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A Dog-Eat-Dog World 

A journalist frets about job security, then realizes things could be worse -- he could be a janitor at Yahoo!

Wednesday, Sep 4 2002
With a beautiful Labor Day weekend looming just beyond my Friday deadline, I thought I'd celebrate by dipping into the SF Weekly mailbag. Labor Day weekend, after all, is about not laboring, and the easiest columns to write consist of letters and answers. Thankfully, a column last month describing dog-walking activists battling with native-plant advocates produced enough mail to last into next year.

I began with a note from one Michael Mooney, a kindly park ranger who says he doesn't ordinarily agree with SF Weekly.

Dear Matt Davis,

Thank you very much for your article about the Natural Areas Program (NAP). Although I have rarely agreed with your perspective in many of your columns that I have read, I believe you have described the NAP debate about as accurately as possible. Your writing ability really impresses me. It is obvious that some people and some media are trying to cater to the very well organized dog people at the expense of us environmentalists. I am happy to see that you and SF Weekly are brave enough to tell it like it is.
Michael Mooney
Park Ranger

As with any letter praising my valor, I double-checked the top of Mr. Mooney's note to make sure he had sent it to the right person. He had not. The letter was actually addressed to Matt Davis, which happens to be the name of a comedian in Southern California. I forwarded Mooney's letter to Davis, who'll be performing at LuLu's Beehive in North Hollywood on Sept. 13.

Dear Mr. Mooney,

I am not sure what the requirements are for being a park ranger, but I am going to look into it, as your views frighten me.

What is it about NAPS that you want to debate? I, for one, would not be able to keep my sanity and strong work ethic without a good afternoon nap a couple of times a week. Don't forget that Sunday afternoon nap after you read the newspaper. Or perhaps you would want to debate that we have newspapers, or perhaps even outlaw Sunday afternoons altogether?

Then you go on to insult the dog people. Now, naps is one thing, but this has gone way to far. The dog people are good people. This is 2002. Haven't we had enough of this racial profiling? Just because they are half human and half dog doesn't mean you should insult them. Yes, they are very well organized; you would be too if you had the disadvantage of eating from dog bowls and sleeping outside. It's time you woke up, Mr. Mooney.

Do they allow communists to be park rangers? I am really going to look into this.

Matt B. Davis

Just one letter into a mailbag column and we were into a red-baiting, racial-profiling conflagration. It was enough to make me rethink my Labor Day week of leisure -- particularly given that coasting columnists seem at risk in these hard economic times. San Francisco Chronicle columnist Stephanie Salter, for one, was demoted last Wednesday from her years-old op-ed-page perch to the Sunday Insight section. A group calling itself the Media Alliance posted "Save Stephanie Salter's Column!" fliers about town, and Wednesday the Alliance gathered a group of people outside the Chronicle entrance to protest.

The lunchtime demonstration, which was attended by sign-carrying priests, union leaders, NOW women's rights activists -- 125 58-year-old white liberals in all -- struck me as a wonderful idea. I have long believed in university-style tenure for newspaper columnists. How can editorialists possibly enjoy true freedom of speech, I've always thought, without counting on guaranteed lifetime job security? I felt even more encouraged upon encountering Dan Stone, 58, a temporary office worker who was passing out "Save Stephanie Salter's Column!" fliers on the southwest corner of Fifth and Mission, across the street from the protesters. I asked Stone why he was doing this.

"The powers that be didn't like what Stephanie Salter had to say," Stone said, as he pressed leaflets into the hands of passers-by. "I think it's censorship, pure and simple."

Delighted at finding a fellow traveler, I pressed further.

"Would you be interested in protesting in front of SF Weekly if they canceled my column?" I asked, dreaming of tenure-based job security and decades of leisurely letters columns.

"I don't know you. I don't know what you write. I don't care about what SF Weekly writes," Stone explained.

I excused myself politely, crossed the street, and watched Salter emerge from the Chronicle building into the cheering crowd and then weep a few minutes. I asked burly Chronicle technology columnist Henry Norr, who had been chanting pro-Salter slogans along with the rest of the crowd, whether he thought this might be the beginning of a successful tenure-for-columnists movement.

"I doubt it," he said. "It's an interesting idea, though."

Norr covered lots of "interesting ideas" during the dot-com splat. I paid him heed, abandoned my tenure-for-columnists idea, and wandered off to lunch.

My desire for job security, and the concomitant leisurely Labor Day weekends, will have to wait for an economic recovery, I realized. Yet this prospect seems remoter by the day. The advertising business, which sustains column writing, leisurely and otherwise, and traditionally serves as a barometer for the rest of the economy, is in a historically hideous slump. America is starting to look a little bit like Japan did after its own bubble economy collapsed 13 year ago, precipitating that country's near-permanent state of economic malaise.

Clearly, I needed a seer, a person who could illustrate for me the shape of future Labor Day weekends, someone who could show whether we'll be swimming in pink slips or floating on the crest of another boom. I found Ricardo Olguin, a 38-year-old bricklayer whose wife and children still live in his hometown of Pachuca, Hidalgo, a smallish city in Mexico's central high plains. Olguin has worked four years in the U.S., most recently as a janitor at Yahoo!, the Internet portal. Olguin was fired Aug. 12, he says, in reprisal for working with union representatives who wish to organize Yahoo!'s contractor, Team Services Inc., one of Silicon Valley's largest nonunion janitorial employers.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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