SANTA BARBARA, CA — Former mayor, ex-state Assembly speaker, clothes horse, raconteur, and legendary political power-player Willie Brown has been a San Francisco fixture for so long that he’s often called, simply, Da Mayor. He is also a regular columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, writing a weekly compilation of about-town items called “Willie’s World.” But his appearances in the Chronicle are by no means limited to the space under his own byline. Here are the opening paragraphs of a recent column by the Chronicle’s longtime local politics columnists, Phil Matier and Andrew Ross:

Big sit-down the other night at the 5A5 Steak Lounge on Jackson Street to try to seal the mega-development deal that Mayor Ed Lee hopes to sign on his upcoming trip to China.

At issue: finalizing a $1.7 billion deal with China Development Corp., the Chinese national railway and Lennar Corp. to construct 12,500 homes on the Hunters Point Shipyard and a string of high-rises on Treasure Island.

In addition to Lee, attendees included Lennar VP Kofi Bonner, former Mayor Willie Brown — who besides his gig as a Chronicle columnist is working to bring in Chinese citizens whose investments here will earn them green cards —and Chinese Chamber of Commerce powerhouse Rose Pak. She’s setting up the mayor’s trip to Beijing at the end of March.

Also in attendance was a representative from the Chinese end of the deal.

For some observers, these four short paragraphs paint a clear picture of Willie Brown’s influence at work: Ed Lee became San Francisco’s mayor not just as a protégé, but almost as a creation of Willie Brown. Lee had been a colorless municipal bureaucrat for more than two decades before Brown engineered his 2011 appointment to serve out the unexpired mayoral term of Gavin Newsom, who had been elected state lieutenant governor. Brown and Pak were also instrumental in Lee’s subsequent, successful campaign for a full mayoral term. So the “big sit-down” really was big: A mayor, two of the mayor’s main political patrons, and representatives of two business entities poised to benefit from enormous city development initiatives were meeting in advance of a trip to China that aimed to secure financing to make those initiatives into reality. Players were playing, and more than $1 billion was at stake.

In another city, the dinner might be the type of insider activity that the power brokers keep under wraps, as a matter of form. But in San Francisco, Willie Brown is not just a former mayor, a prominent attorney, and an acknowledged Democratic Party leader; he is also the exemplar of a certain roguish public style that emphasizes bravado and the clever tweaking of the good government crowd’s pinched conceptions of propriety. Matier and Ross have expounded for year after year on Da Mayor’s wily connectedness; Brown’s own Chronicle column sometimes revels in his insider status, puffing political friends, scoffing at adversaries, assessing current and coming political events and business deals, and burnishing Brown’s flamboyant image generally. But the column also deals with San Francisco’s social scene, the movies Brown has seen and liked or disliked, the people he runs into on the street.

A recent edition of “Willie’s World,” for example, riffs on a lunch he had with George Lucas to talk about the eventual disposition of the filmmaker’s art collection (perhaps in a museum to be created at a coveted site on The Presidio, a former military base at the city’s northwest corner now overseen by the National Park Service); Brown’s introduction of boxer Sugar Ray Leonard at a benefit luncheon for a child-abuse prevention nonprofit; Brown’s appearance at a 150th birthday of the San Francisco Port Commission, which he used as an excuse to predict that the bohemian flavor of part of the San Francisco waterfront now taken up with artist-occupied warehouses “won’t last, given plans for a basketball arena and the ever-escalating interest in waterfront property”; his panning of Tom Cruise’s new movie, Oblivion (“That’s where you’ll wish you were if you sit through this collection of rehashed plots, bad special effects and cardboard characters”); and, to end the piece, a groaningly forced joke about the San Francisco mayoral term limits and prison terms for Illinois governors.

In a sense, nothing is hidden from readers: Brown’s column overtly acknowledges that he operates at the intersection of politics and money, as illustrated in the George Lucas and Port Commission items just mentioned. Or as Chronicle Editor Ward Bushee explained in comments for a November 2011 article in the Bay Citizen, a nonprofit journalism website that has since been merged into the Center for Investigative Reporting: “Willie 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. While he’s not bound by the [newspaper’s] ethics policy, Willie has shown his respect for his readers and the rules of conflict of interest.”

This general acknowledgement of Brown’s insider status, of course, doesn’t give a full accounting of the apparent, potential, or real conflicts that might circle him. Brown doesn’t disclose his legal clients, and so readers cannot know certainly if the former mayor—whose client list has over time included a plethora of prominent entities that do business with the city, state and national governments—does or doesn’t stand to profit from the people and the deals that he and other Chronicle scribes write about.

That the Chronicle bestowed the high-profile soapbox of a regular column on one of California’s most famously controversial political deal-makers has, unsurprisingly, drawn criticism. In a Washington Monthly piece published last year, Elizabeth Lesly Stevens, who previously wrote a weekly column on money and power in the Bay Area for The New York Times, elegantly summarized the negative view of Brown’s column:

Having the Chronicle column allows Brown to brush off reporters’ questions about his private business life by saying that he is now a newspaper columnist, not a public official who must answer for his actions. And when Brown has faced questions about using his Chronicle column to settle political scores or advance the interests of his corporate clients, he counters that he is not a journalist who can be held accountable on that score, either. So Brown appears to talk freely about everything while not having to disclose anything at all.

The Bay Citizen piece, written by veteran San Francisco journalist Matt Smith, quotes an unnamed Chronicle veteran asking a rather pointed question: “Should the newspaper be in the business of helping an influence peddler peddle?” (Disclosure: Smith was a news columnist for SF Weekly while I was editor from 1997 to 2005. He and other Weekly writers regularly criticized Brown; I often edited their work and participated in investigations of the then-mayor’s activities.) Tim Redmond, longtime editor of the alternative weekly San Francisco Bay Guardian, is still aghast, years after the column started. “I’ve never seen anything like this before,” he says.

And in interviews for this post, several former Chronicle journalists expressed dismay not just about the ethics questions Brown’s column raises, but also about its quality, with one suggesting that “Willie’s World” had simply gotten boring, losing “whatever steam it had.”

But Brown has long been a polarizing figure, and views of his column are certainly not unequivocally negative. The New York Times remarked on the situation early last year in a mini-profile of Brown that deals, in part, with the ex-mayor’s column in a he-said, she-said presentation that reaches no discernable conclusion (although it does suggest, via unnamed sources, that much of the criticism of the column is fueled “by envy or racism”).

And there’s another, even more forgiving take on Brown’s column. In this view, no one is being misled in any significant way by a column that focuses on lifestyle and entertainment and, when it does deal with politics or policy, is indistinguishable from regular media commentary by other former officials such as the late New York Mayor Ed Koch and former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell. In this view, the people who have been ineffectually snarling and snapping at Willie Brown’s stylishly shod heels for decades are at it again.

* * *

Brown’s column raised eyebrows from its inception. Ken Conner, the Chronicle’s city editor when the column launched, says it was one of the first initiatives that Bushee undertook after assuming the editor’s post early in 2008. It was a decision made at the top with little input from line editors, Conner recalls, with the situation being “mediated” to some degree by Matier, the longtime political columnist. “Obviously, there was concern in the newsroom at the time,” Conner said.

But Conner, who left the paper in 2009, said the concern died out fairly quickly. Stylistically, Brown is no Herb Caen, the legendary man-about-town, three-dot columnist who wrote for the Chronicle for more than 50 years until his death in 1997, at least in part because Brown does not actually write his column. He has a degenerative eye condition and dictates information that is put “in shape” by an experienced editor, Bushee explained last year to the Bay Citizen. Regardless, Conner says he thinks the column turned out to be “pretty good, and people enjoyed it.” Also, Conner says, he never felt that Brown abused the forum the column provided him.

Conner does see a more general problem, however, of which “Willie’s World” is just a part. “I look back, and I see the larger issue is the slow erosion of the wall between the news and opinion pages,” he says. It’s an erosion that is intensifying as opinion and news are increasingly mashed together on digital media sites; Brown’s column, Conner suggests, is just a step along that lamentable road. “I mean, the standards are changing, if not disappearing,” Conner says.

Conner’s suggestion that Willie Brown’s column has a larger ethical meaning is one in a series of such notions offered up during interviews for this article. Ed Wasserman, newly appointed dean of the University of California Graduate School of Journalism, acknowledged not being familiar with the details surrounding Brown’s column, but did theorize that it could be viewed as part of a trend in which journalism is produced by people who earn their primary income elsewhere, raising conflict and loyalty questions. At the end of a long discussion of Brown’s career, UC Berkeley journalism professor Susan Rasky suggested that conflict of interest isn’t the primary problem: “I would argue that any reader who knows who Willie Brown is knows he isn’t pure as the driven snow.” The real ethics issue, the professor said, is the possibility that the Chronicle’s news staff could feel constrained from investigating Brown or his associates because of the former mayor’s connection to the paper.

I have my own opinion on Brown’s column, and it’s a simpler one: I think the Chronicle’s decision to give Brown a column is just plain wrong, by any assessment based on standard notions of journalistic ethics. If readers are to trust newspapers, the people who write regularly for them need to avoid creating doubt about their credibility; particularly, they need to assure readers of their disinterest in the financial implications of the activities they cover—or to clearly disclose conflicts they do have. Willie Brown’s persona is based on the notion that he is absolutely in the game, a real player in the high-dollar dealings of government. As it stands now, readers have no reliable way to tell whether Brown might be or might not be a player in any governmental or political endeavor that he—or other Chronicle journalists—describe. In that regard, in my view, Brown’s column undercuts the entire paper’s credibility.

Of course, my view of Willie Brown’s column in the San Francisco Chronicle is most unlikely to be the deciding one. The questions that circle Brown’s column don’t really even have all that much to do with Willie Brown, who, after all, has simply written the column he was asked to write. In the end, Bushee, who has acknowledged to the Bay Citizen seeking out Brown to be a “celebrity columnist,” is the person who will likely answer for the column should untoward ramifications arise.

I wasn’t able to engage Brown or Bushee in discussion of possible ramifications. Reached on his cell phone, the former mayor said he was in a meeting and directed inquiries to his law office; he did not respond to subsequent messages left by phone and email. The Chronicle editor responded to a request for an interview with a single sentence, transmitted via email: “I have no comment.”

* * *

On April 7, in a column headlined, “Ed Lee at his best during trip to China,” Willie Brown gave San Francisco Chronicle readers a glowing account of the trip to China that had been the subject of the “big sit-down” at San Francisco’s 5A5 Steak Lounge less than a month earlier. But perhaps glowing isn’t a sufficiently effusive adjective:

The trip to China was just spectacular!

The entire trip was orchestrated by Rose Pak of Chinese Chamber of Commerce fame.

Pak made all of the contacts with the government of China, and Mayor Ed Lee gave a great speech at Tsinghua University.

He should give it again and again. In it he described every single economic development happening in San Francisco—high tech, medical research, productivity on the real estate investment side in particular. Architecture, the performing arts, tourism and fashion and America’s Cup. Frankly, it was the best I’ve heard him.

The column went on to mention that “Kofi Bonner, a top Lennar Corp. executive,
[was] mixing it up with the Chinese Investment bank over the $1 billion-plus financing of the developments at Hunters Point and Treasure Island.” Everything about the trip, it seemed, went swimmingly.

Four days later, Matier and Ross (and other news outlets) reported that the Chinese financing deal had collapsed. To start their explanation of the reasons for the collapse, Matier and Ross wrote that both sides of the financing talks had become uncomfortable with how they were proceeding. The columnists quoted one source “outside City Hall” as saying: “The housing market in San Francisco is hot, hot, hot, and moving with speed is incredibly important these days. And waiting around for the Chinese central government to act probably is not the best way to capture a free-enterprise market.”

The source was not further identified.

 

John Mecklin is the California and Nevada correspondent for the United States Project, CJR's politics and policy desk. He is the deputy editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Follow him on Twitter @meckdevil.