Troubling revelations have emerged about the San Francisco Chronicle’s failure to meet basic journalistic standards for news coverage in its January 9 story attacking the Tenderloin Housing Clinic (THC), publisher of Beyond Chron. In my January 10 article I noted that the false allegations about THC could have been avoided had the reporter simply contacted THC’s Executive Director (me), the city’s Chief Housing Inspector, or the city agency that funds THC’s operations at the All Star Hotel. I have since learned that the Chronicle failed to even contact the hotel’s owner. In October 2012, the owner hired the firm of Mora Architects Planning & Engineering to examine the hotel’s allegedly dangerous “slanted floors," an inspection that the Chronicle wrote had not been done. The report sent to the Department of Building Inspection found that “the conditions of the corridors and the roof area the building frame members appear to be appropriately sized and in adequate serviceable condition.” The report confirmed the condition posed no threat.

Think about this. For 24 hours the top of the Chronicle’s SFGate website and a huge spread in the Bay Area section of the print version charged THC’s “Slanted Floors Hotel” with jeopardizing tenant safety without the reporter ever contacting the owner responsible for the supposed condition. Had the owner been contacted, there could be no story. Other new examples of the Chronicle ignoring standard reporting practices have left many questioning the paper’s true motives.

In my new book, The Activist’s Handbook, 2nd edition, I analyze when and how activist groups should respond to media attacks. I recommend going through a careful analysis of the various factors involved. Among my recommendations in the book is that a response is essential when the unfair mainstream media stories are “focused on your agenda.”

Since its founding in 1980, THC has worked on housing code enforcement, preserving SROs and advancing the interests of SRO tenants more than any other San Francisco organization. In 1982, I gave reporter Warren Hinckle a tour of the city’s heatless SRO’s which became the headline story in the Chronicle (under different owners) for five straight days. So when the Chronicle told readers that THC was ignoring housing code violations, and putting tenants’ very lives at risk, these false allegations struck at the heart of our mission and we had no choice but to respond.

City Editor Backs False Story

When I first saw the story falsely claiming THC was responsible for building code violations issued to the owner, I sent an email to the Chronicle demanding a retraction. I did not hear from City Editor Gerry Spratt until 11:24 a.m. Spratt agreed with me that THC was wrongly identified as the responsible party, and said he would make the necessary changes online.

But he failed to do so. The story included our phone number and people were calling asking why we were mistreating tenants. The false story also produced angry attacks about THC in the sfgate comments section. Spratt did not make any changes until 5:00pm, long after we spoke.

Spratt obviously didn’t care that he was promoting falsehoods undermining THC’s reputation. He instead waited all day to change a story whose errors could have been corrected in a few minutes.

Was that an accident? Is Spratt incompetent? Or were there other agendas at play?

Before answering, here’s the kicker: Spratt told me he would correct the fact that THC was wrongly identified as “Who’s Responsible” in the story by substituting the owner’s name and contact info. But it turned out that Spratt did not know how to reach the owner. He clearly hadn’t contacted the owner or given him a chance to response before running a story accusing that owner of jeopardizing tenant safety

So on January 10---a day after the story appeared---Spratt sent me an email asking me to send him the owner’s phone number. I responded: What outstanding violations do you believe exist that require owner action?

I got no response. And three days later I still don’t have one. Why? Because there is no action that the owner needs to take. Chron Watch had sought to mobilize public anger at THC and the All Star owner over nonexistent violations!

Even knowing there was no action the owner needed to take to protect tenants, Spratt would likely have put the owner’s phone number in the online story---potentially generating calls to his house--- had I given it to him.

Spratt had to realize that the entire story about THC was false, and thought if he got us off his back and we could blame the owner all would be well.

Spratt is not incompetent. He is a former sports editor who in 2006 was among nine journalists honored by The Society of Professional Journalists for resigning in protest of editorial interference at the Santa Barbara News-Press.

According to his LinkedIn page, Spratt is “focused on directing teams of reporters and editors to create comprehensive subject coverage.” He had to know that not contacting me, the owner, or city agencies monitoring the hotel was not “comprehensive” coverage.

Political Payback?

So why did he keep the false charges up on the website for hours after learning the truth? Why was he still sticking by his reporter’s reliance on the opinion of a single SRO tenant that the hotel was unsafe while knowing the city had never cited the hotel for “slanted floors”?

I’ve heard from a lot of people in the last three days who see the huge promotion of a story that does not meet the Chronicle’s normal journalistic standards as retaliation against Beyond Chron’s frequent criticism. They argue that the Chronicle never attacks a property owner without contacting them for a response, so why was this story different?

It’s also true that if I had been contacted there would have been no story. My email address is on our website and the reporter went to SF State journalism school where he certainly learned of Beyond Chron. Every organization I know, including the Hearst Corporation that owns the Chronicle, has designated media spokespeople. It’s simply not credible that the Chronicle did not know that I am that person for THC.

As longtime Bay Guardian Executive Editor Tim Redmond said in an email to me, “I couldn't believe the "THC couldn't be reached for comment" line. Amazing.”

Here’s how I see it.

I do not believe that top editors of the SF Chronicle conspired to produce a defamatory story about THC. I know those editors and don’t believe they would support such practices.

I do, believe, however, that THC was treated differently than how the Chronicle approaches virtually any other nonprofit group or for-profit owner. There was no story here, and when a reporter six months on the job wrote a piece after getting one call from one tenant at the All Star, somebody at the Chronicle should have looked at the draft of his story and raised questions.

One need not know anything about THC’s lease agreements with owners to recognize that as a lessee, THC had no role in fixing “slanted floors” or “visibly slanted walls.” Yet the Chronicle promoted THC’s responsibility for alleged structural problems at the All Star to the point where they even published THC’s phone number as the responsible party, inviting calls from the public.

This non-story would not have topped sfgate.com for much of the day unless someone at the Chronicle wanted to aggressively criticize the publisher of Beyond Chron.

THC’s hotels are primarily staffed by workers of color who take enormous pride in providing safe, decent and affordable housing to formerly homeless residents. They face enormous challenges in maintaining older buildings whose tenants create a lot of wear and tear. Neither they nor any THC employee deserved to be falsely accused of not doing their jobs in a newspaper read by their friends, family, and co-workers.

The Chronicle owes THC’s workers an apology. And it should remove the false story from its archive. Until it takes such actions, and explains to the public how such a poorly reported story reached its front-page, the paper’s entire credibility in doubt.

Randy Shaw has been Director of THC since 1982 and Editor of Beyond Chron since 2004. Join him for an inspiring evening discussing activist strategies at a reading for The Activist’s Handbook on January 14, at 7:00 pm at Books, Inc. at Opera Plaza.