Reading last week’s cover story at Bay Guardian, I realized that I wasn’t just reading an over-the-top PR piece for a wealthy downtown powerbroker — I was also reading the epitaph for the once-proud Bay Guardian tradition of investigative reporting – and the whitewashing of local history in the process.
Seriously. Now, I am happy to see any semi-public feature get fair treatment, but reading this puff piece I was being asked to ignore years of Guardian investigative reporting that indicated Mr. Hellman (he of the Wells Fargo Fortune) was anything but a “friend to progressives”. And yet, there it was, in all its multi-paged glory.
Apparently all it takes to change writer Steve Jones’ mind about a wealthy conservative power player in San Francisco is a few friendly chats, a trip to freakin’ Burning Man, a big payoff to the Bicycle Coalition (which paved the way, literally, for a big new garage in Golden Gate Park) and a general chumminess of his subject with his friends (Leah Shahum of the Bicycle Coalition and the SFMTA and her beau, Ted Strawser of the SF PartyParty and GavinWatch). Hmm.
Read any article about Hellman’s actions in Golden Gate Park, any one of an assortment of articles the Guardian has published about Warren Hellman on campaign finance, local politics, Mayor Newsom, or even Jones’ own pieces about the guy, and you’ll see a different picture being painted.
The toughest Guardian coverage of Hellman, however, cannot be found online (the archive system is a mess over there). Go back to May, 1998, and you’ll find a particularly damning article about the attempts by St. Hellman to privatize the entire public San Francisco Park System. This is a saint of “progressive” values? Puh-leeze.
Jones’ defense seems to be that because of the many heart-to-hearts he’s had with Mr. Hellman that somehow Mr. Hellman has “changed” – I’d argue that it’s the Guardian that changed, instead.
That is what troubles me most — the Bay Guardian I grew up with is no more. That was the paper that couldn’t be bought off by corporate interests, and warned the left against cutting deals with the powerful (since the ‘lefties” usually lose out in the end). This was a paper that didn’t put the personal relationships ahead of reporting what was going on or mistake a powerful person’s friendliness with honesty.
After reading this public relations victory for the rich and powerful last week, it seemed like the Guardian decided to go against this long and proud tradition to placate the likes of Ken Garcia, someone who’s never been a friend to “progressives”, and the City’s power structure.
Sen. Feinstein had it all wrong these past 20+ years — all she had to do was put a blue streak in her hair, go to Black Rock City, smile and play nice once in a while, and have years of backstory erased in a moment. Who knew it was that easy?
In an era when traditional print journalism is facing a serious threat from online entities, playing nice with the powerful isn’t the solution to its problems. Blogs, Craigslist, and other online operations are succeeding because they’re giving the public what it wants and likes.
The antidote to this threat is to go back to the core values and mission alternative papers have had for decades – challenge the powers that be with solid investigative reporting that people need – and can’t get anywhere else.
Not only will it mean that papers like the Guardian will have a shot at saving the bottom line – they just might save their souls in the process. We, the readers, will be the ones that benefit most in the end.