For the second time in over a year, this blogger paid a visit to the legendary Phil Bronstein, the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Executive Vice President and Editor-At-Large for the last three years.
The last time Bronstein and I talked, it was an epic video on Google, Rupert Murdoch, the SF Chronicle, and the media. Epic because it was long and informative.
This time, the video is only less epic by a minute (26 versus 27) and again includes a talk about News Corporation CEO Rupert Murdoch, and that something called The Murdoch Scandal.
I was most interested in Phil’s take because he’s written and commented rather extensively about the phone-hacking controversy that saw even the families of the victims of the 9-11 tragedy as victims of News Of The World’s (NOTW) practices of electronic snooping.
But before we got to that, Phil snuck in a bit of surprise news. He was elected Chairman of The Center For Investigative Reporting. The CIR, located in downtown Berkeley, has enjoyed a long relationship with Bronstein, and now that’s taken on a new level: he’s the boss.
It happened six months ago, but Phil kept it rather quiet, thinking that “these things just go out to the either” – until now. “Well, there was a board vote in December, I think it was November (or) December of last year (2010). I’d been on the board for a number of years.” So Phil checked with his bosses at Heart Corporation in New York, and they gave the “OK.” Now, he’s excited to have the chance to take non-profit investigative reporting to a new level.
As CIR people work for a number of Bay Area news organizations, including the Chronicle, and “there’s a very good relationship, on going,” Phil says the assignment will not impact what he does at the Chronicle, or for Hearst Corporation. “We’re all searching for the same thing, which is how to support journalism.”
Rupert Murdoch and Phone Hacking
As I blogged on Monday, I mistakenly thought Phil was waxing on about the virtues of Old Media versus New Media in the wake of the news of the closing of NOTW after allegations of phone-hacking surfaced. Now, on video, I could get Bronstein’s view of the Murdoch Scandal after the Parliament Hearings of last week. How does an organization like The San Francisco Chronicle, which has standards and practices, look at what happened in the Murdoch Scandal?
“Well it’s to imply that standards and practices weren’t followed,” he said. Bronstein reminds us that reporters go to jail “all the time” and more often today than in the past, and just for “doing their job.” That’s a great difference, working on principle, over working on what may be a criminal enterprise in the case of the Murdoch Scandal.
I had to ask Phil about the claim that journalists were being jailed more today than in the past, and opened up Bronstein’s can of whoop-ass on the Bush and Obama Administrations. He says that starting with the Bush (George W) Administration, and continuing at an increased rate with the Obama Administration.
The Obama Administration has gone after journalists on matters that are related to confidentiality of sources. So, the Obama Administration, Bronstein says is “at least as tough” as the Bush Administration and it’s hard to “get a Federal shield law” in place now.
(And for the record, I’m still an Obama supporter, but that doesn’t blind me to how the Administration needs to improve in certain areas.)
Phil says that there’s a delicate balance because the role of the press is to serve as a check and a balance to the “pervasive power” of Government. If the press can’t ask questions under some kind of protective law, that balance is interrupted.
Journalists and Hacking
Phil wrote a blog post in the Huffington Post that implied that phone-hacking is a part of what journalists do to get information. Not exactly. What Phil was saying is “We’re just one person away from being able to hack into someone’s phone.” But a law-respecting journalist would not cross that line.
Still, it points to the possible existence of a culture at New Of The World that supports phone-hacking. And while Phil says News Corporation is so big its possible that the CEO (Murdoch) didn’t know, that when he was running the old San Francisco Examiner, he had to know the source of a sensitive story. So, “Someone up the food chain” had to know, he says.
Bronstein says that he could have gone to jail along with then-San Francisco Chronicle reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams over the BALCO scandal – that ended with SF Giants’ legendary batter Barry Bonds indictment for perjury – because of what he knew about their sources. “You can’t have a story like that, where someone high up doesn’t know about the sources.”
Fox News, Hearst Impact?
Phil doesn’t think the scandal will alter Fox News here in America. Also, he says that Hearst Corporation is not a “Fox News” kind of organization, so he doesn’t see an opportunity for Hearst if there’s a Fox News implosion.
Lesson For Journalists
The lesson in the Murdoch Scandal, Phil says, is not to break the law, and certain not if you’ve talked about it with a high level editor. “Credibility is the last thing we have,” he says. And there’s precious little of that.
Murdoch and Phil
Bronstein says he’s met Rupert Murdoch but he couldn’t understand “what hell he was saying” at the time, because Mr. Murdoch has that accent and does tend to mumble at times.
The SF Chronicle iPad App
As a bridge to our next big subject, I asked about the SF Chronicle‘s new iPad app. Look, there’s only so much one can ask about the Murdoch Scandal before it becomes an attempt to over-milk it.
As to the app, Phil says that it allows the Chronicle’s iPad app is much more user friendly and more interesting than the New York Times app. “Were still trying to figure out what to put on there,” he says, but it’s on and available.
Closing On Commenters and Death
We closed our talk on a matter that I’ll follow-up on in a separate blog post on commenting about death and tragedy. In this case, some commenters made statements that indicated they were happy that David Potts of San Anselmo fell into a blowhole!
My take is that some commenters at SFGate.com have nothing better to do than to be mean. That’s reflective of their own lives. My solution is to turn off the comment system until a better one is in place, or the blog post placement on the page causes better comments (yep, that makes a difference.)
Stay tuned for part two.