Why are progressive staffers disappearing from San Francisco's leading paper? In the past month, two staffers at the San Francisco Chronicle have quietly disappeared from their posts. Ruth Rosen, a progressive opinion columnist, was suspended without pay after she wrote a column criticizing the CEO of Curves for Women for supporting anti-abortion groups. Her supervisors accused her of spreading misinformation and of "disloyalty," and Rosen eventually agreed to leave the paper. Two weeks later, William Pates was taken off his job as editor of the letters page after management learned that he had donated $400 to John Kerry.

Taken alone, each of these cases might seem like an ordinary workplace dispute. But they are part of a larger pattern that has emerged at the Chronicle in the last two years: heavy-handed enforcement of an ethics policy that strips workers of nearly all political rights, with particular scrutiny and hostility directed at progressives. There has been no open purge of liberal staffers, and little of the public outcry that such a measure might bring. But since 2002, at least six Chronicle employees have been fired, disciplined, or reassigned because they were suspected of bias toward progressive causes.

The cumulative effect has been to remove some of the most visible progressive voices from the paper's pages - and, inevitably, to send a chilling message to media workers at the Chron and throughout the area.

Conflict of interest?

Several weeks ago, Grade the News, a media watchdog group, began a study of local media workers' political contributions. The group found that Chronicle letters page editor William Pates had contributed $400 to John Kerry, and contacted him for comment. When Pates forwarded the voice-mail to his boss, he was immediately taken off his job and sent home on paid leave until a new assignment could be found for him.

The problem - according to Pates' boss, editorial page editor John Diaz - was that Pates had violated the Chronicle's ethics policy. The policy prohibits employees from doing anything that would "create the appearance of a conflict of interest." In Diaz's interpretation, this means that virtually any political act or statement, except voting, is out of bounds. "A bumper sticker would definitely be a concern," said Diaz. "Voting is a private act, but putting a bumper sticker on your car is a public statement."

Diaz emphasizes that the reassignment was "not a disciplinary measure - we're not suggesting that [Pates] has been anything but professional." Instead, the move was intended to protect the paper from public suspicion of bias. "As letters page editor, Pates was in a gatekeeper role," said Diaz. "It's the nature of the job that your fairness is always questioned."

Doug Cuthbertson, Executive Officer of the Northern California Media Workers Guild, which represents Chronicle staff, says that Pates "acknowledges management's right to determine his assignment." But Pates, who has edited the letters page for decades, told the Associated Press that he was surprised to be taken off his job. Since he worked for the editorial page - which publishes opinion articles, not "objective" news - he did not think the ethics policy applied to him.

"Disloyal and embarrassing"

On April 29, editorial columnist Ruth Rosen wrote a column accusing Gary Heavin, CEO of the exercise chain Curves for Women, of donating $5 million to anti-abortion groups. Two weeks later, the Chronicle printed a lengthy correction that denied most of the information in the original column.

The dispute centered around the nature of three organizations that Heavin had supported. Rosen characterized them as "some of the most militant anti-abortion groups in the country." In fact, the groups are religiously affiliated health agencies. While one of them counsels pregnant women to avoid abortion, and another promotes abstinence for teens, none are directly involved in militant actions. The confusion seems to have stemmed from a letter posted on the web site of Operation Save America, a truly militant pro-life outfit. In the letter, the group's assistant director claimed that Heavin donated to the health agencies at OSA's request, as part of a conspiracy to destroy Planned Parenthood.

More to the point, Rosen told Salon Magazine that a Curves public relations officer had confirmed all the facts in her column. But the person Rosen spoke with turned out to be a young relative of the CEO, filling in for the regular publicist. When the column was published, Heavin issued a press release denying any support of militant pro-life groups - and, rumor has it, threatened the Chronicle with legal action.

The Chronicle then printed its correction, which disavowed most of the facts in Rosen's column, but did not mention that they had been confirmed by a company publicist. In private responses to readers' emails, Rosen explained the incident with the substitute publicist. When one such email reached Rosen's bosses, they got "very upset," according to Cuthbertson, the union rep. "They thought the message was embarrassing and disloyal, since [Rosen] was publicly appearing to disagree with their position. She thought she was simply telling the truth."

Although Cuthbertson says that the Chronicle has no rule against publicly disagreeing with management, Rosen was suspended for three weeks, one of them without pay. The union filed a grievance, but Rosen eventually settled with the management and agreed to leave the paper.

A pattern emerges

Pates' and Rosen's cases are only the latest in a string of similar incidents:

- In August 2002, the Chronicle cancelled a regular column written by progressive feminist Stephanie Salter; the Chronicle's publisher said that the column "didn't resonate" with him. In protest, local activists organized two rallies, a letter-writing campaign that generated 1,500 messages, and a "girlcott" of the paper. But the Chronicle was unmoved - Salter was reassigned as a features writer, and her column never appeared again.

- In March 2003, technology reporter Henry Norr was suspended and then fired after he participated in civil disobedience at an anti-war rally. In a statement printed in the paper, managers claimed that Norr had violated the ethics policy, since "any journalist who assumes a prominent public role in any political issue inevitably creates the appearance of that conflict [of interest]." Norr argued that his activism created no conflict of interest, since he wrote about computers, not politics and war. He claimed that the true motive for his firing was retaliation for his opposition to the Iraq war and the occupation of Palestine. Again, an outpouring of public support failed to move the Chronicle. Norr filed a union grievance and a criminal complaint, but the parties eventually settled out of court, and Norr never returned to his job.

- In March 2004, reporter Rachel Gordon and photographer Liz Mangelsdorf were barred from covering San Francisco's same-sex marriages after they married each other. Some observers compared the Chronicle's actions to prohibiting black journalists from covering civil rights protests. Supervisors Tom Ammiano and Bevan Dufty organized a support rally for Gordon and Mangelsdorf, and the National Association of Gay and Lesbian Journalists denounced the Chronicle's move. Once again, managers did not respond. In this case, the Chronicle's arguments about journalistic objectivity were rendered all the more bizarre by the paper's enthusiastic support of gay marriage. It was an official sponsor of this year's marriage-themed Gay Pride Parade, ran pink advertisements proclaiming "We come out every day," and posted an album of same-sex wedding pictures on its web site.

Credibility and ethics

Chronicle managers justified most of these incidents by arguing that the paper must protect its credibility and avoid accusations of bias. But restricting workers' political rights is not a standard component of respectable journalism. Ted Glasser, director of Stanford's Graduate Program in Journalism, says that the ethics policy is "inappropriate, although unfortunately it's not peculiar to the Chronicle."

First of all, reporters are human beings, and their biases won't disappear simply because they're not allowed to put bumper stickers on their cars. "The policy doesn't prevent conflicts of interest, it just encourages employees to hide their interests," said Glasser. This makes it more difficult for readers to critically evaluate what they read.

Furthermore, "conflict of interest" usually refers to a situation where a reporter has a financial or personal stake in the subject she's covering - like a business reporter who writes about a company she owns stock in. Chronicle managers have never explained how expressing a political opinion constitutes a conflict of interest. "You can have interests and act professionally," said Glasser. "In Pates' case, the individual didn't benefit in any way from his contribution, and there's no evidence that he was biased."

But apart from the policy's ethical problems, it's patently illegal. California State Labor Code Section 1101 bars employers from "forbidding or preventing employees from engaging or participating in politics." Section 1102 reads, "No employer shall coerce or influence or attempt to coerce or influence his employees through or by means of threat of discharge or loss of employment to adopt or follow or refrain from adopting or following any particular course or line of political action or political activity." The law allows up to year of jail time for bosses who violate these provisions - and it offers no exceptions for journalists or any other class of workers.

Finally, the Chronicle's stated commitment to neutrality conflicts rather glaringly with the behavior of its top executives. While Pates' $400 donation was labeled an ethical violation, George Hearst - chairman of the board of the Chronicle's parent company - has donated $30,000 to Republican candidates and committees over the past three election years. (Information on Hearst's donations is available at the campaign finance web site www.opensecrets.org).

"This is one of the great hypocrisies of American journalism," said Glasser. "These policies apply to rank-and-file reporters, not to managers. If you want to talk about conflicts of interest, let's talk about it where it really matters."

John Diaz, the editorial page editor, would not comment on Hearst's donations or their implications for Pates. "I address ethics in terms of my staff," he said. "It doesn't matter what anyone else is doing. You have to be true to yourself."

But Hearst's contributions certainly create "the appearance of a conflict of interest" - especially since the ethics policy seems to be used mainly to silence employees who sympathize with progressive causes. Cuthbertson, the union rep, dismissed rumors of discrimination against liberals as "highly speculative." But he could not name a single case in which a staffer was transferred, suspended or fired under suspicion of bias toward conservative causes.

Looking forward

The situation at the Chronicle looks grim. The ethics policy is so far-reaching, and applied so aggressively - even to opinion writers - that it stifles critical political dialogue in the Chronicle's pages. While top executives are free to support conservative causes, writers may be afraid to voice opinions that diverge from their bosses'. And it's hard to imagine how any serious political analyst could be hired under the policy - people with original political insights tend to have opinions and to express them publicly.

While it can't be pleasant for staffers to work under a McCarthy-style climate of suspicion toward progressive ideas, it's the Chronicle's readers who are hurt most by the policy. Anyone who relies on the Chronicle for daily news will miss important critical perspectives on local and national politics - an extraordinary loss in a mostly liberal community.

As long as the Chronicle continues to dominate local print media, it's crucial for local activists to fight its repressive policies. But it won't be easy. While the ethics code is in clear violation of state law, employees who have been affected by it have so far chosen to settle privately instead of pursuing legal action. And the paper barely acknowledged the public outcry that Salter's and Norr's cases generated. Readers and activists will need to apply serious pressure to the Chronicle - or develop real, accessible alternatives - in order to bring diverse and progressive voices back into the local media.

Full disclosure: the author of this article is the daughter of fired Chronicle reporter Henry Norr.