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Mecklin 

Wednesday, Apr 8 1998
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Vanishing Acts
Because I'm an editor, from time to time I hire writers. During their first few days on the job, they all seem to want to know something about my general approach to the news. So I've come up with this concise, if non-comprehensive, explanation: I expect the writers who work with me to interest readers in what seems, on deep examination, to be truly important.

I suppose, then, that I am about to violate my own news philosophy. I have decided to write about Warren Hinckle and Joe O'Donoghue, even though each of these "men" is as drearily trivial as anyone I've spoken to this decade. But bear with me. I'll spice things up as much as possible, given the limitations of the subjects, and I'll be no longer about the task than absolutely necessary.

Last week, O'Donoghue, a trying blowhard who is president of a group called the Residential Builders Association of San Francisco, sent out a press release proclaiming his sudden discovery that the cover of an issue of SF Weekly -- an issue that had been on the streets for nearly a week -- was racist.

The claim was stupid and wrong and, as I later told O'Donoghue directly, racist in its own right.

Here's the story (style apologies to Matier and Ross):
To illustrate an article about the political struggles between a westside group called the San Francisco Neighbors' Association and Mayor Willie Brown, I commissioned a cover that showed two leaders of the association, Rose Tsai and Julie Lee, holding a food platter that contained Mayor Brown's head, apple in mouth. This photo-illustration -- a computer combination of several different photographic images -- was a play on a figure of speech: Bring me the head of my enemy on a platter.

Although direct and powerful, the cover wasn't even racial, much less racist. It could have illustrated most any story about a strong political challenge to a sitting public official, regardless of the ethnicity of the people involved. It just so happened that the challengers involved in this particular story are Chinese-American, and the public official is an African-American. But that ethnic mix was dictated by physical reality, not journalistic whim.

O'Donoghue, in a pompous, ungrammatical press release, tried -- and I mean really, viciously tried -- to create a racial incident out of thin air. His release claimed, with no logical supporting argument, that the cover was so ethnically offensive to Mayor Brown that the Residential Builders Association and "all its members, friends and allies" should boycott SF Weekly until the paper apologized for its terrible actions.

Oh, the terror!
O'Donoghue's release went on to strongly imply that Tsai and Lee had cooperated in creating the dastardly SF Weekly cover in question (a suggestion that was not true), making it necessary for the residential builders to sever all ties with the neighbors association.

Oh, the loneliness!
The release made several additional vicious assertions about the SFNA and, by extension, Tsai and Lee. I believe those claims also to be false, so I won't repeat them.

The day after O'Donoghue's silly, untrue, and racist tract was distributed, a "man" named Warren Hinckle (who, it's rumored, was once a journalist) wrote a newspaper "column" based upon it. The "column," published in the Independent "newspaper," repeated O'Donoghue's malicious nonsense and added a fair amount of what might be mistaken for political analysis, if it weren't so crack-brained, conspiratorial, dull, and badly edited.

The Hinckle piece -- and the garbage O'Donoghue press release it was based upon -- tried to falsely tag SF Weekly and the people who work here, and the SFNA and the people who lead it, as racists.

Luckily, once unleashed, the "column" and the press release delivered a blow that showed the full, vast political influence Hinckle and O'Donoghue can bring to bear, when they combine forces.

That is: Nothing happened.
Most of the San Francisco media ignored the matter entirely. Although some of the Chinese-language press focused on the Hinckle/O'Donoghue slurs for a day or so, Rose Tsai and Julie Lee turned the tables quite nicely in that arena, calling a press conference at which both "men" were labeled the cynical miscreants they had shown themselves to be.

So why, you ask, bother writing a column about two uninteresting, impotent louts? Why waste ink and newsprint and precious time on such tiny irritants as these?

Well, my friends, the answer to those questions is a little complicated, but stay with me; it's got a nice kick to it, at the end.

I have nothing for or against Willie Brown or the San Francisco Neighbors' Association. Whether they feud or get along, annihilate or love one another, is all of a piece to me.

SF Weekly doesn't do advocacy journalism. Any writer who tries to promote a particular political cause in the news sections of my paper won't be writing for me very long.

I have no direct line of contact with the thought processes of Warren Hinckle and Joe O'Donoghue (thank the Lord).

But these two longtime supporters of Willie Brown, who apparently believe the Weekly's head-on-a-platter cover was a political act meant to harm the mayor, did something strange and ugly last week. Under cover of liberal ideology, using the vocabulary of racial justice, claiming they were rushing to the rescue of a progressive agenda, these two people engaged in a particularly nasty form of race-baiting -- and betrayed the ideals of decency and fairness that real liberals and progressives believe in and try to live by.

While engaged in this political charade, these two windbags also tried to put a muscle on me and my paper. And it wasn't even a competent muscle. It was a chickenshit, dumb-ass, laughable muscle.

They launched stupid, unbelievable attacks without the common courtesy (or, in Hinckle's case, the professional decency) of a phone call. They made moronic, arrogant, empty threats they had no ability to carry out. (The oddest: O'Donoghue threatened to send a letter to my board of directors complaining that I had been rude to him! Oh, please -- not the brier patch!)

In short, while attacking SF Weekly on phony grounds last week, Warren Hinckle and Joe O'Donoghue gave a wonderful illustration of just how cowardly and vicious and utterly self-defeating San Francisco's identity politics can be, in the hands of experienced practitioners.

As they did so, Hinckle and O'Donoghue simultaneously drew almost perfect portraits of themselves -- and it is these self-portraits, reproduced above, that are the only real justification for the column I have just written, and you have just read.

John Mecklin (jmecklin@sfweekly.com) can be reached at SF Weekly, 185 Berry, Suite 3800, San Francisco,

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John Mecklin

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