The Chronicle and the FBI

by Randy Shaw on August 4, 2004

On July 30, the San Francisco Chronicle stated that the Department of Building Inspection had been the “subject of FBI investigations.” The paper’s story repeated– word for word— links between DBI and the FBI that it previously raised on April 20 and March 9, 2004. But the Chronicle reported in 2001 that the FBI had looked into “tips” about wrongdoing at DBI and found nothing. Is it then ethical for the Chronicle to persist three years later in repeatedly citing the FBI investigation? If so, smearing political opponents just got much easier.

Suppose one of the many people unhappy with the San Francisco Chronicle visited the FBI’s offices at 450 Golden Gate 13th floor and submitted a written request for an investigation into criminal wrongdoing at the paper. The charge would eventually be investigated, but it could take months or even years for the case to be closed.

Here’s how this scenario could play out using the Chronicle’s journalistic methods.

During the pendency of the charges, Beyond Chron could accurately report that “an FBI investigation into criminal wrongdoing at the San Francisco Chronicle has been launched and is ongoing. The Department refuses to disclose details of its investigation.”

Beyond Chron media could also reference the FBI investigation in its stories on Chronicle coverage. For example, “The San Francisco Chronicle, currently the subject of FBI investigations, reported today that.”

After some months or years, the FBI would close its file on the charge of criminal wrongdoing at the San Francisco Chronicle. But this would still allow Beyond Chron to accurately describe the paper as “having been the subject of an FBI investigation.”

Although the Chronicle had done nothing wrong, its integrity would be forever tainted by the FBI investigation. After all, many assume that the FBI does not investigate a person or organization without good reason.

During the 1950’s, actors lost jobs and careers after being questioned by the FBI. Despite its long history of legal violations against progressive activists, the FBI has enough mainstream credibility to put a cloud around those it investigates.

The San Francisco Chronicle knows the power of the FBI smear, which is why it continues to promote a non-existent FBI-DBI link in its stories.

The Chronicle avoids reminding readers that the FBI investigation of DBI led nowhere. This fact would imperil the paper’s push to undermine public confidence in the agency.

The Chronicle has also not reported that Residential Builders President Joe O’Donoghue – described by the paper as the “unappointed king” of DBI.-has never been contacted by the FBI. This fact should have led Chronicle reporters to question the extent and seriousness of the FBI inquiry.

As Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon and many others have shown, smear campaigns work. That’s why they continue to be used to this day.

In addition to falsely and unethically linking DBI to FBI-level wrongdoing, the Chronicle has also misleadingly attributed suspicions of criminal conduct to the agency.

For example, on March 9, 2004 the Chronicle wrote a story on Rudy Nothenberg’s plan to provide a report on DBI activities. Without any evidence that criminal conduct was more prevalent at DBI than at the Chronicle, Bank of America or any other institution, reporter Katia Heller wrote of Nothenberg’s task :

Nor will he oversee any investigation of criminal wrongdoing. If evidence of crimes is uncovered, he said, he will turn it over to the appropriate legal authorities

So if Beyond Chron asks a Chronicle editor or reporter if they plan to investigate criminal activity at the paper, and they say no, we can then write that “the reporter/ editor stated that they would not look into criminal activity at the paper.”

How ridiculous. But this is the Chronicle’s methodology in covering DBI.

In 1954, the general counsel for the U.S. Army took down Senator McCarthy for good with the condemnation ” Sir, have you no decency?” Those concerned with the future of local journalism should be publicly asking the same of the Hearst Corporation.

Filed under: Bay Area / California