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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


Thanks for your prompt and unexpected response. I apologize if I seemed unappreciative of the time and research you put into the article, much less your skill in weaving the whole thing together in a compelling way.

My quibble is probably not with you as much as with the editorial staff who sold your story with a lurid front cover blurb linking a cop-killing to "a Chicago law professor involved in the early stages of Barack Obama's political career." I presume that that quotation refers to Bernadine Dohrn, the Northwestern law professor you mention in the article, although I don't recall the part in the article where it was explained how she was involved in Obama's career. You call those inflammatory words putting the story into "context," with a "brief mention" of Obama. But it just happened to be the headline on the cover, repeated again boldly on top of the story inside. To me it looks like an another uncalled for whack at Obama.

I understand the need to attract readers, but this was more a bait-and-switch situation. Promise us more (newer?) dirt on the infamous Obama/Ayers (and now Dohrn) palling-around-with-terrorists connection, and then give us stories about cop killers and terrorists, all the time expecting that somehow they'll be linked to Obama. But the article never makes the link. Your article is essentially a cold case story about a frustrated and failed search for a cop killer. Do you think it would have been a cover story without the Obama connection? To me, it looks like the Obama connection is the motive of the story, not the context.

Despite all the lengthy background tales about the bloody and murderous deeds of the Weather Underground and the BLA, the Park Station bombing case looks weak, as it was even when the key witnesses were alive and willing. The main informant, Latimer, who claimed to be there the night the bombing was plotted, is said by investigators to have informed on her associates so that she could get a passport to travel abroad. Doesn't that sound dubious? So did the prosecution's lame reasons for not granting her immunity in exchange for her testimony. Her subsequent frustration at the lack of a prosecution might indicate that her real motive for turning on her fellow terrorists was more personal. (She did presumably get the passport she wanted, so why the frustration?) I suspect the real reason the case wasn't taken to court was that prosecutors found her testimony not believable enough to convince a jury. Further, there was no physical evidence. So all we've got are frustrated old investigators obsessing about their long-held suspicions, no closer to solving the case with real testimony and evidence than they were decades ago.

Conservative, moderate or liberal, we all agree that terrorist murderers of policemen should be prosecuted and punished to the full extent of the law. If cold case detectives can use DNA or other physical evidence to prove Ayers/Dohrn had a role in the case, more power to them. But if this article and its lurid graphics (a bloody hand flashing a peace sign!) are as they seem, just another conservative attempt to use old slurs to re-slander Obama, it's a big waste of time for all of us. Those who hate Obama and cling to guilt-by-association theories and believe the ridiculous lies about his "Marxist administration" will continue to hate him. Those who elected him see those lies and slurs for what they are and won't be swayed by them.

If new evidence or witnesses are uncovered as a result of your article, then perhaps it will have been worth it. Otherwise, I'm afraid it comes off as an Obama slur whether you intend it that way or not.

I am partial to cold cases and if that's your area of expertise, I'll look forward to your next article.


W. S. Clements

Mr. Clements,

Thanks for your thoughtful response regarding the packaging of the story. You describe "Time Bomb" as "essentially a cold case story about a frustrated and failed search for a cop killer." I couldn't agree more. The Park police station bombing is one of a handful of decades-old murders that have haunted this city for a long time, and my goal as a reporter here was to get past the rumors that have surrounded this case and find out what, exactly, police know -- and why they apparently don't know enough to bring a case against any suspects.

In trying to reach that goal, I did my best to acknowledge the weaknesses in the case against the Weathermen in the murder of Brian McDonnell -- the lack of physical evidence, the inherently questionable nature of testimony from criminally implicated informants, and the contradiction that exists in the form of BLA member Anthony Bottom's alleged confession.

As I write in the first section of the story, the case against Dohrn, Machtinger, and any other Weathermen allegedly involved in the bombing is "far from complete." But neither do I think the case is built on innuendo. A well-known liberal defense attorney is the source for the previously undisclosed fact that Dohrn, Ayers, and Machtinger were targets of a 2003 federal grand jury investigation, and the confidential statements to investigators from Karen Latimer and Matthew Steen, neither of them reported on before, are more compelling than the much-publicized secondhand testimony from FBI informer Larry Grathwohl regarding the Weathermen's alleged role in the bombing.

As for the Obama connection -- your point that some in the right-wing fringe are going to misinterpret or distort the article for their own agendas is a valid one. (Some are already doing so.) But I'm not sure there would have been a journalistically responsible way to present this story to a national audience without highlighting Weather Underground leaders' connections -- albeit meager connections -- to the president. Ayers and Dohrn are best known across the country for their past political associations with Obama, and omitting any mention of those connections would mean distorting the journalism to guard against its potential political consequences, a practice that we at SF Weekly and VVM avoid.

Peter Jamison

Obama photo courtesy of the White House.

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