The Perils of Writing Beyond Chron

by Randy Shaw, Editor on November 16, 2007

Since launching Beyond Chron in April 2004, I typically get positive feedback when bashing Republicans, corporate interests or Mayor Newsom, but often disagreement and even outright hostility for questioning progressive persons or causes. Many appear to reject the notion that progressives benefit from open debate around tactics or strategies, and believe Beyond Chron should consistently boost activists even when they make mistakes or are pursuing a questionable course. Any words about a progressive political candidate that are less than glowing are viewed as traitorous, and activists interpret omitted or misremembered facts not as accidental, but as part of a conscious campaign against their person. I got a classic example of this progressive backlash following my November 13 survey of the 2008 District 9 and 11 Supervisor races. Supervisor Chris Daly even wrote a whole blog entry about my article; his piece foreshadows my concern that a race with multiple progressives could foster division rather than unity.

I decided to write about the District 9 and 11 races because I was struck in October by how many activists were already focusing on campaigns that were more than a year and three elections away. And District 9 was particularly interesting because the race featured three well-known progressives in a district that has only been represented to date by Tom Ammiano.

I hoped the piece would educate readers about the candidate field, and offer preliminary observations on the respective candidates. Writing about five candidates necessarily limits the amount of reporting on any one, a fact many critics overlooked.

I heard Tuesday morning that Eric Quezada’s campaign was furious about my description of his candidacy. The only remotely negative phrase that I was aware of was my assertion that “some find him divisive”—a view expressed to me by dozens of people and that hardly disqualifies him from being an effective Supervisor.

But in Chris Daly’s view, my article was “rife with inaccuracy and innuendo,” and clearly displayed my “bias” against both Quezada and his “neighborhood-based campaign for Supervisor.”

This may come as a surprise to those who regularly accuse Beyond Chron of being a mouthpiece for Chris Daly. The truth is that Daly has been far and away the harshest and most strident critic of Beyond Chron’s coverage, a fact concealed by—until this week—the typically private nature of his communications.

Daly took the opportunity of my article to accuse Tom Ammiano of making a “politically calculated” endorsement of David Campos, to claim Mark Sanchez lacks a district base, and to accuse me of the “very same type of politicking I’ve come to expect from Michela Alioto-Pier and her patron, Don Fisher.”

So much for Daly’s commitment to progressive unity. And this over an election that is a year away!

Daly raises one important point when he claims that I have shown “disdain” for Mission District activists. What Daly terms “disdain” is my attempt to assess activist’s strategies. Unlike some who believe that those fighting the good fight should be above criticism, I think activists should be held accountable. This is especially true when professional activists bring families, seniors and other vulnerable populations out to public hearings, and these folks put their faith in the organizers that they have a sound strategy for success.

During the debate over 3400 Cesar Chavez, I thought it fair to ask why some Mission activists continued to put their faith in a Planning process that virtually always rewards developers. I also wondered why activists have not prioritized land acquisition for affordable family projects in the Mission.

Over the past several years, nonprofit groups have acquired multiple large family sites in the Tenderloin, accessing the same pot of funds available to build housing in the Mission. It seems reasonable to ask why Mission activists did not secure such funds, and why they instead invested primary energy in a planning process they do not control and in building-by-building fights against market rate projects that do not directly address the need for affordable family housing.

My law office provides free legal services to the victims of Mission District gentrification, and when I see the desperate multi-generation families in my office each day, it forces me to publicly ask questions that might make some activists uncomfortable. But my hope is that raising these issues might redirect resources more strategically, accomplishing the ultimate goal that all progressives want for the community.

In addition to reaping criticism over comments on candidates and activist strategies, I have lost important relationships due to Beyond Chron’s decision to publish certain stories.

The most prominent example occurred when we were contacted by a frequent contributor about a racially-based incident that occurred in a local hotel. The Bay Area media had ignored the story, and while the hotel’s owner was someone with whom I had worked with for years and greatly respected, it seemed that the story’s importance could not allow Beyond Chron to let personal considerations intervene.

The result was that after we published the story, other media followed suit, and a month-old incident that had been hushed up suddenly was everywhere. I gave the owner space to respond to our story, but from his perspective we had opened up a whole can of uncomfortable issues that he thought was behind him. We have not spoken since.

Finally, we have some readers who get outraged at any criticism of certain politicians. The notion — whether intentional or not — is that once certain elected officials are designated “progressive,” they should be immune from criticism.

Such a view directly conflicts with the view I expressed in The Activist’s Handbook, which is that activists should best have a “fear and loathing” relationship with politicians. That does not apply with such force in places like San Francisco where most politicians and activists are on a first-name basis, but even here it means that activists must not put the politician’s interests ahead of progressive constituencies.

I noted in my book how the failure of tenant activists to hold Mayor Art Agnos accountable for his pledge to enact vacancy control resulted in both the measure’s defeat and Agnos’ defeat to Frank Jordan. Holding politicians accountable helps them maintain their base, in addition to furthering progressive interests.

So when Jake McGoldrick or Sophie Maxwell vote against progressive interests, I feel obligated to hold them accountable. The fact that both ran as progressives in 2000, and vote progressively on many issues, should not give them a free ride on others.

The outcome of such an uncritical strategy was seen when McGoldrick cast the deciding vote in favor of 3400 Cesar Chavez. Many of the activists involved in that fight had long defended McGoldrick, allowing him to believe that he could vote against their interests on this issue without burning bridges. So he did.

I get no shortage of letters about my alleged “hatred” or “bias” toward these Supervisors and other politicians whose backers believe should be immune from political accountability. But once politicians learn how to play constituencies and activists, their effectiveness as progressive allies is soon gone.

If we listened to our critics, Beyond Chron would be one predictable and boring publication. So despite the risk of further loss of friendships and relationships, we’ll continue raising ideas and critiques that are often unavailable elsewhere.

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