So, *That* Happened

Item 1: We returned from Japan today. In fact, I’m on my second Sunday evening (we took off from Narita airport, outside Tokyo, at about 7:15 Sunday night; and here it is getting close to 7:15 Sunday night after landing in San Francisco before noon. I understand the why and how of it, but it’s still strange.

Item 2: Before we left, I mentioned to someone that gee, the Cubs might be out of the playoffs by the time I get back home. Just indulging a moment of pre-emptively rueful Cubsy-ness. When we got home early this afternoon I picked up the San Francisco Chronicle, whose Sunday sports section featured not one but two misspelled names in other headlines, and saw the news that the Chicago nine had been swept. You can say wait till next year, or you can just admit you’re not waiting anymore. Go Pale Hose–spoil that beautiful Tampa Bay Rays story for us.

Item 3: Sometime I’ll relate my greatest adventure of September 2008, which was not flying to Japan but running out of gas on the very busy San Francisco Bay Bridge. I believe I’m an unindicted co-conspirator in the event, which involved a faulty fuel gauge.

Item 4: Not to leave the subject of The Trip too quickly: We flew Japan Air Lines both ways to Tokyo. Oddly (or probably not), about two-thirds of the seating space is devoted to first and business class. We were jammed in the back with the other groundlings. One of the entertainments offered on the screens-at-every-seat was a map of our flight’s progress. This morning, I saw that we were nearing the Northern California coast and started looking for Mount Shasta. The mountain is our Fuji, 14,000-some feet, a good hundred miles in from the coast. At the point I started looking, probably near Point Arena, we were about 200 miles from the mountain. But there, way off, rising above the clouds, was that beautiful snowy (not Sno-) cone.

It’s interesting to be back, even after just a week away.

(And where did the post title come from? Watch the clip below. You gotta stay with it to the end.)

‘Two Wheels and Four’

The San Francisco Chronicle’s Jon Carroll, an unapologetic old fart and non-cyclist–I mean to cite his unreconstructedness as a compliment–on the favorite subject of the day: our national car-bike contretemps:

Two Wheels and Four

But bicyclists, probably by virtue of their virtue, have gotten a free pass. I too admire their decision to forgo the use of fossil fuels and improve their cardiovascular fitness. I’m on their side. So maybe someone could tell me when the word went out to all Velo Americans that stop signs, and even stoplights, were for cars and pedestrians and people in wheelchairs, but not for bicyclists.

Here’s a typical letter, from Karen Clayton, who was visiting San Francisco to meet a friend from Tokyo. On her way to dinner … well, here’s her report:

“Unfortunately, we were caught in the ‘Last Friday’ Critical Mass ride. We sat through 4 traffic light cycles. Our friend was agog – not by the Mass, but by the flouting of the traffic laws. At one point my husband edged out a tiny little bit into the cross walk, thinking we were at the end of the Mass – we did have the green light – and then another group came swooping into the intersection. One of the riders stopped, thumped our car and told us we should be aware that this ride happened on the last Friday of every month and we should ‘be careful.’

“Everyone in Tokyo rides bicycles. I did almost all of my grocery shopping by bike on my ‘housewife’ bike during the 7 years I lived there. I love to ride a bike – in the old-fashioned sense of that phrase – for pleasure, not competition. People routinely ring their bells in Japan when they are coming up behind you and everyone endeavors to be careful. It was a pleasure to ride there.”

Clayton goes on to suggest “self-policing.” I think that would be lovely. I think little bluebirds delivering bags of chocolate to the sick would be lovely too. We’ll see which happens first.”

“Velo Americans.” We like that.

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The Paper

A few months ago we did something that still depresses me to think about. Today I was reminded of it: the San Francisco Chronicle called to get me to start up the paper again. They were offering six months of the paper for ten bucks. That’s about a nickel a day, and that’s how hard up they are for paying customers. Meantime, back at the plant, they’ve been firing people left and right. A nickel a day would have done nothing to save any of those jobs; it’s a desperate ploy to prop up circulation numbers and what’s left of the paper’s advertising base.

That’s depressing right there. But there’s more.

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July Fourth (II)

A New York Times tradition: Publishing an image of the original printed version of Declaration of Independence, complete with John Hancock and others’ signatures. Always inspiring to read when you need to have your civic idealism refreshed, though yesterday I didn’t read the declaration but found myself thinking about the non-PCness of one phrase: “merciless Indian savages” (from this passage: The king “has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions”).

Later, or earlier — I can’t remember which — Kate pointed out the San Francisco Chronicle’s lead editorial for the day: “Patriots, awaken.” I don’t expect much these days from the mostly tired and uninspired Chron, but its little Fourth of July essay was very good. In part:

“…Perhaps it is the lingering shock effects of Sept. 11, 2001, or maybe it is the complacency of a half-century of growing affluence, but too many Americans seem all too willing to ignore Benjamin Franklin’s admonition about the danger of sacrificing essential liberties for temporary security. The Bush administration has been adroit at invoking the war on terrorism to justify policies that should be setting off alarms in this democracy.

“At what point will Americans draw the line at these intrusions on civil liberties and usurpations of power by the White House? Revelations that the National Security Agency eavesdropped on phone calls and e-mails without getting the required warrants didn’t do it. The disclosure that the government has compiled a vast database of Americans’ phone records didn’t do it. The hundreds of examples of President Bush’s unprecedented expansion of the number and scope of “signing statements” in which he gave himself the option to ignore parts of laws he objected to — such as torture — didn’t do it.

“Just last week, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Bush administration’s system for military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay that openly defied congressional law and international rules on the treatment of prisoners of war. So, what was the reaction in Congress? Regrettably, but not surprisingly in this era, there were immediate moves to give the president such authorization. ”


Back in February, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a series on violent cops on the city’s police force. In the series’ leadoff story, the paper ran an oversize picture of what it said was one of the San Francisco Police Department’s most fearsome offenders, Sergeant John Hackett. The merits of the story aside, a series of miscommunications among editors, reporters and a photographer led the Chron to print a picture of a private citizen and mistakenly identify it as Haggett.

The paper readily acknowledged the mistake — after the police chief gleefully pointed it out at a press conference — and ran a typically opaque correction that included the boilerplate “we regret the error” wording. Mea minima culpa. In due time, the man who was pictured as the rogue and perhaps racist cop sued the paper. On Thursday, the paper settled the suit out of court.

That’s that, except for this note in the story: “The Chronicle has not explained how the error occurred.” Immediately after printing the wrong picture, Phil Bronstein, the paper’s executive editor, said he was (to quote the Chron’s “readers’ representative”) “disposed toward telling whatever he can.” The readers’ rep himself said he agreed with Bronstein but was wary of a rush to judgment.

The point of telling the public how such a goof occurred isn’t merely to rub salt in the wounds or to hand over some hapless editor or photographer to a lynch mob, but to give readers an honest look at how the paper is run, even when things don’t look so good. At a time when online media offer more and more opportunities for audience engagement, it’s only smart for news organizations to be as transparent as they can be.

Now, four months have passed, and the Chron has stonewalled. Disappointing, but not surprising.

Don’t Rush, Don’t Judge

I wrote to the Chronicle’s “readers’ representative” — in quotes because I’d like to meet the readers who appointed him — to ask what the paper might do to explain how it wound up identifying a picture of a cabdriver/security guard, played over six columns, as that of a notoriously violent police officer. I wrote, in part:

“… Does the Chronicle intend to offer a detailed explanation of how the picture wound up in the paper? It’s clear the mistake has damaged what I’d call the presumption of credibility such a thoroughly reported and well-executed investigative project might otherwise be accorded. It’s also clear that a mere acknowledgment of error, or covering a press conference convened by an attorney for the misidentified citizen, doesn’t begin to repair the damage. At a time when papers everywhere are struggling to hang on to readers, and when more and more of the news-consuming public has become dismissive of the established media, it seems the Chron’s long-term cause would best be served by full disclosure of the steps and processes involved in this picture making it into the paper. I think readers have moved on from being a passive audience and want to be treated as partners in the project of journalism. A detailed explanation of the error would be responsive to that demand and help the paper learn how to avoid repeat episodes. …”

Although the readers’ rep is someone I worked with for a decade or so at the old Examiner, I didn’t really expect an answer. So I was pleasantly surprised to get one just a day after I emailed my note. The germane part of the reply:

“Phil [Bronstein, the Chronicle’s executive vice president and editor] has said to me and to the public (Ronn Owens show) that he’s disposed toward telling whatever he can, but he doesn’t want to compound the mistake by misstating what happened. I think that’s a fair position. I certainly wouldn’t address this until I was darn sure what I was talking about. Like you, I’d like to see this clarified sooner rather than later but I’m wary of a rush to judgment.”

That’s a pretty responsive note, I guess, though I’m bothered by the suggestion that the paper’s position is cast as a matter of how the editor feels about things. Beyond that, two observations: First, it stretches credibility a little that the paper and its editors don’t have a pretty good idea what happened. And second, it’s at least a little ironic to hear a paper that often shoots first and asks questions later plead for restraint in examining its own faux pas.


The Chronicle is out today with a story about The Wrong Picture: The man whose mug was identified as that of San Francisco Police Department serial batterer John Haggett is actually a cab driver and part-time security guard named Jack Neeley. The Chron, proactive as ever, covered a press conference that Neeley’s lawyer called yesterday. Neeley said he’s both perplexed and disturbed at his sudden notoriety. He doesn’t recall the paper taking his picture (the photo credit names a staff photographer and says the image was taken in 2004). He says one friend approached him after the picture ran to ask why Neeley never disclosed that he was an undercover police officer. And, since his image has been identified with a man who has beaten up the locals and subjected them to all the favorite racial and ethnic slurs, Neeley is afraid he’ll wind up the target of some aggrieved citizen.

The Chron dutifully reports all that and mentions a couple times what a swell job it’s doing responding to Neeley’s concerns. But the paper offers no explanation for how the mistake happened. I’m sure there’s a debate going on there right now about what to do. The paper has a “readers’ representative” and he’s probably getting an earful from his audience.

They Regret the Error

The San Francisco Chronicle went to press Sunday with a big front-page series detailing the results of its years-long investigation into use of excessive force by some city police officers (the paper’s online site,, has created a special site for the stories). The paper says it took years to secure thousands of documents using the state’s Public Records Act . “The newspaper used these documents to do something the Police Department has never done,” the Chronicle says. “It created a computerized database capable of providing a profile of the use-of-force patterns of individual officers.” The paper reports it conducted hundreds of interviews with cops, city officials, abuse victims, and experts in police practices.

The findings are devastating: The Chron says San Francisco officers rack up more excessive-force complaints than those in Oakland, San Jose, San Diego, and Seattle combined. The Chron stories detail example after harrowing example of officers brutalizing citizens innocuously going about their day-to-day business. The articles suggest that in most cases, attempts to rein in the habitual batterers on the force are ineffectual at best and that some of the worst offenders have gotten promotions and assigned to train rookies.

The stories (today is day three of the series) look like they add up to an excellent piece of public-service journalism. There’s a Pulitzer Prize for that. But the Chron didn’t stop there.

In Sunday’s launch of the series, the paper published a 4,100-word profile of one of the department’s bad actors, a Sergeant John Haggett. Google him, and you’ll find that he’s got the special, if not unique, distinction of having been cited for brutality in a 1998 Human Rights Watch report that relies heavily on reporting by the local papers. The profile recounts Haggett’s history of unprovoked violence against suspects going back to the late 1980s, including shooting and killing an unarmed man after a chase through downtown traffic and two beatings that led to separate three-month suspensions.

Sergeant Haggett sounds like a lovely man, and two of the three reporters with bylines on the Sunday piece should know: Bill Wallace and Susan Sward wrote a 1,500-word piece on him in October 1996. That story is one of the sources for the Human Rights Watch report. Several of the incidents they recounted then were repeated nearly verbatim Sunday, supplemented by several more episodes of Haggett’s ugly behavior and the fair-and-balanced mention of facts that might temper the impression he’s a monster: He won a departmental award for valor in the line of duty and once released a teen hold-up suspect so he could attend his high school graduation.

Given the Chron’s history with Haggett and the seriousness of the charges it’s printing, then, it’s just short of incredible that the picture the paper ran to introduce this villain to the world — small on page one, splashed across six columns on an inside page — wasn’t of Haggett at all. It’s just an anonymous puffy guy in a jacket with a big collar; according to some, such as the head of the police union, the anonymous puffy guy bears little resemblance to Haggett.

The Chronicle’s response? Yes, we were wrong. The paper on Tuesday mentioned the mistake in its story on the chief’s reaction and runs a weak “we regret the error” correction. But it doesn’t explain how the picture of the unknown man wound up so prominently displayed on its pages.

Meantime, the paper is trying to fend off San Francisco’s mayor, Gavin Newsom, who is upset that the Chronicle reported he did not make himself available for interviews on the excessive-force issue. The paper’s response is that a reporter emailed nine interview requests over three weeks and that Newsom’s spokesman, while saying the mayor would be available, never nailed down a time for the talk to happen. The paper suggests without coming out and saying so that its efforts to get an interview were reasonable enough and that it did what any reasonable party might do in such a situation and published without the mayor’s comments.

What I’d suggest the Chron isn’t getting is that despite the years of reporting it says it has done, the sloppiness of its presentation has cost it the presumption of credibility. The police chief understands that and is trying to use the picture mistake to discredit the rest of the paper’s reporting.

All this is happening in a sort of crisis context for daily newspapers. They are less trusted than they have been — perhaps ever been — and a manifestly imperfect but still potent alternate news channel has appeared online, just waiting to pick apart mistakes like this. It’s no longer enough for the Chronicle and other papers to hunker down, issue an ephemeral acknowledgment of error and an empty statement of regret — like that’s a public service — and move on as if nothing happened.

Critical readers want and deserve to know how the papers’ internal processes work and why mistakes like the non-Haggett picture are made. In this case, the Chron needs to show that its error was exceptional and that its efforts to get high-level official comment were reasonable. That means a full explanation of the chain of events that led to the wrong picture being run, complete with an account of the key people who signed off on it and what they have to say about the process. The disagreement over the mayor’s interview might be clarified by publishing the whole email exchange between the paper and the mayor’s office so that readers can see who asked and who promised what. (For extra credit, the paper could make a version of its excessive-force database available online — it is based on public information, after all — so that readers could have a chance to explore the issue more deeply.)

At the end of having to explain itself, the paper might even learn something about itself that will save it from the same mistakes next time.

‘News’: Worse than Pot

The Voice of the West — aka, the San Francisco Chronicle — picked up a two-week-old press release from London Wednesday morning and ran it under this headline and subhead:

E-mail addles the mind

Endless messaging

rots brain worse than

pot, study finds

To be fair to the Chron’s reporter — though he did lift quotes directly from the release, attributing one to "a statement" — he did some imaginative legwork. He visited a couple of San Francisco’s medical marijuana clubs to get the proprietors’ views on email.

The source for the story’s dire yet entertaining revelation is HP’s operation in the United Kingdom. It put out a release on April 22 warning of the dangers of a new malady called "Info-Mania" and reporting the results of a study the company commissioned on how distracting modern information technology can be to office workers.

The press release, complete with important-looking footnotes, has an urgent lead: "The abuse of ‘always-on’ technology has led to a nationwide state of ‘Info-Mania’ where UK workers are literally addicted to checking email and text messages during meetings, in the evening and at weekends." 

Britons checking messages — away from the office. And on weekends. Where will they find  time for soccer hooliganism or producing new episodes of "Masterpiece Theatre"?

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