In 2003, after the United States invaded Iraq, a San Francisco Chronicle technology columnist named Henry Norr got fired for participating in an antiwar demonstration. Marching against the war, the Chron’s managers decided, was a conflict of interest. Although Norr didn’t write about politics, or international affairs, or anything other than computers, he was sent packing.
A year later, Chronicle reporter Rachel Gordon was barred from covering the biggest story in town Mayor Gavin Newsom’s decision to allow same-sex marriages because she’d married her same-sex partner. Again the paper’s editors went up on their big high horses and pronounced her conflicted.
So how come it’s fine for columnist and former mayor Willie Brown who writes about politics all the time to work as a flak for Pacific Gas and Electric Co.?
Brown was on hand to represent PG&E March 17 at a California Public Utilities Commission hearing on Proposition 16, a statewide ballot measure aimed at blocking public power. He sat with the PG&E executives and said in public that he was there on PG&E’s behalf. PG&E has been a client of his private law firm, and he acknowledged that the company "sought my counsel" over the past few years.
Sounds like a lot more obvious conflict than anything Norr or Gordon did.
But guess what? The Chron has a different standard for celebrity former mayors who carry water for corrupt utilities. When we asked Chronicle editor Ward Bushee about Brown’s obvious conflict, here’s what he said: "Willie Brown writes a popular weekly column for the Chronicle, and readers frequently tell us that they look forward to reading his informed insights and entertaining opinions on issues ranging from politics to movies.
"Our readers like his column to a large degree because he’s the Willie Brown with a long and colorful political history and many connections," he continued. "Willie is not an employee or a member of the Chronicle staff but his columns go through standard editing procedures. He understands conflict of interest as well as anyone. I’m confident that he would not use his column to promote or benefit outside interests or clients. But if you feel differently, why don’t you contact him and ask him these questions directly."
Um, actually, Mr. Bushee, you need a history lesson. Brown was notorious for using his position as speaker of the state Assembly to promote the interests of his private law clients something that could have gotten him disbarred in 47 states (but not this one). So he has a long history of "promoting … outside interests or clients."
And I did try to contact him. The first time I called, he answered his phone but said he was too busy to talk. I’ve left messages since then, and he hasn’t called back.
For the record, I enjoy Brown’s column too. And for the record, I have no problem with a journalist taking stands on issues. I speak about issues all the time on panels, on the radio, at community events … anytime anyone’s willing to listen, I’ll tell you what I think. Which is pretty much what you read right here.
But I never get paid for advocating for anyone, certainly not PG&E. And I don’t like double standards.
Frankly, Bushee is wrong here. If Willie Brown can show up as PG&E’s spokesperson at a public hearing on a major political issue and still cover San Francisco and California politics as a columnist (without, by the way, ever disclosing in his column that a major player in the political world is a private client of his), then the Chron should give Henry Norr his job back. And Rachel Gordon should be able to write about the politics of same-sex marriage. Because this looks really, really bad.