Fault Lines: A violation of newspaper ethics

| August 08, 2008

There is an unwritten rule in journalism — deeply held, and almost religiously followed — that columnists should never criticize other columnists.

Temptation aside, there’s a good reason for it. When they throw your picture in the paper, they might as well slap a bull’s-eye on it — columnists receive more angry mail from readers than any other writers at newspapers. Being a human pin cushion comes with the job — and there’s no need for your professional colleagues to jump on the pile.

So I’m not going to throw a dart at former Mayor Willie Brown for landing a column at the San Francisco Chronicle, a paper at which I long served. I cannot say the same for the Chronicle itself, which is showing a supreme lack of good judgment.

It’s been clear to the 200,000 or so readers who have dropped their subscription since the Hearst Corp. took over the Chronicle in 2000 that the quality of journalism at the paper has sagged, and that’s not surprising given the loss of hundreds of talented reporters, editors and photographers during that period.

But editorial content is one thing — ethics is quite another. The paper once made the distinction.

When I was at the paper attempting to save city landmarks, I was asked to join the board of Architectural Heritage. That request was shot down by my editors — obvious conflict. Same when the St. Anthony Foundation came calling.

You couldn’t have a political sign on your lawn, or a bumper sticker. And as for political contributions, well, one guy got suspended and transferred from the editorial department for making one, and he didn’t even write for the paper.

It’s all contained in the paper’s lengthy code of ethics, which apparently the new editor neglected to read. It probably wasn’t gossipy enough. Herb Caen must be spinning in his dice cup.

Willie Brown, through his lengthy career as a politician and lobbyist, probably has more conflicts — real and perceived — with government officials and business than anyone in San Francisco. That’s not a criticism, that’s a fact. Willie has more connections than PG&E.

People in the newsroom are not laughing, nor should they, since the vast majority of journalists take the idea of public trust seriously. The paper’s credibility is sinking as fast as its readership.

What next — Sean Penn covering the movie industry for the pink section?

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