It’s less than a month before Election Day, and the media remains little interested in defining where the mayoral candidates differ on most issues. Reporters do not even seem interested in explaining the key issues facing the next mayor, preferring to write “gotcha” stories handed them by competing campaigns. This cynical approach to the election has resulted in a daily pile-on of campaign donations not properly recorded, ties between donors and candidates (the most shocking revelations of all, since how dare people donate to candidates they personally know?), and reports of large contributions to independent committees that the courts have found completely legal. The book about Ed Lee became the latest vehicle for media cynicism. There was no reason for reporters to write about a piece of campaign literature, but once they did, they satirized and criticized it without telling the truth about its contents or its legality.
Having followed media coverage of San Francisco mayor’s races since 1979, 2011 is the low mark for focusing on issues and where the candidates’ stand. In 2003, Gavin Newsom felt it was so important to lay his plans out for voters that he mailed one-page position papers; today, all we hear about Newsom’s campaign was that it collected bundled contributions from Go-Lorrie van workers, and the candidates’ views toward the preceding Newsom Administration has been ignored as a campaign issue.
A City Without Problems
Based on media coverage, San Francisco appears to be a city without serious problems. Jobs, the economy, homelessness, development, schools, MUNI – the issues that customarily dominate mayoral campaigns are little discussed. We hear about an issue when a candidate puts out press releases – as Rees and Alioto-Pier did about schools or Herrera did on the Central Subway – but I doubt most voters could tell you where the candidates differ on the leading issues facing the city.
And even Herrera’s attack on the Central Subway was not really designed to raise awareness about San Francisco’s public transit needs; rather, it was a way to attack allies
of Ed Lee for allegedly unfairly profiting from the project.
John Avalos has tried to use his positions on issues to distinguish himself from the pack, but the media appears uninterested.
Instead of defining the city’s problems and laying out how each candidate would address them, the media cannot get enough of stories about people who have done business with a city official now donating to their mayoral campaigns. What editor or series of editors suddenly decided that was a scandal?
One story this season found something scandalous about attorneys employed by, or profiting from business with the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office, donating to Dennis Herrera’s mayoral campaign. Wouldn’t it speak more to Herrera’s deficiencies if those who work under him or have done business with him were not donating?
Ed Lee has been far ahead in polls and is attracting all kinds of money from people like Go-Lorrie’s van service who want to be on the winning side. How does the fact that such people are making unsolicited donations to Lee have anything to do with the candidate’s ethics?
The Ed Lee Biography
A great example of media cynicism and exclusion of issues comes from its coverage of the book about Ed Lee produced by an independent campaign.
The book is campaign literature, and on that basis the media could justifiably ignore it. But the San Francisco Chronicle in particular has chosen to publish stories about the book, both of which are demonstrably inaccurate and misleading.
Reporter Heather Knight, who promised readers “a CliffsNotes version
of ‘The Ed Lee Story: An Unexpected Mayor,’” apparently forgot that CliffsNotes at a minimum provide an accurate summary of the book. Here’s how Knight summarizes the book’s discussion of Lee’s many years working for tenants at the Asian Law Caucus:
“Chapter 5: A Fledging Activist Meets a Community in Need
In 1974, he lived in Hong Kong on a fellowship. He learned Cantonese from a "pretty young language instructor." For their first date, he took his future wife to McDonald's and ordered her a Big Mac and fries. Their wedding was held at the Salvation Army. (No wonder he was able to balance the city's budget.)”
Knight’s “summary” completely omits the book’s discussion of Lee’s years spent working on the ground in Chinatown, and she does not even mention that Lee went from law school to work for the Asian Law Caucus. Considering the formative relationships Lee formed during this period, what does it say about Knight’s biases that she ignores the book’s focus on Lee’s decade of legal work on behalf of low-income Chinatown tenants?
And that she instead tells readers that the key fact in the chapter involves Lee taking his future wife to McDonalds?
I found the book’s discussion of Lee’s Asian Law Caucus tenure illuminating, particularly since it recalled the great struggle in the 1980’s to stop the eviction of tenants and demolition of a block in Chinatown that included a corner store named Orangeland. I had forgotten Lee’s role in that fight, which was among his greatest successes.
Knight also misleads readers when she describes the book’s account of Lee’s start at City Hall under Mayor Agnos. Rather than summarize what the book actually says about Lee’s decision to go from working on the “outside” to the “inside,” Knight writes:
“Chapter 6: Called to Service
Starts his 23 years of service at City Hall where his track record of perfection continues. On a trip to China with Chinatown power broker Rose Pak, he keeps a boat headed for the president's estate waiting so he can study trash cans in a nearby park.”
Although Lee’s decision to join the Agnos Administration had nothing to do with Rose Pak, Knight adheres to the unwritten law of 2011 election coverage that requires any story on Lee to include the phrase “Chinatown power broker Rose Pak.”
Knight’s CliffsNotes version of the Ed Lee book is as accurate as a summary of Moby Dick
that does not mention whales – it reflects the underlying cynicism all too typical of other mayoral coverage.
The Truth About Political Biographies
The Chronicle’s C.W. Nevius had his own odd spin
on the Lee book:
“By law independent expenditure committees must be completely separate from a candidate's campaign. But are you really saying that the biography was produced completely without your knowledge? The book is full of personal photos and stories about Lee. Worse yet, Lee's wife, Anita, was spotted signing copies, which just about completes the circle.”
I hate to dash Nevius’ perspective on political biographies, but the vast majority are produced without the candidate’s involvement. And the legal test for independent committee’s isn’t one’s knowledge of whether a book is being written about them – see Sarah Palin and Joe McGinniss – but whether the subject has cooperated with or authorized the book’s creation – which nobody has evidence Lee did.
To make the point even more obvious: My book on Cesar Chavez came out fifteen years after his death and includes personal photos and stories about the UFW leader. If Chavez’s wife were seen signing the book, and even sold it for a UFW fundraiser, would that mean that Cesar Chavez was somehow involved in its creation?
As I said above, the Chronicle and other media could justifiably have ignored a book that was created as campaign literature. But if you are going to cover it, readers deserve an accurate account of what it says about Ed Lee. This still enables reporters to criticize any exaggerations, factual errors, omissions, or other problems with the book, but this approach would offer real insight rather than more mayor’s race cynicism.