During the summer of 1999, trucks containing almost 15,000 tons of contaminated dirt made their way from the Altamont Landfill near Livermore to a faraway facility reinforced against the possible leakage of toxic waste. That's 600 semi-truckloads; arranged in a single convoy, they'd span San Francisco.
This massive and necessary undertaking might never have happened if a small S.F. newspaper hadn't foiled plans hatched by developers of the San Francisco Giants' ballpark. The builders had sought to cheaply, quickly, and improperly dispose of the stadium site's dirt, which during a century of industrial activity had been soaked with lead, nickel, toluene, mercury, benzene, and arsenic. In their quest for cost savings, the Giants' developers had classified this as ordinary garbage, rather than as the toxic waste it was. That way they managed to haul it only to Livermore, rather than to a much more expensive hazardous-waste facility farther away.
But this toxic scheme was thwarted by a series of SF Weekly stories beginning in 1997 that alerted readers to the improper toxic waste classification. Thus apprised, officials were alarmed about the possibility of these poisons leaching into groundwater. The Alameda County Board of Supervisors passed resolutions condemning this scheme. The local district attorney complained, and the state Department of Toxic Substances Control was compelled to acknowledge the Giants had sought to bury the chemicals with ordinary garbage. "A total of over 14,460 tons of material has been removed for redisposal as a hazardous waste since July 30, 1999," landfill manager Ken Lewis wrote to state environmental officials.
I bring up this Sept. 1999 letter, which I recently obtained while researching a different toxic waste story, as an example of how journalism can move mountains.
Last week was Sunshine Week, a national initiative sponsored by the American Society of Newspaper Editors to remind students, teachers, librarians, civic leaders, nonprofits, and public officials how important it is to facilitate newspapers' ability to publish information that otherwise might remain hidden.
San Francisco always marches to a different drummer. And here it may as well have been Local Darkness Week, as the enterprise of journalism came under attack from a left-wing clique whose favorite pastimes include hypocritical blathering about the importance of expanded public access to information.
Green Party Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi introduced a misguided piece of "green" anti-journalism legislation, aiming to levy steep fines against the San Francisco Examiner for the offense of delivering newspapers. Meanwhile, a contorted jury verdict and a pending request for an injunction against my employer could have the apparent intended effect of forcing SF Weekly to fire reporters like me. The judgment and the injunction request are the work of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Mirkarimi's longtime patron.
As you might imagine, I am against efforts to stifle journalism. Fortunately, so is the founding ethos of the U.S.A. We have a First Amendment, which was drafted based on the idea that, without reporters to expose them, politicians, bureaucrats, and businessmen will sometimes go so far as to risk poisoning the water we drink.
Mirkarimi made his bones as a political operator by serving as campaign director for 2002's Proposition D, a ballot initiative aimed at creating a city-owned electricity system. The campaign was largely funded by the San Francisco Bay Guardian, a left-wing political pamphlet.
Old alliances apparently die hard. Last week, Mirkarimi potentially aided his old patron by proposing legislation that could harm the business prospects of one of the many publications that compete for advertising dollars in San Francisco. The legislation would levy stiff fines against publishers who deliver free newspapers unwanted onto doorsteps. This legislation happens to be aimed squarely at the business plan of the Examiner, which, despite possessing the storied name of the old William Randolph Hearst flagship, actually counts as a brazen upstart in the news publishing world.
The brainchild of Colorado billionaire Philip Anschutz, the Examiner employs a small team of youngish reporters to provide hyperlocalized coverage of politics, crime, and other aspects of city-limits life. Despite S.F.'s rich media landscape — populated by dozens of neighborhood newspapers, ethnic newspapers, business newspapers, legal newspapers, gay newspapers, alt-weeklies, myriad news Web sites, and Northern California's largest daily — this has actually been a sadly vacant niche. The San Francisco Chronicle's ongoing woes can be described in part as a spirited yet unfocused retrenchment from a years-old project to become a regional, rather than local, newspaper. Everyone else, meanwhile, has covered local news as it has suited a particular demographic or geographic sliver.
So the Anschutz idea makes a certain kind of sense. And his reporters have made the most of it. The biggest public-integrity story of the year — $3.5 million in funds embezzled from a Golden Gate Park garage — broke in the Examiner on March 4. The paper was the first to uncover official inquiries exploring the waste of city bond money designated for libraries and schools. It exposed how police union president Gary Delagnes was being paid for purely union functions from the SFPD payroll; city officials subsequently asked him to go on unpaid leave. The Examiner broke the story that Japantown was being sold on its centenary, and how Elie Wiesel was attacked in his S.F. hotel by a Holocaust denier. When Muni fares went up, Examiner reporters proved that the bus system typically turned a blind eye to fare skippers, which prompted announcements of an official crackdown. Examiner reporters also got one of the more delightful scoops of recent memory, revealing that Ed Jew's family hosted a pot club.
Anschutz has yet to receive accolades as a local civic hero. While the Constitution enshrines news-business entrepreneurship as vital for a healthy republic, ordinary people take this for granted.
"The Examiner is obnoxious. The way they MAKE you pick up their garbage" was a typical comment on the Chronicle's Web site, following the story about Mirkarimi's proposed law.
The Examiner already provides a phone number so residents can request not to receive it, so it's unclear what the legislation would accomplish — aside from creating a tool by which detractors levy fines against a newspaper that happens to have a conservative editorial page.