SANTA BARBARA, CA — In an unusual turn in opinion journalism, the San Francisco Chronicle published an editorial May 26 supporting a proposed ethics reform measure that would, among other things, require lawyers who lobby city government to publicly disclose whom they represent. In the general scheme of things, of course, it is unexceptional for a major daily newspaper to support governmental ethics reform of this sort. But in the general scheme of things, a major daily newspaper doesn’t usually have legendarily influential lawyer, political dealmaker, and former Mayor Willie Brown as one of its top columnists.
As I noted last month, Brown has raised more than a few eyebrows with his regular column in the Chronicle, a weekly compilation of about-town items called “Willie’s World.” In the column, Brown—a fabulously well-connected lawyer whose clout at City Hall is a matter of regular journalistic discussion—doesn’t just mention but often revels in his insider status, commenting on major city government business dealings with which he appears to have involvement, connection, or, at least, deep familiarity.
Until now, city ethics regulations have not required Brown to disclose his legal clients as he moves through the San Francisco halls of power, and the Chronicle apparently has not demanded disclosure, either, with Editor Ward Bushee saying that the newspaper’s ethics policy does not apply to Brown because he “is not a journalist or a member of the Chronicle’s news staff. He is a newsmaker who is politically active, of which our readers are quite aware.”
But last week, the Chronicle’s editorial page came out foursquare in favor of legislation that would force lawyers seeking to influence the city government to register as lobbyists and disclose their clients, which had not been unambiguously required previously. The legislation, drafted by City Attorney Dennis Herrera and Board of Supervisors President David Chiu, is no random effort. Although Herrera and Chiu have claimed the legislation is not aimed at a single person, news reports about it almost invariably focus on the former mayor, who has clashed in complicated political ways with Herrera and Chiu.
It is probably an understatement to call the Chronicle’s editorial unusual. In supporting the reform legislation, the editorial specifically mentions Brown and his role as a Chronicle columnist, explaining that, under the proposed legislation, “[a]ttorneys who act as lobbyists would need to register for the first time. … Among the name-brand figures who would be roped in by this change is former Mayor Willie Brown, a columnist for this newspaper. Because he’s a lawyer, he’s not now required to divulge his lobbying work.” The editorial does not, however, note another reality: The Chronicle has not required Brown to disclose his clients as a requirement for writing his column, either. In a sense, the editorial asks the city to take a stand on transparency that the paper has, to this point, avoided.
In response to an email inquiry, Chronicle editorial page editor John Diaz wrote:
The editorial on ethics reform mentioned Willie Brown because there is always so much speculation/intrigue/assumption about his continuing clout and role at City Hall. I have no sense of how this may or may not affect him, but our editorial position is that the measure should apply to all lawyers, and he is a lawyer. So I thought it was worth making that point in our editorial: We aren’t suggesting any exceptions, even for someone who happens to write a weekly column for our newspaper.
When asked if he would grant an interview, Diaz wrote, “That’s really the extent of my response, since I don’t work directly here with Willie Brown (we keep news and opinion pages separate).” He said that Publisher Frank Vega and Bushee “are in the loop on all editorials in advance of publication.” (The Hearst Corp., which owns the Chronicle, announced on May 23 that Vega is retiring as publisher but will remain as the paper’s chairman during a transition to new business-side leadership.) An email requesting an interview with Bushee was not answered.
In a 2011 article exploring the ethical terrain of “Willie’s World,” a veteran Chronicle journalist boiled the negative critique of Brown’s column down to a single pithy question: “Should the newspaper be in the business of helping an influence peddler peddle?” With its editorial last week, the Chronicle raised two others: What is the proper response to a newspaper that publishes a column by Willie Brown and offers advice on transparency in government? And does it have to include laughter?
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