Willie Brown Not Returning Chronicle's Calls

Categories: Media, Politics
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Hello, operator?
During Herb Caen's heyday, he shared lunch with Willie Brown every week. When the Chronicle tabbed the latter to fill the former's long-empty shoes three years ago, the paper was desperately hoping it could, once again, win readers with an eccentric man about town.

Brown, of course, is more than a man about town. He's in town, around town, under town, and, as the Ed Lee saga reveals, behind town, too.

The former mayor's name comes up no fewer than seven times in Tuesday's Page One story on Lee's turbulent entry into the mayoral fray and Brown's alleged role cajoling his longtime associate into the role. If the former mayor was contacted for the article, it is not noted within the text (and Chron writers and editors refused to discuss this on the record).

Brown has been blowing off phone calls from Chron reporters since checkered sportcoats were in style. The only difference now is the mandatory insertion of the phrase "Brown, now a Chronicle columnist" somewhere into the article.

That's what seems to be the extent of the paper's Willie Brown Policy.

"We mention he's a columnist for the Chronicle. Then we report the news as it happens straightforwardly, as we always do," says the paper's managing editor, Steve Proctor.

Proctor was uncertain if attempts were made to contact Brown -- now a Chronicle columnist -- for Tuesday's story. "But it wouldn't have been any trouble to."

It's easy to call Brown, but it's hard to get a call back. Brown has stiffed his colleagues' phone calls before when they reported on his questionable political undertakings. In fact, voices from the newsroom tell SF Weekly that he just about never calls back. This is irritating, and certainly emasculating for writers forced to make futile attempts to corral Brown -- now a Chronicle columnist.

"All people have the right to call the newspaper back or not," notes Proctor. Of course, not all people have a job with said paper as a man about town.

The closest Brown has come to discussing his role in Lee's ascendancy was a January column that manged to be both coy and triumphalist.

"As for my behind-the-scenes role in all this? If people ask me for advice, I give it. Nothing says they have to take it," he wrote. "Of course, I was the first to suggest Ed Lee right here in the column for all to see. Some columnists report the news, some of us make it."

Reached on his cellphone, Brown, in fact, took our call. When asked if he could talk about his column at the Chron he quickly responded "you call the paper and they'll tell you about it, George." He then hung up. 

Is covering the machinations of its Sunday columnist awkward for the Chron and its staff? That goes without saying -- now more than ever. Is it unethical for the paper to give a Sunday platform to a man who ducks their coverage Monday through Saturday? Not exactly. 

As long as Da Mayor isn't interfering in news coverage, there isn't a serious problem, says media ethicist Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute. "It is not unusual for papers to have contracts with political operatives as columnists," she says. "On TV, Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin work for FOX. Political news organizations hire people with political ties. The challenge is to make sure you are still delivering the product to the audience you promised."

John McManus of San Jose State University likened Brown's column to "an op-ed written by a CEO ... Given that Brown is a very skilled manipulator, you'd expect what he writes in his column is going to be spun his way."

In the end, it's the Chron's call. Whether Brown returns it is another matter.

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