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Friday, September 25, 2009

It Ain't About Obama: A Conversation on our Weather Underground Cover Story

Posted By on Fri, Sep 25, 2009 at 12:59 PM

click to enlarge President Barack Obama
  • President Barack Obama
We've had an interesting range of responses to our Sept. 16 cover story, "Time Bomb." The story was about the cold-case investigation into the 1970 murder of San Francisco Police Sergeant Brian McDonnell, who was killed by a bomb packed with industrial fence staples that was placed at the Park police station. Central to the story was the revelation that two informants told the FBI in the 1970s that Bernardine Dohrn and Howard Machtinger, former leaders of the Weather Underground, organized the attack.

Rumors have floated around for years about possible Weather Underground involvement in McDonnell's murder, but had been previously based on hearsay from a third source, FBI mole Larry Grathwohl. Whereas Grathwohl said the attack was described to him after it took place, both of the informants uncovered by SF Weekly said they had attended meetings in the weeks prior to McDonnell's killing where the bombing was planned; one of them claimed to have personally cased the station. Additionally, we reported, based on new information from San Francisco criminal-defense attorney Stuart Hanlon, that several former Weathermen were the targets of a secret 2003 federal grand-jury investigation on the incident.

A number of our readers, from across the political spectrum, interpreted this story as an attack on President Barack Obama. That's because we gave mention to the ties between Obama and Dohrn's husband, Bill Ayers. Obama and Ayers (who along with Dohrn and Machtinger was the third target of the 2003 grand jury, according to Hanlon) ran in some of the same political circles in Chicago in the 1990s, and this connection became fodder for a right-wing smear campaign during the 2008 presidential election.

click to enlarge President Barack Obama
  • President Barack Obama
The question of how to present the Obama-Ayers-Dohrn association in a responsible piece of journalism is an important one. SF Weekly's Sept. 16 table of contents made reference to Obama. The story was also syndicated across the Village Voice Media chain, and three of our sister papers ran Obama's name on the cover. Was this sensationalism? Did we become part of an anti-Obama smear campaign?

One of our readers, W.S. Clements, was gracious enough to engage us in an extended conversation on this topic. After trading a few e-mails with Clements, I asked him if I might publish our correspondence, and he agreed. Our e-mails are reprinted below. As always, we here at the Weekly welcome additional input.

Mr. Jamison,

I looked at the latest LA Weekly cover (Sept 18-24) and got the impression there might be something new or different about last year's pre-election guilt-by-association attempts to smear Obama. Not only did your article fail to further develop an Obama connection to a one-time terrorist (as promised in the cover blurb), but there was nothing new here but a lot of old speculation and a quotation from Greta Van Sustern's show on Fox. I've never seen her show used in the Weekly as a source. And none of this stuff connects to Obama. Nobody, not even the most rabid and shrill of his detractors, suspects Obama of terrorist sympathies. So what's the story?...


W. S. Clements

Dear Mr. Clements,

Thanks for your response to the story. As you could tell, the subject of my article is not Barack Obama, who is mentioned in a single paragraph of the 5,000-word piece. The past connection between Obama and Bill Ayers/Bernardine Dohrn is described, briefly, to provide context for renewed national interest in the Weather Underground last year -- not in order to connect Obama to the Weathermen's alleged acts of violence or lend credence to the laughable theory that the president shared or shares the group's revolutionary creed.

Peter Jamison

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