I worked as a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle for exactly ten years. I was also elected secretary of the Northern California Media Workers' Guild, the local branch of The Newspaper Guild, AFL-CIO, which represents reporters and copy editors at the Chronicle and other dailies in the region. Given these experiences, which ended in 1999, I found some recent news from that paper and its union to be piquant but depressing.
The first matter worthy of interest was the report that the actor Sean Penn, who has specialized in playing brain-dead stoners, death row convicts, and similar dead-end characters in movies, had been sent to Iran, to "report" -- i.e. journalistically -- on the elections there, for none other than my old paper, the Chronicle.
Well, it turned out that exercise in nonsense was even less significant than it first appeared. According to my sources in the Chronicle newsroom, Phil "I Kick Butt" Bronstein, the paper's cowboy-boot wearing Editor, issued a memo this week assuring his staff that Penn would not be employed as a Chronicle correspondent. Rather, the actor was provided a general credential letter as a potential freelancer, and was encouraged to write diary-style stories that would be carefully evaluated for possible publication. Bronstein, formerly known as "Mr. Sharon Stone," told his staff that Penn, formerly "Mr. Madonna," who made a fool of himself by stumbling around Iraq before the commencement of its liberation, would not be paid a retainer, and that the paper was not looking for political comment from the actor.
This stance was seemingly cautious for the hotheaded Bronstein, best remembered in San Francisco for a donnybrook on the premises of his former newspaper, the San Francisco Examiner, in which he broke the foot of a political consultant, Clint Reilly. But Bronstein's efforts to legitimize Penn's adventures are nothing new. The actor returned to Baghdad in 2004, filing dull jottings to the Chronicle describing his progress through various airports and offering fervent endorsements of Medea Benjamin, the long-serving anti-American agitator who heads Global Exchange, a propaganda front for the Castro dictatorship and similar obnoxious regimes. Penn's prose was padded with pedestrian observations about wartorn Iraq. On that occasion also, the inarticulate actor's experiment in journalism benefited from the patronage of Bronstein. But the Chronicle editor, whose chief reportorial achievement was his discovery of her closet full of shoes after Imelda Marcos's husband Ferdy fell from power, apparently came under criticism from the real reporters who work for him, when Penn set off for Iran claiming to represent the paper.
The MSM is a miasma of irresponsible, ideological improvisations, especially these days. I was thus somehow unsurprised when Linda Foley, the president of The Newspaper Guild, was reported late last month to have issued despicable allegations that the U.S. military in Iraq had a "cavalier nature… toward the killing of journalists," which Foley described as a "scandal." Echoing the remarks that doomed former CNN executive Eason Jordan, she went on to say, "They target and kill journalists from other countries, particularly Arab countries like Al Jazeera, for example. They actually target them and blow up their studios with impunity." She then incoherently blamed the situation on "media conglomerates," her target of choice.
What is there to say? Like everybody else, I have learned the depths of political correctness to which San Francisco, from whence I exiled myself after 47 years, and especially the Chronicle, where I spent a decade at work, have sunk. My city, meaning the place in which my intellectual character was formed, is gone; and my paper, as if the predictable leftism for which it has been known since the 1940s were insufficient, is ready to give up any pretense to professionalism. But I also have prior experience with Foley and the effort she has made to turn my old union into yet another redoubt of anti-American posturing.
Foley made her accusations about the U.S. forces in Iraq at a "National Conference on Media Reform" held in St. Louis on May 13-15. The event was a bizarre venue for a newspaper union leader to appear at, since its main participants were gadflies like Al Franken and Jim Hightower along with Amy Goodman from the ultraleftist Pacifica Foundation, and… Medea Benjamin, enabler of Sean Penn in his fling with a reporter's notebook. The high point of the conference was a rant by Bill Moyers defending the Public Broadcasting Service. Why would a serious union leader, whose primary concern should be rates of pay, working conditions, and similar gritty issues, appear at such an event?
But Foley is not a serious union leader. That became apparent to me during my tenure as a Guild officer, when I observed the internal struggle in the organization between Foley's clique and the opposing faction, the latter based in my Northern California local and in the New York City membership, which mainly represents old- fashioned union combatants at The New York Times. Foley, a former reporter at the Lexington, Kentucky, Herald-Leader, owned by the Knight Ridder chain, was elected to the union's national presidency in 1995. In her quest for the top position in the Guild, she positioned herself and her supporters as champions of leftist political issues, such as ethnic diversity in hiring and complaints about concentration of media ownership.
The opposition to Foley, which my colleagues in the Northern California Guild and I supported, had stressed the historic mission of protecting jobs, pay rates, and improved conditions. But the old-style unionism was destined to lose. The representatives of that tradition had not treated media ownership by chains like that of Hearst as a labor issue, so long as the union could organize the corporate giant's employees. But times have obviously changed, and today rhetorical attacks, intended to warm the hearts of leftists by condemning media owners simply for being owners, are more important to union officials than obtaining good contracts.
Foley takes her cues, when she defames American soldiers, from Aidan White of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), a Brussels-based "labor" group that I also know well. White, who long ago abandoned any commitment to the economic betterment of media employees, has repeatedly peddled bogus charges that the U.S.-led coalition targets journalists in Iraq. The echoes of the past are loud here. I fought it out on the floor of a Guild international conference in 1999, in Ottawa, Canada, when the Canadian branch of the organization attempted to introduce an infamous resolution, sponsored by White and the IFJ, accusing U.S.-led NATO forces of targeting journalists in Belgrade, Serbia, during the Kosovo war.
In that instance, White and IFJ rushed to blame NATO for the deaths of 16 workers in Slobodan Milosevic's propaganda broadcast system, during the bombing of Serbia. White, of Irish origin, had not long before eloquently protested Serb atrocities against Kosovar Albanian newspaper workers. But White's perspective was badly affected by his anti-Americanism, as well as his short memory. In any event, White is a champion humanitarian tourist, and with NATO having struck Radio-Television Serbia (RTS), the indoctrination arm of a fascist regime committing extensive human rights violations, he hied himself forthwith to Belgrade, where he issued press releases in the full embrace of the Milosevic machine. White became the chief defender of Serbian "media" in the international journalists' movement, and proved that he had several things in common with Milosevic.
While Milosevic believed he alone represented Serbia, Aidan White believed that he alone represented the world's journalists. Like Milosevic, White proclaimed that RTS, the Serbian state propaganda network, was an authentic journalistic enterprise. But most importantly, like Milosevic, White had a peculiar concept of journalistic accuracy. In the name of IFJ, White asserted far and wide that the NATO raids on RTS and the other Belgrade lie factories were condemned virtually unanimously by the international journalistic profession. This was, simply, false, as White knew very well. Nobody among ex-Yugoslav journalists outside Serbia, including members of the Independent Union of Professional Journalists of Bosnia-Hercegovina, the Association of Journalists of Bosnia-Hercegovina, the Professional Journalists' Trade Union of Bosnia-Hercegovina, or the Alliance of Kosovar Journalists -- all of whom White and his staff, and I, as an independent media consultant, had frequently met with -- supported his position.
Reporters in the Balkans considered the Milosevic media illegitimate, but according to antiwar leftists in the U.S., the critics of Milosevic adopted such an attitude because their strings were being pulled by the Clinton administration or NATO. But in certain cases, it was clearly the other way around: the author of the present narrative first wrote on the probability that the Serbs would massacre the Albanians in Kosovo in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1987, 12 years before the intervention, when NATO was completely indifferent to such issues and Clinton an obscure American governor. Certain foreign journalists had watched RTS for hundreds of hours, and, in describing Milosevic as monstrous and his media as fascist criminals, were reporting, not offering an opinion.
During the Bosnian war Aidan White repeatedly went to Sarajevo, presenting himself as a friend of the embattled journalists there. Bosnian reporter Mensur Camo wrote about the bombing of RTS, in the May 2, 1999 issue of the Sarajevo newsmagazine Svijet, "It is not true that the people at RTS were journalists and media professionals; the people from RTS long, long ago lost any right to call themselves that… [NATO] was doing something that in my view it was absolutely obliged to do." White would also offer the argument that bombing Milosevic's media meant "we have to contemplate the potentially tragic consequences of targeting the media… worldwide," but he was years late, with moral consequences even worse than those of NATO's tardiness in finally intervening directly in the Balkans. As also noted by Camo, the killing of journalists "just because they were journalists" had begun in the Balkans in 1991 with the assassination of Slovene and Croatian reporters by Serb terrorists, and continued through the decade with the deliberate murder of numerous Bosnian and Kosovar Albanian reporters and editors by Milosevic's gangsters. Similarly, Linda Foley and Aidan White seem to have forgotten that the targeting of journalists for murder in Iraq was habitual for the Saddam regime and remains a major activity by Islamist terrorists in the tormented country.
Months after the end of the NATO intervention, new controversy about the bombing of RTS erupted in Belgrade, underscoring the unwise nature of Aidan White's stunt. "In the regime media, the dead [in the bombing] were immediately declared journalists, even though none of them were," wrote Vlado Mares, a Belgrade correspondent for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. "The aim seemed to be to stir up the press, primarily, in fact, the foreign press, who are known to be sensitive to the killing of journalists." But the relatives of the dead, Mares, and others discovered some remarkable further aspects of the incident. How was it, they asked, that people were present in the RTS building after air raid sirens had sounded, and given that RTS was a known target? The offices of two other media outlets for Milosevic propaganda, TV Pink and Radio Kosava, were empty when the building they were in, which also housed the headquarters of Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia, was bombed. Television Novi Sad in the northern Serbian-ruled territory of Vojvodina, was also destroyed, but the building was empty.
It transpired that two top bosses at RTS, Dragoljub Milanovic and Milorad Komrakov, had barred the night shift workers from leaving the RTS building, even though the pair of officials departed at 2 a.m., just before the bombing. White, purporting to lead an international body of journalists' unions, might have much more appropriately condemned the RTS management, than NATO, for the deaths of the 16 workers. RTS was not, in any case, loved by ordinary Serbs. It was even said that Yugoslav soldiers rejoiced on hearing news of the NATO strike at RTS. Many Iraqis feel the same way about Al-Jazeera and other Arab news outlets that promote the terrorist "resistance."
Leftist bias will die hard in the MSM and its satellite entities, which now include the Newspaper Guild and the IFJ. "Journalists" who could not see that the evil of Milosevic and Saddam, as well as of contemporary terrorism in Iraq, are primarily responsible for danger to media workers, rather than American efforts to remove fascist dictators from power, will not soon change their ways. Media workers in America as well as Iraq will pay the bill for the adventuristic chatter of Foley and White, which diverts attention from their incapacity to develop an effective policy of labor leadership. Indeed, Guild members at the San Francisco Chronicle are concerned that they may fail to get a new contract when the current agreement runs out, at the end of June. They may end up on a strike picket line. With bureaucrats like Linda Foley occupied by a campaign to discredit American power, and uninterested in basic union issues, Chronicle workers may find themselves out in the cold. Summers are often cold in San Francisco, as I well recall.