Freedom of the Press?
Not in San Francisco

"City Hall's nightmare is that hundreds of unwashed citizens will show up and ask questions: such as, where is the money we gave you?" - Peter Byrne

July 25th, 1997

Editor's note:

Yesterday, I posted a message to the SF Election Fraud Newsletter reporting that members of Mayor Willie Brown's staff had taken to harassing Peter Byrne, the publisher of the San Francisco Investigator. I asked readers to call Mayor Brown and ask him to refrain from abusing San Franciscans' right to a free press. (The last time I looked, the Constitution of the United States still applies in this city.)

Peter is virtually alone among San Francisco's press corp in reporting the details of what goes on in City Hall. If you'll take a look at our Hall of Fame, you'll see his publication is only one of two news outlets - in a city with dozens - that has reported on the evidence of fraud in the June 3rd Election.

Soon after I posted my request, I received an e-mail from someone who told me that he had called the Mayor's Office and that: 1) the Mayor's Office assured him that Mr. Byrne's story is not true and that 2) no one had called the Mayor's Office to complain.

Claim #2 is ridiculous because I called to complain and I am aware of at least three other people who did so. Claim #1 is a matter of "who do you trust?" In a contest between Mayor Brown and his staff and Peter Byrne, let's just say, the question of the mayor's integrity is well established by this point.

Here's Peter's response to City Hall's various counterclaims. It's well worth reading in its entirity.


By Peter Byrne
Editor & Publisher
The San Francisco Investigator

Neither the Independent nor Bay Guardian articles stated that I have ever been barred from a Mayor Brown press conference. In fact, last Wednesday's press conference was the first regular one I ever attended.

No one ''took over the questioning from the press'' at the press conference. After the regular media had exhausted their curiosity, some ''irregulars'' asked a few polite questions. Van Jones is a writer for Third Force magazine and his questions were pointed, and respectful. The woman who asked the Mayor good questions regarding General Assistance was a citizen--just like many of the other people in the room who were not members of the ''working press.''

I heard through the grapevine that a Chronicle reporter was the unidentified person who asked that the press conferences be limited. Ironically, the Chronicle ran a story based upon Van Jones' and the woman's questions.

No credentials were required at the door. Many bicycle enthusiasts attended. Nobody was rude or out of line. It was only after the press conference that Johnson approached me, gratuitously, to ''warn'' me (and only me) that future press conferences would be limited to persons with official press passes (which are only issued by the Police). I asked Johnson to put it in writing. He called me ''crazy'' and ''an asshole.'' He touched my person. I responded by gently pushing him out of my face. Guards stepped between us. The entire event was witnessed by Independent reporter Johnny Brannon.

Some background

Months ago I requested press secretary Kandace Bender, in writing, to add me to her office's fax blaster. She informed me that the blaster was at capacity (200 blasts) and that she was soon purchasing a new fax machine and would add me to the list. Today, I wrote again to Bender, requesting her to add me to the fax list for all press releases, announcements, event schedules, etc. I have not yet received a response.

I have never been notified that the Mayor's Office gives out press passes. Many months ago I asked Bender how to get a press pass and she told me to apply to the Police Department, which I did. I was turned down because my publication does not demonstrate a need to cross fire and police lines. This did not bother me, because I have never been asked for a press pass in the course of my investigations.

Johnson's spin is just that: spin. I have never applied to Brown's office for a pass, because such a pass has never existed. (Maybe it does as of this week). The reasons for the police denying me a pass are clear. Passes are not given to individuals unless the media organization for which they work has consistently demonstrated, in print, that it covers fire and crime scenes, demonstrations, etc.

This is logical, because, until now, there has never been a need for reporters to have press passes inside City Hall. Nobody in the entire scattered bureaucracy ever asks for one, except firemen and police: when you want to cross their lines.

I have not ''chosen not to go along with the new policy,'' because I am unaware that there is any policy. I asked Bender, in writing, to fax me all press releases this morning. So, perhaps she has chosen not to inform me, ''for reasons of her own,'' of any new policies.

Why now?

It will be revealing to find out what--if any--ordinance authorizes Brown's press office to issue restrictive ''press passes.'' If the Mayor chooses to invite a selected few lobbyists or reporters to tea, or to drink alcohol on public premises from his assorted wet bars, he is entitled to some privacy, perhaps. But, press conferences are, by definition, public events. The only reason for their existence is to disseminate information to the public. Our society typically allows the powerful to filter their truths through the minds and allegiances of the corporate media, but elitist tradition is not the same as public law and public need.

Secrecy is the domain of the guilty. What does our Mayor have to hide? ANY person is already legally entitled to inspect and receive a copy of almost every document, memo, and scrap of computer paper generated by City Hall. There are no secrets of national security involved here. What the Mayor does not want is for the public to become USED to asking for and receiving the information to which they are entitled by law. He seems to want the public to believe that we have no recourse but to swallow the propaganda of the moment as digested by certified scribblers.

Mayor Brown may bar the public from his private parties in private places, but by what statute is he enabled to bar the public from a public event--or to restrict us from participating in the event? If he chooses to turn his meagerly-attended press conferences into invitation-only affairs, they will loose whatever democratic meaning and use they hold. The average person cannot ask the Mayor questions when his sound-bites appear on the nightly news. Is public information now only a one-way street? Under what line of political thought should the average person be prohibited from asking questions publicly of the person we pay to carry out the public will?

Mayor Brown only holds short, bi-weekly press conferences anyway. Hardly time enough for people to ask intelligent questions and receive intelligent answers. The unpaid public is demonstrably capable of asking more potent questions than the paid media. It does not take a genius to see why Brown wants to bar the public from the few moments when he can be held accountable for his actions.

I observe that the Mayor's problem last Wednesday was not mainly *my* presence at the press conference. The problem for Mayor Brown (and the Chronicle) seems to have been the presence and questions of Van Jones and the other African American. They both asked hard questions concerning General Assistance: to which the Mayor irritably responded by advising poor people to ''get jobs at McDonalds.''

In public statements, time and time again, Mayor Brown has shown a bias against the workings of ordinary democracy. Curious folks should attend a press conference and witness the obvious disdain in which Brown holds the media. The major SF press generally asks quite mundane questions of the Mayor. There are exceptions. I was at a press conference before the June election in which Brown grossly insulted Barbara Taylor of KCBS when she asked a hard question. The price for asking Brown a hard question is often a personal attack from the Mayor: and no answer to the question!

The post-conference altercation with P.J. was not an event in which I take pride. In retrospect, I would have preferred to have had the presence of mind to simply walk away from him. He was, obviously, baiting me. My only contact with him before that moment was a ten minute conversation with him in his office several months ago, at his invitation. At that time he asked me why I was ''so hostile to the Mayor?'' I replied that I had ''no hostile feelings towards the Mayor, only towards graft and corruption, and if the two coincided I would not hold back from exposing the Mayor's role in the latter.''

P.J. repeatedly asked me for a copy of my newsletter and I repeatedly informed him that the subscription price is $49 a year. He told me that my ''attitude'' would ''deny me access, such as personal interviews with the Mayor.'' He then threw my newsletter brochure in his trash basket. I retrieved it and exited humbly after telling him that ''each brochure costs me one penny and, unlike City Hall, I cannot afford to indulge in waste.''

The point is that the Brown administration has consistently demonstrated that it cannot tolerate criticism from anyone. Honest answers to honest questions would go far to improve the tenor of the Mayor's relations with the 750,000 San Franciscans outside of his immediate social circle. He is, after all, spending $3.4 billion on operations this year--and hundreds of unaccountable millions on bond-funded boondoggles. Maybe the real motto of his administration should be: ''Don't ask, don't tell.''

In conclusion, I plan to attend the next press conference. If I am asked, in writing, to apply for some sort of pass, I might. I will continue, however, to mightily support the right of ''ordinary'' members of the public to attend press conferences and ask questions. These press conferences are probably the only public venue in which we have an alternative to force-feeding by the Brown Machine.

(Perhaps I should ask P.J. what his credentials for being an assistant press secretary are? As far as I know, his only previous link to the ''working press,'' was as a Bay Guardian intern: the only one ever to be actually fired.)

The only point of any real importance in this entire affair is the public revelation of the astonishing fear with which the Mayor and his handlers habitually react to simple questions concerning public policy--from individuals who have not been certified by the Chron/Ex censors.

City Hall's nightmare is that hundreds of unwashed citizens will show up and ask questions: such as, where is the money we gave you? In their collective terror, City Hall minions try to paint this possibility as mob rule. I have more faith in the people than that--and do not recall any instances where the Mayor has been publicly disrupted, or when the press has been prohibited by the masses from carrying out their assigned tasks.

If the Mayor had not made such a huge stink about certifying the press: the entire matter would have blown over in a minute. Should be interesting to see what happens next.

Peter Byrne, The San Francisco Investigator

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