C’mon, Chronicle. Just Admit You Missed the News

By November 3, 2008Energy, Media Relations

There are few things less appealing than a bullying, self-righteous newspaper editor, scolding politicians  and the public. Case in point: Phil Bronstein, editor at large at the San Francisco Chronicle, responding to Gov. Sarah Palin and various commentators criticizing the paper for what should have been a big story, Senator Barack Obama’s anti-coal pronouncements.

Bronstein, “My role in the Obama interview cover-up“:

It’s hard to pack in righteous indignation, outrage and a big 15 minutes of fame all at one time.

That’s pretty much where we are here at the Chronicle after Governor Palin’s claims over the weekend that we suppressed comments about the coal industry by Barack Obama at a January ed board meeting right here in SF. If you know our editorial page editor John Diaz, you know that making him say “hell” in a story means he’s pretty livid over the charge.

Me? My feeling is that hinky things happen in a bar at closing time. Let’s always set the record straight whenever possible. But are we really shocked that politicians on all sides twist things a to suit their purposes? You must be as stunned as I am.

The reality is this: the interview wasn’t squirreled down some digital hole, as the Governor claims (“the notion of a “tape” itself is pretty Watergate-era dated). If someone “found it”, digging for anything to help in the coal states of Ohio and Pennsylvania, I guess we didn’t hide it. It was available in audio and video form shortly after it happened and remains on SFGate to this day. Links to both forms of the interview appeared in the print Chronicle on a number of occasions. If the McCain campaign wanted to use this, what took them so long?

Is that really the journalistic standard you want to set, Bronstein? Hey, we posted the recording, YOU look for the news.

Seems antithetical to the idea that journalists have value in exercising news judgment, skills of interpretation, the ability to provide context, and perhaps a small gift of good writing. “Hell, we posted it, our obligation is complete.” Is that it?

As said below, it should come as no surprise that the San Francisco Chronicle’s team of editors and reporters missed the news in their January interview with Senator Barack Obama, that is, his clear, unambiguous support for policies to prevent utilities from building new coal-fired power plants because the costs would “bankrupt” them. In a cocooned newsroom full of the like-minded in the one-party city of San Francisco, statements about bankrupting coal seem like unobjectionable observations of fact. We should bankrupt coal? Absolutely, it’s dirty. And we can replace it with wind and solar energy and conservation and wishes and hopes and dreams of a brighter tomorrow.

Bronstein seems to think his journalistic value was proved when Senator Obama criticized him for being cynical, and he throws in a gratuitous “wink wink” reference to his ex, Sharon Stone. But who cares what a candidate thinks of you (or your ex)? The important thing is the story, and you missed it, as you yourself admit.

Still, I didn’t jump out of my seat when Senator Obama made his comments about the coal industry. It didn’t lead our story and wasn’t in the leadline. Maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention. Or maybe, as John Diaz notes, the statements were a little more nuanced than Governor Palin found useful in her rally speech.

Nuanced?

“So if somebody wants to build a coal-powered plant, they can; it’s just that it will bankrupt them because they’re going to be charged a huge sum for all that greenhouse gas that’s being emitted.” Obama said, “That will also generate billions of dollars that we can invest in wind, solar, biodiesel and other alternative energy approaches. The only thing that I have said with respect to coal, I haven’t been some coal booster. What I have said is that for us to take coal off the table as a ideological matter as opposed to saying if technology allows us to use coal in a clean way, we should pursue it.

You blew the story, Bronstein, you and your newspaper, just blew it, in the process depriving your readers of important information that could have produced a more useful public policy debate. Spare us the puffing about righteous indignation, outrage and a big 15 minutes of fame, and just say it: “We blew the story. We’re sorry. We’ll try to do better next time.”

UPDATE: (5:10 p.m.): More good rebuttals from Bill Dyer, writing at HughHewitt.com, “SF Chron insists that buried and unremarked Obama promises to bankrupt coal industry and bring skyrocketing electric rates weren’t “hidden,” but offers no explanation why they weren’t newsworthy.”

UPDATE: (5:20 p.m.): At U.S. News, Sam Dealy notes another obvious oversight : Not only did the Chronicle miss the news, so did the McCain campaign, the sign of a poorly run campaign.

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