This past Friday, for instance, crotchety yet vague Editor Emeritus William German -- in a column that's come to be known as "Tales From the Crypt" around these parts -- was glowing about the paper's trouncing of the New York Times with its coverage of ... Barry Bonds? Yes, the Barry Bonds who plays in the Chronicle's hometown.
In German's view, a piece in the Sunday Times' "News in Review" section [sic; the name is actually "Week in Review"] was simply a "store-bought analysis of Barry Bonds' behavior." Equally trenchant was German's appraisal of fellow Chron scribe Mike Weiss' story on Bonds, which bemoaned the slugger's lack of a nickname, was the longest and most prominently played piece on the front page of the "smarter" Sunday Chronicle, and, in German's eyes, exemplified "fine newspaper writing."
This is German's explanation of a passage he especially liked: ""Baseball is a subtle, slow-cooking kind of game that some people find arcane or boring,' wily professor Weiss wrote, thus wooing and perhaps winning page-one readers who never peek at the Sporting Green."
We're sure it did.
It's unfair to be too truthful in writing about German; after all, the relic of the paper's gory days is just taking cues from Executive Editor Phil Bronstein and other current Chronicle honchos, who have been telling -- and telling -- anyone who will listen how great the new, merged newspaper is. And then repeating themselves again, again, and again, apparently hoping they can force the general public to believe what they're saying through sheer repetition.
Perhaps the repetition is working. How else to explain a story in the July/ August issue of the hallowed Columbia Journalism Review heralding the new Chron as a "serious journalistic player at last"? The elevation to serious-player status certainly wasn't attributed to anyone outside the paper.
Those more credulous than Dog Bites have long regarded the CJR as the high church of the media-criticism field. We have to admit that we, too, have often dreamed of wielding CJR-level influence -- throwing dreaded "darts" at, and bestowing coveted "laurels" on, lesser media minions from an all-knowing, Ivy League, ivory-tower perch -- as we flip longingly through the pages of our newsroom's subscription copy. Which is why it pains us so to award the Columbia Journalism Review its very own dart, for swallowing an unsubstantiated corporate line whole, for ignoring obvious flaws in a story subject, and for running a paid advertisement from the company praised by the story -- directly opposite the story itself.
In a 3,000-word piece, "Chronicle Rising," the Review quoted three -- yes, all of three -- people who were not Chronicle employees. One, Berkeley journalism-school dean Orville Schell, said the new paper was "certainly an improvement," but also that he's reserving judgment on whether the paper will achieve greatness. Another, Eva Martinez of the local Society of Professional Journalists, said: "It's better than it was before. But I still miss the old Examiner. ... The Chronicle is still lacking local character."
The above quotes aren't damning, exactly, but they hardly support the theme of the story, written by CJR's James Risser, which is that "the Chronicle -- long derided by critics as a frivolous underachiever -- has become a serious journalistic player at last." That theme does jibe, of course, with Bronstein's assertion that "this paper may have the same name, but it's a new paper."
More than a bit puzzled about how the alleged paragon of media criticism could essentially take the Chronicle's word for its own improvement, we called up Risser, a San Francisco resident who won two Pulitzers writing about agriculture from Des Moines in the 1970s before assuming leadership of Stanford's journalism fellowship program.
In the midst of a lively exchange about Komodo dragons and such, we gently mentioned that "it seems like the sentiments in the headline of the story aren't really reflected in the quotes from people who don't work at the Chronicle."
To which Risser answered: "Yeah, I'd say that's accurate. Obviously, the people at the top believe -- and want to believe -- that the paper's better; the people in the middle aren't nearly as rah-rah, but they think it's getting better; and the people outside the paper definitely have more of a wait-and-see attitude."
This gave us some pause, since Risser's statements seemed to directly contradict his thesis that the paper had finally arrived. As it turns out, Risser was a fount of lukewarm praise. He said he likes the new Insight Sunday section ("It's not perfect or anything, but it's more solid than what used to pass for an opinions section there") and the tabloid format of the Real Estate section because it's easy to take house hunting. As for the other new Sunday section, Living: "I'm not sure what I think about that one. It's reasonably well done, I guess."
We're not sure how that translates into greatness. We're also not sure how Risser's story could have failed to mention Hearst's scandalous attempt to horse-trade editorial coverage of the mayor in exchange for Willie Brown's help with the Examiner merger. (Risser said he and his editor on the piece, CJR Publisher David Laventhol, decided that although the episode was "an essential piece of the background," CJR had written about it enough.) But that's probably a good thing, because it would have looked awfully silly, set directly across the page from a full-page, paid, Hearst Corp. advertisement extolling Hearst's "Journalism of Distinction."