Growing by the Bay

Category: media

The San Francisco Chronicle is still brain dead

I suppose there is some comfort in knowing that some things never change. More than thirty years ago, in the movie All the President’s Men, Jason Robards as WaPo’s Ben Bradlee dismissed a proposal for a feature recapping yesterday’s weather for people who were too drunk to remember it by saying “Try selling it to the San Francisco Chronicle, they need it.”

Since then the Chronicle was bought by — or merged, with, I forget the official line — the Examiner. It was, in any case, a sham deal that made both papers worse.

In 2003 I cancelled my Chronicle subscription out of frustration over their coverage of the build-up to the Iraq war (an ineffectual protest, since as a newspaper junky I usually buy it off the racks, God knows why).

Today the Chronicle reaffirms its commitment to wrong-headed editorial decisions. What is the top news of today? Let’s see what Google News is picking up from papers around the nation and world:

mumbai attacks

Yep, it’s the Mumbai attacks, in which more than 115 160 people were killed and more than 300 370 injured. You know, the ones that presage new terrorist tactics, raise tensions between two nuclear powers, and threaten to destabilize the South Asian region and damage American interests and influence there.

Most papers have this as their lead, or at least the second story on their front page (I admit I haven’t check all 7,255 news articles picked up by GN). Where is it in the Chronicle? Let’s see (rummage, rummage . . .) Ah, here it is — on page 19.

The Chronicle‘s lead story on page one is about a land use law that Gov. Schwarzenegger signed into law in September. Its other front page stories are about an oral history project, an increase in charity Thanksgiving meals, and stores that are reviving layaway plans.

I don’t understand this paper.


Bonds media frenzy

bonds media frenzy

Coming into work very early on Friday, before the sun was up, I couldn’t miss a swarm of broadcast media setting up their lights and cameras around the old federal building on Golden Gate St. I asked a cameraman what it was all about. “Bonds,” he said.

Entering my building I mentioned this to the security guard. “Everyone knows he’s guilty,” he said.

Later a squadron of helicopters joined the circus.

What a lot of uproar about some steroids. Ironically, our governor is this guy (image from

arnold schwarzenegger, governor of california

Laufer/KPFA recap

peter lauferSeveral days ago I posted some information about Peter Laufer’s dismissal as replacement host of Larry Bensky’s Sunday morning show on KPFA. The comments to that post reflect a range of views. Following are highlights; for the full comments, see the original post. (Disclosure: As editor-in-chief of Mercury House I published some books by Peter Laufer.)

  • Anthony Garrett: “No media professional should be treated the way KPFA’s Sasha Lilley treated Peter Laufer.”
  • Nancy: “Unwelcome news … it seemed to be in the KPFA tradition.
  • Mac: “Laufer’s attempts to downplay or counter the concerns, fears, anxieties, and anger that some of us have with his (to me, fascistically) chipper, feel-good drivel — the world is going to hell, but C’MON, wasn’t that sunrise this morning just gosh-darned lovely! — instead provoked me to flip the dial in disgust.”
  • Eden: “As a staff member of KPFA– though not involved with Peter’s dismissal– I thought I might be able to shed some light…. The resistance of the KPFA audience to Laufer was unanimous. Neither was he embraced by those who loved Larry, nor those who hated him.”
  • Margaret King: “I am very disappointed that KPFA apparently did not value his program as much as I did. I will be one of the many loyal listeners who switch to GREEN 960 on Sunday Morning.”
  • James loughborough: “I believe that encouraging listeners to feel empowered and hopeful and, rather than helpless and hopeless, is advantageous personally, politically and socially. I’ll be tuning in to Green 960. How can KPFA have screwed this up?”
  • Doug Maisel: “C’mon, Peter. This isn’t your first radio!… It was ever thus at KPFA.”
  • Kathryn Page: “This firing is in the new tradition of KPFA that causes me to cancel a 30-year subscription…. I too was a devoted fan of Larry’s and at the beginning of Peter’s time there I missed Larry’s curmudgeonly edge, but soon came to appreciate the power of Peter’s profound civility.”
  • Mac (2): “I found Laufer to be obnoxiously pushy and rude: interrupting guests and callers, talking over others, cutting off a caller who criticized him.”

KPFA fires talk show host Peter Laufer

Frisco Vista received the following e-mail, reproduced here verbatim:


BACK STORY: Berkeley, California’s KPFA/Pacifica radio station, the only radio station in America to have 10,000 of its listeners demonstrate against it, finds itself in another controversy.

After receiving what its program director said were hundreds of complaints from a segment of its “progressive” audience, KPFA abruptly, capriciously, and with no warning fired award-winning author, journalist, and broadcaster Peter Laufer from his lively Sunday morning radio talk show.

Program Director Sasha Lilley cited “negative audience feedback” and said her reasons for canceling the popular show were “intangible” but that Laufer was “just not right for Sunday.” Lilley offered to tell the public that Laufer was leaving “to go on to bigger and better things.” Laufer insisted that she better tell the public that he was fired because that was what he was telling the public. Laufer believes, based on letters and email, along with op-eds in the “alternative press”, that a group of malcontent KPFA listener-activists orchestrated a smear campaign against him because he is, as these critics wrote, “not a person of color” and because his credentials (he’s won virtually every prestigious broadcast journalism award) are “too mainstream.”

“The KPFA bumper sticker says ‘Free Speech Radio’ but apparently mob rule is more accurate,” Laufer mused from his Sonoma County coast side home, enjoying his first Sunday morning off in the six months since he inaugurated the KPFA show. “Ever since my undergraduate days, Berkeley has symbolized diversity. But today’s incarnation of KPFA wants to march in a lockstep of so-called politically correct speech. I did the show as a labor of love — the salary about paid for my bridge tolls, gas, and a Sunday dinner out. I am profoundly disappointed and concerned to see that as commercial radio continues to homogenize, a longtime bastion of innovation in the non-commercial radio world reacts with predictable narrow mindedness. If you can’t count on KPFA for tolerance of a diversity of views, what can you count on? Of course I harbor no desire to return to their airwaves after being treated in such a shabby fashion.”

Peter Laufer is author of over a dozen well-received books of social and political criticism; his most recent works probe the lives of soldiers opposed to the Iraq War and promote open borders with Mexico. A former NBC news correspondent — where he produced and anchored the first nationwide radio show on the HIV/AIDS crisis — Laufer has reported the news worldwide, and he won a Polk award for his documentary on Americans in prison overseas. In his own backyard heshared a Peabody award as a member of the KCBS news department when he co-anchored the station’s coverage of the 1989 earthquake that devastated the Bay Area. He created the “National Geographic World Talk” radio show, and is co-anchor with publisher Markos Kounalakis of the radio program “Washington Monthly on the Radio.” He guest lectures at universities worldwide on media issues and his print journalism is seen in a diverse array of publications from Penthouse to the London Sunday Times magazine. Details of his work can be seen at

Laufer sent the following open letter of protest to Nicole Sawaya, newly installed as the Pacifica Foundation Executive Director, the network of progressive radio stations that owns KPFA, and Dave Adelson, the Pacifica National Board Chair.

Dear Nicole Sawaya and Dave Adelson:

I am profoundly disappointed that your Berkeley station KPFA has given in to an orchestrated and hysterical campaign to remove me from my Sunday morning talk show. Of course I was not doing the job for the meager amount of money I received. I mistakenly believed that KPFA had a commitment to a lively and diverse approach to free expression performed in the context of creative and professionally produced radio theater. I took on the show when it was offered to me for the opportunity to practice live radio art, theater and journalism for my hometown audience.

My surprise firing was a tacky act and unworthy of the distinguished role Pacifica has played in American media. Sasha Lilley, the KPFA program director, reached me via telephone on my vacation in New York to inform me that my role was terminated.

Lilley said, and I quote from notes I took during the phone call and from a follow-up email I received from her, “I really like what you do on the air. You are certainly a team player and I have really admired what you have brought to the airwaves.” Nonetheless, with no warning, I was given my verbal pink slip. During the brief phone call, Lilley cited correspondence she had received from listeners who, she said, did not like my act. When I asked her why these letters were not brought to my attention prior to this termination call, she hemmed and hawed an apology and allowed as how that was probably a management mistake. In a subsequent call I pointed out to her what any longtime radio professional knows: were I to have known a cadre of listeners was organizing an attack on my tenure, I could easily have mustered an equal or greater response from my proactive audience of loyal Sunday morning listeners. Instead, I serenely was cranking out excellent programming, left unaware by Lilley and the rest of the KPFA management of my vulnerability.

Radio aficionados may be amused to know that only once did Sasha Lilley specifically chastise me for my performance. It came after I found an old Viewmaster abandoned in the studio just before air time one day. I clicked its shutter and was mesmerized by the familiar “ca-chunk” sound of my youth. When the show started I offered the first person to identify “the mystery sound” a prize: the book written by my first guest that day, autographed by the author. “I hate the mystery sound,” Lilley told me later, and I cancelled plans for it to be a running moment of frivolity on my otherwise serious show.

My firing came two days after I moderated a benefit for KPFA in Berkeley featuring Naomi Wolf and Daniel Ellsberg — an event that raised thousands of dollars, and where the hundreds in the audience broke into hoots and hollers of applause when I introduced myself from the stage as the anchor of the KPFA Sunday show.

As an added bizarre twist, the firing came on the eve of a feature article in the San Francisco Chronicle by Ben Fong-Torres about me and my talk radio career. In it Fong-Torres cites my seminal book “Inside Talk Radio: America’s Voice or Just Hot Air?” and reports “Laufer knows his stuff. He’s qualified to offer an update on the state of talk radio — albeit from a decidedly left-of-center viewpoint.” He notes I founded talk stations in Berlin and Amsterdam, and that my talk radio career dates back to the first-ever talk station. “Today,” he writes, “he hosts ‘Sunday’ a live program on KPFA.” But Chronicle readers who tuned in after reading the paean to my talk radio expertise heard instead Sasha Lilley herself on the air, hosting my program, with the halting explanation, “We’ve parted ways with Peter Laufer.” Firing is in her management toolbox, but apparently missing from her lexicon.

What gives in Berkeley? Is this the KPFA that I have known and loved? This bodes sour for the future of radio in America. If you can’t trust Pacifica to protect avant-garde yet highly professional radio, what can you believe in? Has the spirit of George Bush’s intolerant regime reached the trenches of Berkeley?

Sincerely and with regrets to report this news to you,

Peter Laufer

The Noe Valley Voice

noe valley voice

The Noe Valley Voice, in publication since 1977, seems to be a good example of a neighborhood publication. I would do some things differently from a design point of view, but the content seems on the whole to be earnest and real.

Noe Valley, which is named after one of the Spanish alcaldes around the time of the U.S. takeover, is a diverse community located on the eastern slopes of Twin Peaks, near the lower Mission. It boasts some fine Victorian houses as well as some nondescript later-twentieth-century schlock. The main commercial district is located on 24th Street. Years ago Noe Valley had a kind of granny glasses and granola image — this was probably more a stereotype than a reality — but more recently has tended upscale.

According to the Voice, a one-bedroom apartment in Noe Valley currently costs around $2000 a month, and a two-bedroom $3000. Can the community retain its character with such pricey rents?

“The Cancer of the San Francisco Chronicle”

Edward Champion blasts Chronicle columnist C.W. Nevius as “a hack who defames journalism” and “a heartless and complacent yuppie writing very much in the thoughtless and vacant manner I used to find in that reactionary cad of a columnist, Ken Garcia.”

The city is getting worked up over one of its periodic and so far futile efforts to clean up Golden Gate Park, and Champion complains that Nevius is “entirely uninterested in coming to terms with the homeless in Golden Gate Park for his piece.”

There’s no question San Francisco’s homeless problem needs more serious attention than it has been getting. Will Champion’s heated rhetoric help? Wasn’t this supposed to be mayor Newsom’s signature issue?

UPDATE: Randy Shaw, in Beyond Chron, weighs in, 9/4/07:

While the traditional media’s role in promoting the Iraq War has become conventional wisdom, military invasions are not the only place where the press sells the public a false story. Consider homelessness. For two decades, the media has offered the public a “framing” of homelessness that focuses on problem individual behavior, rather than on the massive federal funding cuts that saw widespread visible homelessness remerge in 1982 after being nonexistent for over forty years. The San Francisco Chronicle still identifies the homeless problem as primarily caused by problem individuals such as campers in Golden Gate Park, and blames advocates, rather than the media and politicians, for the persistence of homelessness. C.W. Nevius’s August 28 Chronicle column perfectly captured how the media still “enables” the federal government’s abandonment of the unhoused, and shows why the Bush Administration – like its Reagan, Bush and Clinton predecessors – feels no pressure to act.

Troubles Continue for SF Chronicle

A few years ago when San Francisco’s afternoon paper, the Examiner, merged with the morning paper, the Chronicle, readers were promised a paper that would be greater than ever, with a larger staff and more investigative reporting and original news coverage than ever before. That never happened, and the new paper was a disappointment from the beginning. (I cancelled my subscription early in 2003 in objection to the paper’s editorial perspective.)

The new Chronicle never seemed to formulate and implement a viable and consistent vision. Now, in an “emergency meeting,” it is said to have warned of more in its seemingly never-ending series of layoffs.

Is there hope for daily print media in San Francisco?


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