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The Daily Lickspittle 

Journalism has a lot of problems, but too many of them are manifestations of a sycophantic attitude toward the big-e Establishment

Wednesday, Jun 1 2005
San Francisco's mayor decided recently to borrow an additional $120 million to help rebuild the Laguna Honda home for the elderly; the new loan would come atop $299 million in borrowing allowed by 1999's Proposition A. When $299 million in voter-approved borrowing quietly balloons to $419 million, you might think a headline writer's job would be easy.

Not at the San Francisco Chronicle, apparently.

"$100 million turns up, debate ensues. Laguna Honda work might benefit -- but mayor isn't sure" was the utterly confusing headline topping a story drawn from the press event in which Mayor Gavin Newsom revealed the new borrowing.

When the mayor drags the city through four budget-slashing years, while somehow managing to keep intact a city payroll that had expanded enormously over the previous half-decade, the headline scribes on the copy desk would seem to have a straightforward task at hand.

Not in the alternative universe at Fifth and Mission streets, where the mayor's patronage-preserving record was portrayed in this way: "SF payroll explosion halted under Newsom. Dip indicates break from spree years."

Inside the news business, its practitioners fret terribly about Web logs, or as they are more commonly known, blogs, personal Web sites often devoted to politics or news, seen from a particular ideological point of view. On Web sites that aim to be read by journalists, this type of fretting's particularly overheated. Comments I gleaned searching a blog frequented by journalists included the following.

"Blogs are a horrible way to deliver journalism. Forget them."

Blogs are "cliquish, they're arrogant, they get things wrong."

When not pulling their beards in frustration with -- and fear of -- the Web, journalists worry about plummeting newspaper readership. Well they might: The Associated Press reports that newspaper circulation dropped 1.9 percent nationwide over the past six months, with the San Francisco Chronicle losing 6.1 percent of its subscribers during the same period.

Finally, of late, journalism insiders have worried themselves into a nearly paralyzed state wondering whether anyone trusts the news media anymore, what with the New York Times' JaysonBlairgate, CBS's Dan Rathergate, Newsweek's QuranInTheToiletgate, and other (in)accuracy-related scandals.

My recent reading of our main daily newspaper's efforts to distort reality suggests the news business' three primary fields of fretting can be placed within a single theme.

Stand-alone Internet journalism and commentary is emerging as an alternative news source -- and thus preoccupying traditional media -- because the most popular such sites are anti-Establishment, whether coming at the Established from the left, the right, or some other direction. Bloggers write in this fashion because they know that their millions of fans find discord -- and, particularly, a discordant struggle against the abuses of the powerful -- interesting. In this light, the Internet has served as a detailed, nationwide market survey that has produced the following result: The framers of the U.S. Constitution who wished to nurture the press as a confrontational Fourth Estate check on governmental overreaching weren't mere philosopher-statesmen. They were psycho-savvy economic planners, launching one of the longest-lasting, most profitable industries in world history.

When newspapers such as the Chronicle become sycophants to power -- and as you will see, the aforementioned stories cannot be labeled as much but sycophancy -- they're no longer worth their four-bit cover price. That newspaper is in crisis mode, and there's an overarching reason: Nobody trusts a toady.

After reading the Chronicle story about Mayor Newsom's supposedly successful efforts to curb San Francisco's city payroll, I paused to wonder how our city's big daily might honor a driver who went from 50 mph to 102 mph to 101 mph as she neared a cliff: "Speed explosion halted under motorist. Dip indicates break from acceleration," perhaps?

The headline, lead paragraphs, and next couple of hundred words of the payroll story posited the mayor as a fiscal hero who'd popped the ballooning city payroll. The facts in the story, however, tell a different tale. Faced with a $352 million budget deficit this time last year, the mayor slashed city services while nonetheless keeping total pay to members of the city employee unions -- unions crucial to the mayor's 2003 election -- virtually intact. Now, he did cut the city payroll by $913,464 -- all the way down to $2.05 billion.

That's to say, the Chronicle portrayed Mayor Newsom as the man who reversed the city's payroll explosion after he cut payroll by about four one-hundredths of 1 percent. Not 4 percent. Not four-tenths of a percent. Yes, .04 percent.

Nice coverage, when you can get it.

However helpful to the mayor the thrust of the May 23 budget story may have been, its propagandistic value paled in comparison to a dispatch published three days earlier. That story devoted 722 words to a mayoral plan to finance construction of a $700 million nursing home, yet didn't explain that the new scheme encumbers the city with $120 million in new debt.

To back up and explain: In Laguna Honda, a 1,200-bed nursing home in western San Francisco that has been deemed vulnerable to earthquakes, Gavin Newsom faces a daunting political problem. The powerful Service Employees International Union, which encompasses many of San Francisco's highly politically active city employees, wants the facility completely rebuilt to preserve hundreds of jobs, even though the original $401 million cost estimate for the project has ballooned to somewhere around $750 million (not to mention an unfunded, $50 million to $60 million bill for yearly operations).

City-hired engineers have worked out new plans to shrink the project five times, trying to make it fit into original cost estimates. And five times, inflation has pushed the slimmed-down project back up to original cost levels. The union, meanwhile, has vigorously fought the idea of shrinking the facility, gathering powerful opponents of the mayor as allies along the way. So this spring the mayor was left with a choice: He could bust an already straining city budget, or he could reduce the size of Laguna Honda and face a political campaign accusing him of pushing the infirm aged out into the street. He came up with a rather canny solution: He asked the city controller to issue a report on Laguna Honda. The report suggests either building a 1,200-bed nursing home, or building a smaller facility and using the millions of extra dollars a big one would cost to pay for treating patients in cheaper private facilities, or at home with visiting care providers.

Either way, the report proposed, the city would spend at least $621 million, paid by $299 million in voter-approved bonds, $92 million in money from the city's lawsuit settlement with tobacco firms, and $10 million the report labels as "interest" without detailing where it was earned. Another $220 million would come in the form of miraculously "found" money that the mayor announced at an exclusive, carefully orchestrated press event held in his office. Of that, $100 million was discovered in greater-than-anticipated money from the tobacco settlement, while $120 million was "found" by figuring out a way the city could borrow more money, with the borrowing to be guaranteed by the city budget, without having to ask voters for additional bonding authority.

This "miracle" would be accomplished via a combined political and financial maneuver involving local, state, and federal cogs in the city's political machine. In 1999, area Sen. Jackie Speier pushed a bill that would allow the state government to channel federal funds to San Francisco to repay the debt incurred by borrowing money to rebuild Laguna Honda. According to the controller's plan, San Francisco would borrow more still, by issuing "certificates of participation," which are a type of loan, based on the idea that the additional loans would be paid back using money meant for repaying the initial Laguna Honda debt.

San Francisco will essentially borrow the same money twice, apparently by categorizing bond repayment funds from Speier's 1999 bill as "found money," even though city meeting records, press releases, and news articles from 1999 make it clear her legislation was key to the campaign to pass Proposition A, by which voters approved $299 million in Laguna Honda bonds.

"Without question, it's additional borrowing," said Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, whose district includes Laguna Honda and whom the mayor has selected to carry the ball on the new funding plan, when I pressed him. "The important point is the property taxpayer is paying less than they were told they would pay in 1999." Elsbernd was referring to ballot arguments supporting Proposition A, the measure that called for $299 million in city bonds to build a new nursing home, to be paid for by raising property taxes $120 for every $300,000 of a home's value.

According to the controller's report accompanying the mayor's announcement, the tax bill won't go up because "the total cost of borrowing has been reduced by more creative financing techniques."

Elsbernd said he doesn't know what "creative financing techniques" the controller is talking about. Calls to the Controller's Office and to the mayor's acting director of public finance went unreturned by my deadline.

So I don't know what kind of creative financing the Mayor's Office has done. Suffice to say, it must have been a hell of a financing coup that lets the city borrow and pay back an extra $120 million without it costing any more money.

We don't know if this is a risky thing for the government to do, because nobody will say what it is the government has done.

And the Chronicle report didn't even pose the question.

I have no major quarrel with the mayor's attempt to cobble together a highly adventurous and expensive financing package to rebuild the Laguna Honda nursing home.

As Laguna Honda's eventual cost edges toward $1 billion, it's clear the publicly supported institution represents an extremely expensive way to care for the aged. However, elder-care advocates I've spoken to say it's more humane than leaving such care to private nursing homes, which are notorious for abuse.

There's no sound reason, however, for keeping the public in the dark about the true costs of this enterprise, other than burnishing the idea that our mayor's a policy wizard. I understand why a mayor would want to perpetuate a wizard image. Politicians tend to portray themselves as positively as they can. But there was no wizardry here: Mayor Newsom made a difficult, expensive, and potentially unpopular decision. And it's in the public's interest to understand this fully.

It's hard to understand what's going on, however, when newspapers such as the Chronicle hew to the mayor's version of events, even when he claims to borrow $120 million at no cost, without explaining how.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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