Chronicle Cans Firebrand Columnist Robert Scheer -- And He's 'Pissed Off'
"A.J. Liebling once said that 'Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one,'" Scheer said from his Los Angeles home. "So what can you do?"
Scheer -- currently a lecturer at USC's Annenberg School of Communications and the editor of truthdig.com -- wrote for the Los Angeles Times from 1976 to 2005, when he was acrimoniously dropped. His weekly column was immediately picked up by the Chronicle and ran until last week. Scheer claims Chron editorial page editor John Diaz told him that his columns had grown "predictable" and the paper was "freshening the page."
Diaz told SF Weekly the call to drop Scheer was his alone, and "this was nothing specific about [Scheer's] column, we just wanted to work more columnists into the mix." Scheer laughed at Diaz' explanations: "Sorry, governments are 'predictable.' They're screwing the average person and benefiting banks -- if that's predictable, it's not my fault." The columnist noted he usually doesn't find out why he was really dismissed from a paper until the person who dismissed him is himself dismissed.
As far as "freshening the page," it warrants mentioning that three of the columnists who will fill Scheer's spot -- Paul Krugman, David Brooks, and Thomas Friedman -- will simply have their columns lifted from The New York Times.
Scheer was particularly "pissed off" that Diaz told him that "nobody was reading the columns" (Diaz denies he said this). If no one is reading, how come Scheer recently received a cavalcade of Web comments and e-mails following an excoriation of Israel's tactics in Gaza? (Scheer put it thusly: "How the fuck can they say no one is reading the column? It got 565 comments and 80 e-mails through the Chronicle!").
In fact, Scheer wonders if too many people were reading the columns. In two of his last Chron pieces he not only castigated the Jewish state but refered to powerful banks as "robber barons" and "bandits." Many of the readers who e-mailed him about the columns predicted he'd lose his job. He thought that was a stretch -- but now he's not so sure. One thing he's certain of -- this is not a money issue. Scheer estimates it cost the Chron $20 or $30 a week to run his syndicated column (which it will ostensibly continue doing online, though not in print). Diaz denied Scheer's recent columns triggered his departure, but quickly noted, "I'm not going to engage in any public argument with Bob over this. He's welcome to characterize things as he wants." Don't worry -- he will.
Scheer said he and Diaz have always gotten along -- they've even tailgated together before Oakland Raiders games. But the journalist accuses his editor of carrying someone else's water.
"The media never covers itself. Outside the building [journalists] will even confront dictators, but inside the building they're little church mice. They're very worried about keeping their jobs. I can't believe [Diaz] suddenly decided he didn't want to keep the column. He always told me he liked it," Scheer said. The Chron "is a big institution -- like an insurance company. Like a bank. The whole notion of a brave, free press -- it's exceptional. Most people play a bureaucratic role in the company. ... I'll debate my columns. I think they hold up pretty damn well."
Photo by Zuade Kaufman