SF Weekly Launches New Attack on Alternative Press

by Randy Shaw on September 29, 2008

The SF Weekly just can’t help itself when it comes to trying to undermine independent media sources. Earlier this year, a San Francisco jury verdict found that the publication had long engaged in predatory pricing against the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and awarded damages of over $15.5 million. Now the San Francisco outlet of the Village Voice media chain is seeking to undercut the Berkeley Daily Planet, running a story this week that promotes ad hominen attacks against the paper’s editor, Becky O’Malley.
Significantly for a publication whose ethics have been found wanting by both a judge and jury, the SF Weekly legitimizes accusations against O’Malley that could similarly be raised against editors of almost all publications, and which are utterly without merit.

At one level, Will Harper’s report on a Berkeley Daily Planet reporter’s letter of resignation could be seen as just a case of a reporter sharing some inside dirt with the outside world. Reporter Judith Scherr quit the Planet and sent out an email charging editor Becky O’Malley with a variety of sins.

That certainly Scherr’s right. I suppose in a slow news week Harper would enjoy spilling dirt among fellow journalists.

But the problem here is that Scherr’s chief charge against O’Malley—what she deemed her breaking point—was the editor’s alleged lack of integrity. And the basis of this charge was that Scherr claimed that O’Malley had information about a story Scherr was working on that the editor did not share with her.

The information in this case was included in a widely distributed and discussed e-mail that much of Berkeley’s political class was aware of, but Scherr somehow was not. Scherr ended up writing a story on the issue without mentioning the information contained in the e-mail.

A question of bad reporting? Not according to Scherr. Rather, she claimed it was O’Malley’s fault for not affirmatively telling her about the e-mail.

Now think about that for a minute.

Editors have all kinds of information related to potential stories that they do not have time to share with reporters. Most editors likely assume, as O’Malley did in this case, that her reporter knew about the flyer because it was in the newsroom, or would come across the flyer in the course of her reporting on the story.

I guarantee you that Bay Guardian Editor Tim Redmond, and myself as Editor of Beyond Chron, almost always have more information on issues than the reporters we sent out to cover stories. When you have been around as long as we have, you know stuff—but rather than spending time we do not have to impart this knowledge to reporters, we assume that good reporters know how to get the key facts.

Will Harper and his editors at the SF Weekly understand this journalistic reality. But they did not disclose their own practices to readers, which would eliminate the news value of Scherr’s charges.

Independent, offline journalism is fighting for survival. One would hope that the SF Weekly has more important stories to write than airing gratuitous attacks against the Daily Planet and other competitors.

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