On September 22, the SF Chronicle
ran a front page story
entitled “Chinatown nonprofit scrutinized over ties to the mayor.” That nonprofit, Chinatown Community Development Center, is an organization I work for. I want to respond to that article because the claims it makes are false. But first I offer some context and another story.
A few months ago Chinatown Community Development Center started getting a lot of bad press. Initially it related to our director, Gordon Chin being identified with the Run Ed Run campaign. But it quickly went beyond that. The Bay Guardian called us to task
repeatedly, at one point claiming our work with tenants and small businesses impacted by the subway project was part of a “gravy train.” The Bay Citizen claimed we were
“entangled” in the mayor’s race. We were hit by a Matier & Ross
column (artfully responded to by Calvin Welch and Ted Gullicksen in Beyond Chron
) that recycled, with more innuendo, a story by the Examiner months before. Then last Thursday there was the front page Chronicle
Were these pieces coincidence, an indication that CCDC has hit the rocks, or simply an example of journalistic collaboration?
A couple weeks ago we got an answer when our soon-to-be executive director, Rev. Norman Fong ran into a well-known political operative. The rumor was that this operative had planted some of the original stories. Rev. Fong asked: why the negative press on CCDC? The operative replied, “Norman, I have nothing against CCDC, but you’re collateral damage.”
Of course, politics in San Francisco has always been a blood sport and the media has been an all-too-willing player in the game. But now, resource-thin media with junior reporters increasingly rely on campaign operatives and others to provide the stories and the framing. And one of the simplistic narratives in this election year is about Chinatown powerbrokers, Chinatown subways-to-nowhere, and of course, Chinatown Community Development Center. The stories need little analysis or reporting because the connections are obvious even if wrong.
While it replays the same narrative, the Chronicle’s front page story goes further and tries to specifically expose the imagined corruption that the previous stories assume exists. After struggling with trying to find a connection between Mayor Ed Lee and a plan that was approved before he became Mayor, the article shifted to focus on a 2009 city contract to provide services. Here the Chronicle
appeared to strike sensationalistic gold, but in order to do so it had to make up the key facts.
In 2009 CCDC received a city contract and was paid “$25,000 to hold one community meeting about project details and analyze contributions there.” This is a completely made up term of the contract. The contract actually paid CCDC $15,000
to plan and coordinate “briefings
” (plural). The Chronicle
conveniently overlooked the “s” and increased the amount (no doubt for dramatic effect) by combining it with another contract activity. In fact, CCDC conducted over nineteen briefings in the community that year in additional to analyzing and conveying feedback to the transit agency.
CCDC was paid the equivalent of $578 per person for answering questions about the subway who stepped into our storefront office. In order to reach this completely inaccurate conclusion, the Chronicle ignored all other outreach activity by CCDC staff including extensive presence at community festivals, fairs, and door-to-door outreach. Indeed, the primary work of the staff was in the field. In order to shape their story, the Chronicle again selectively chose the number that could support their message.
CCDC was paid “$750 an hour” to attend management meetings. This is also a fictional rate. In order to get its number the Chronicle speculated that the management of the entire project took two hours every two weeks, understating the actual time by a factor of about eight.
These ‘facts’ have gained the most reaction and are now being repeated in the literature of at least one of the campaigns. The article’s other innuendo and claims will be addressed in a lengthier rebuttal on CCDC’s website
later this week.
What makes these ‘errors’ in the Chronicle’s
story particularly egregious is that they were published without giving CCDC any
opportunity to respond or explain. This was not because we were hiding from the press. Two days before the story ran, CCDC held a press briefing about the subway project attended by the primary reporter John Cote himself. Cote did not ask a single question of our director or our staff (I introduced myself personally) and he made no effort to contact us later.
Of course, any media story must appear to tell both sides and the Chronicle
story does in fact quote our director, Gordon Chin. But in a particularly cruel deception, the quotes of our director are cut and pasted from an interview on another topic taken the week before. Appearances to the contrary, nowhere in that previous interview was our director asked about these or other contract provisions.
The only opportunity to comment about the ‘facts’ reported in the story is reserved for Quentin Kopp who is described in the article as a “good-government advocate” but who is also a long standing, vocal opponent of the Central Subway (although this possible bias is not mentioned in the article). The Chronicle
relies upon Kopp, who has no direct knowledge about CCDC, to interpret the facts and recommend that CCDC be investigated for some unstated crime.
front page story was a set up to advance a pre-established narrative. It selectively ignored data and contract language that did not support the story. It in effect ‘Photoshopped’ an interview of CCDC’s director and did not allow an actual CCDC response. And then it designated a voice of “good-government,” Quentin Kopp, to express outrage over the facts that the Chronicle
created and presented. If this is the future of journalism in San Francisco we all need to be afraid, very afraid.
Gen Fujioka is an attorney and part time staffperson at Chinatown Community Development Center. The opinions expressed this this essay are his own and not necessarily that of his employer’s.