The melon slices, chilled Calistoga, and uncorked bottles of red were all laid out for last Thursday's KQED board of directors meeting, but hardly any of the attending members had an appetite.
If the elected leaders of this quintessentially blue-stocking, liberal institution were feeling queasy, it was understandable. They had been charged in public with being on the wrong side of the barricades, for essentially selling the station's editorial independence. Left unaddressed, however, was the core question of whether KQED and public broadcasting in general still matter.
The standoff was triggered by a feel-good documentary about the Napa Valley wine country and one of its most notorious denizens, Robert Mondavi. A foundation he set up had proposed to fund a third of the show and had already advanced the station some research and development money.
The puffery had been approved by the board in September, on the basis of what now appears to have been inaccurate information about the Mondavi group's role. The Thursday meeting to examine the now moot decision (station brass having since returned the initial grant) was the climax of weeks of public flogging and document leaks. Those were orchestrated by Director (and ex-KQED employee) Sasha Futran, who received heavy play in the Bay Guardian, itself a longtime KQED critic and for which Futran also writes. (For the record, a number of SF Weekly contributors and staff members are among the rotating guests on KQED's public affairs program, This Week in Northern California.)
The leaked information and subsequent KQED staff comments suggest that KQED marketers were indeed making rash promises to the Mondavi people. Which gave Futran the moral high ground, no matter how much she was "grandstanding," as one fellow director complained. But Futran's combative demeanor, countered by the shining-eyed denial from much of the board, soon reduced the discussion to a polite pissing match.
In the end, Futran won the battle but lost the metaphorical war. After she was gaveled into silence by outgoing Board Chair Leo P. Martinez, the board passed an over-the-top endorsement of the two lead KQED officers on the matter, CEO and President Mary Bitterman and Station Manager Kevin Harris (handily pre-drafted by Director Jerome Falk). No wrong had been done, no ethical guidelines violated, and the board apologized to, of all people, Bitterman and Harris for "any embarrassment." The media-watching-media subtext of all this was highlighted by the jarring presence of a man in the audience who stood up and videotaped her whenever Futran spoke.
Notwithstanding this curious spectacle -- which occurred only after some board members' earlier objections had been overcome and required permission from KQED's union -- a more enduring issue was at play here. The reason the station had been able to proceed as far as it did in the disturbing alliance with Mondavi is also the systemic weakness that threatens to cripple KQED and other public broadcasters: Public broadcasting is increasingly irrelevant to the broadcast world. Its once-unique niche of middle-brow culture, science, and educationally justifiable children's programming is now being exploited in greater quantity and often better quality on commercial cable channels. Until public broadcasting can recast itself to fill an unserved need, it will find itself increasingly marginalized and subject to the type of manipulation the Mondavi project portended.
But the current KQED board is more interested right now in putting the whole sorry episode behind it. When the whitewashing Falk resolution was put to a roll call vote, as the video cam clicked away, Director Sherry Smith, one of those who had objected earlier to the taping of meetings, hopped out of her chair and waved her nameplate at the camera, saying, "Yes, yes, yes."
The taper told the group he was with Berkeley Community Media.
"I'm on that board, too," Smith cheerily announced, referring to BCM, a nonprofit center that trains Berkeley residents and community groups in television production under that city's cable franchise. It is also an outspoken advocate for public access to media.
"Yes," the man's companion said, "we know."
The anticlimactic end to Thursday's performance came at the next day's meeting of the Media Policy Committee, to which Futran had been referred after she demanded KQED formulate a written policy on program underwriting. She attended via conference call. After less than an hour on the line, she was officially silenced. She finally hung up. The board passed a new set of guidelines drafted in large part by Falk.
It Takes a Shopping Mall
The regional economy really must be chugging along, because word has it that the Chronicle is looking to beef up its woefully slim suburban bureaus, particularly in the East Bay.
Regionalizing was all the rage a decade or so ago, as papers across the country made an attempt to reclaim their urban expatriate readership and -- more important -- to cash in on the lucrative advertising generated by all those new shopping malls.
The Chron dabbled and dawdled in this unfamiliar terrain. But it ultimately pulled back, leaving the East Bay burbs to the Contra Costa Times and its smaller sister papers in the Lesher newspaper chain (purchased last year by Knight-Ridder) and the Alameda Newspaper Group. Burbs to the south of the city were left to a very aggressive San Jose Mercury News, also Knight-Ridder owned.
Then, when the recession struck in the late '80s, most of the big-city dailies that had made the suburban leap suffered the financial consequences. The venerable Chron looked prescient rather than simply lazy and parochial.
Now it appears that the Chron's number-crunchers have decided it's worth another go.
In theory, this should be great news on several fronts -- expanded coverage of territory where readers actually live (and, increasingly, work), some real competition in Bay Area newsgathering, and, possibly, more jobs for journalists. Reality, alas, is more complicated.
What the cautious Chron seems to have in mind is staffing most of this suburban expansion with two-year contract employees and interns. That may sound swell for cub reporters trying to get a foot in the door, but as similar arrangements elsewhere in the state and country have shown, it's a disaster for sustained, serious coverage and, more often than not, a ticket to career oblivion for the young journalists who end up with "permanent" temporary jobs at lower pay.
Newspaper Guild locals have found themselves in a very uncomfortable and clearly unholy alliance with management in what amounts to a cannibalization of the profession. As in other corporate structures, unions turn a blind eye to the spread of two-tier wage and benefit arrangements to protect more senior guild positions and then salve their consciences by pretending with management that internships and contract arrangements are ways to employ more minorities. In some cases, unions have been able to insist that the contract employees receive entry-level wages and health benefits and be considered, during their two-year tenure, as members of the bargaining unit. But newspapers have a funny way of getting around even these stipulations, like continually laying off and then rehiring the temporary reporters or simply stringing out nonunion internships indefinitely.
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of the worst offenders and has twice been forced by the U.S. Labor Department to cough up overtime pay for its contract employees, who have been dubbed "correspondents" by the paper's management. Under the contract, the two-year employees are paid for a four-day, 32-hour work week. But as the Wall Street Journal reported last summer, many work long hours of overtime, hoping (vainly, as it turns out) that their extra labor will result in a full-time job. The Journal noted that the full-time hiring rate for employees in a similar one-year program at the Chicago Tribune is about 30 percent; at the Inquirer, only four out of 200 journalists who have worked as two-year contract employees have been hired onto the paper in the four years the formal program has been in operation.
"People have been around for 10 years, and they're still called 'correspondents,' " says Paul Gottlieb, administrative officer for the Philadelphia Newspaper Guild. "They hide them in the suburban bureaus."
Carl Hall, vice president of the Northern California Newspaper Guild and union rep for the Chron, is mum about what to expect from the paper's plan for suburban expansion. "We've gotten a proposal, and we're considering a response. Nothing has been agreed to. Not even an agreement in principle."
Phyllis Orrick and Susan Rasky can be reached at SF Weekly, Attn: Unspun, 425 Brannan, San Francisco, CA 94107; phone: (415) 536-8139; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.