegations against candidates.

In San Francisco’s District 2 race pitting BART director Nick Josefowitz against appointed incumbent Catherine Stefani, the paper formally endorsed Josefowitz . But six weeks later, it featured an expansive piece on the years-old bankruptcy of a solar business the candidate had been associated with. The news was not particularly timely and was publicly available, so the presentation as a breaking news flash with the provocative headline SF candidate Josefowitz highlights business experience, but firm went bankrupt certainly seemed designed to derail Josefowitz’ campaign as well as call into question the research the paper had done prior to giving him their endorsement a month and a half earlier. Josefowitz appears to have lost his supervisorial bid as of 11/7 with a final RCV count to come.

Over on the East Bay side of things, columnist Otis Taylor Jr. devoted three columns in seven days to advocating for the replacement of 16-year incumbent Oakland council person Desley Brooks. Taylor’s initial two Brooks columns: October 18 Hey Oakland, It’s Time To Give Desley Brooks The Boot followed by October 21 Where is Desley Brooks, An Oakland Councilperson’s Pre-Election Disappearing Act were followed within two days by an even more provocative headline from the news side. The “headline” news story on October 23 was titled Where is the money bag?’ Suit alleges market funds went directly to Oakland Councilwoman Brooks and was about a lawsuit filed by a staffer Brooks had fired. And in case you missed it, it was followed up by another Taylor column on October 24 titled The Money Bag, The Monster and The Aide. The “monster” being the 16 year incumbent. Although the allegations were unproven, the source a disgruntled former staffer, and the timing suspicious. For her part, Brooks and her attorney stated the lawsuit was ridiculous and the staffer was allowed to resign instead of being fired after complaints of sexual harassment and intoxication on the job. The Chronicle coverage of the statement from Brooks and her attorney was relegated to the paper’s online subsidiary sfgate.com and Taylor dismissed responses that his stories were “shameful” and “dishonest” as merely coming from Brooks’ Trump-like supporters. Brooks appeared to have lost her council bid as of 11/7 with a final RCV count to come.

It definitely can be challenging for reporters to handle late-breaking dramatic allegations towards the ends of campaigns. They tend to be both salacious and difficult to verify. Like any slanderous celebrity gossip, they induce clicks. But when given outsize importance, as in the case of the solar firm bankruptcy, or coordinated with aggressive opinionating on the editorial side of the paper, as with Brooks, they can affect campaign outcomes despite the lack of proof they are anything other than opposition smears.

The Chronicle’s aggressive foray into the East Bay Council race in District 6 strongly contrasts with a complete lack of coverage of a hotly contested Assembly 15 race where candidate Buffy Wicks has come under criticism for the vast amount of independent expenditure monies thrown at her campaign from questionable sources. Although extensively covered by East Bay-based papers, the Chronicle has confined itself to one October 13 article titled In East Bay Assembly race, differences in approach overshadow agreement on policy. East Bay columnist Taylor does not appear to have ever written about the Beckles-Wicks race at all, despite it drawing national interest from Common Dreams, In These Times, Jacobin and Counterpunch. Beckles appears to have lost her assembly bid as of 11/7.

Some of the Chronicle last minute headline-grabbing election stories seem to be meeting the bias criteria as laid down in their May 2018 statement of being “inappropriately worded” and “insufficiently researched”, as well as selectively targeted within the range of election-related coverage in the region. Reporting the facts is not the same as promoting a narrative at a key moment in a tight race, especially when that narrative is deliberately refracted in the paper’s editorial section.

Conflicts of interest are everywhere and the Chronicle is no exception. Local political power broker Ron Conway, a significant donor to local campaigns, is a judge for the Chronicle’s Visionary of the Year award and Conway and outgoing Chron publisher Jeffrey Johnson served together on the board of the Bay Area Council, a corporate lobbying association that describes itself as the voice of Bay Area business. But with the state of journalism today, signs of associational bias affecting election coverage have acute consequences for the viability of the fourth estate.

In an era when the press is under attack and its credibility regularly impugned, the region’s paper of record shouldn’t be giving a code of ethics short shrift. Now more than ever, SPJ’s exhortation to “take every appropriate opportunity to explain the firewall between news and opinion” is key. Outlets need to avoid the the appearance of tacit collaboration between the positions on the op-ed pages and news reporting on election races. Jumping on last-minute unproven allegations about candidates the paper declines to support, using flawed opposition research as a source, disguising long-known public records as breaking news, and implying candidates are cheating when they are not, are deceptive techniques drawn from campaign playbooks, not from journalistic election coverage. They indicate that the firewall between news and opinion has frayed.