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Shoot the messenger: Political groups try to bully news media

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Members of local community groups gather in front of the San Francisco Examiner office on July 28, 2015, to protest a column written by Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez. (Michael Ares/Special to S.F. Examiner)

On Guard column header Joe

You know, it’s one thing to see my chubby Puerto Rican visage appear weekly in the column you’re reading, but it was certainly odd to see my face plastered on signs held by 20 people from local community groups last week.

They stood outside the San Francisco Examiner on Tuesday, shouting “Where is Joe?!” “You don’t speak for us!”

Readers send the occasional nasty letter. One called me a “moron” in an email
just today. (Sweetheart!) But this was a level beyond.

The column was on the local democratic party’s vote to gut and approve “21st Century Policing” policies, a substantial call for reform. Instead, a policy document with no teeth was approved in its place. I called them out on it.

That’s the Fitz-special, coming at you with fire on the fingertips. Criticize me all you want: All I ask is that you are informed.

Funnily enough, reporters found many of the protesters hadn’t read my column.

Why would someone protest against a story they never read?

One of the only people who read it was The Randolph institute’s Jackie Flin, executive director of the San Francisco branch.

“It says some really negative things about our community leader Joshua Arce,” Flin said to reporter Michael Barba.

Sources on background also said the protest was called for by Joshua Arce, a political hopeful who is rumored to be running for Supervisor David Campos’ District 9 seat next year. I fried him badly in the column.

I asked if he organized the protest and if he’d continue to organize rallies against critical journalists, to which he simply replied: “No and no.”

Whatever. I’m willing to bury the hatchet, certainly.

But though I have a thick skin, rallies against local journalists may be a growing trend — and that’s problematic.

My English language readers may not know The World Journal, but it’s a Chinese-language newspaper heavily read in Chinatown. And those with a head in politics should know by now the District 3 (Chinatown, North Beach) supervisor race between Aaron Peskin and incumbent Julie Christensen is the hottest political slugfest in town.

The World Journal published a story saying Christensen referred to the Stockton Tunnel (in Chinatown) as a “wormhole” to other places. She’s since said she was referring to space phenomena — fair enough.

But some Chinatown groups criticized her for linking Chinatown residents to worms in dirt. In a World Journal story by Portia Li, former Chinese for Affirmative Action Executive Director Henry Der called the term “very inappropriate.”

After Li’s article hit, The World Journal found itself surrounded by Christensen-supporting picketers (sound familiar?). Richard Ow, a commissioner on The City’s Aging and Adult Services board, penned a letter to Li’s bosses calling for her to be fired, and for a public apology from The World Journal.

According to The World Journal’s story on the protest, the letter, was titled “Portia Li reverses right and wrong, is ignorant and despicable.”

When journalists are “despicable” for reporting what people say, that can put a chill on the news. Critiques are one thing, but calling for someone’s job is decidedly another.

To sort all this out, I went to the Society of Professional Journalists’ “Mr. Ethics,” Fred Brown, the co-vice chair of the SPJ’s national Ethics Committee.

“If you’re Donald Trump, it probably is good politics to take on the press,” Brown said. “In fact, in a lot of arenas that will get you extra points.”

He’s certainly seeing an uptick of reporter-flaming in the public sphere. It’s shooting the messenger — but if the public doesn’t mind seeing a politician taking shots at journalists, it’s a trend that likely won’t stop.

Amid this backlash, many moderate/conservative political operatives told me my column went too far.

I asked Brown to read my columns, and told him the political context around them. He told me reporters add more analysis to their stories nowadays, and the line between straight reporting and information with a particular point of view is gradually fading away.

Brown noted that I went to the Democratic Party meeting I questioned, and interviewed people on these topics many times before.

“From what I’ve read of your columns, it seems you do reporting,” he said. “Some columnists don’t do that. They react without getting new information. The best columnists are the ones who do fact checking, verification, and make sure what they’re saying is founded in fact.”

“In that environment, I think the best approach is to try to be as fair as possible,” he said. He said it was important that I broadcast intent, which I do by labeling my stories a column.

My column also includes the line “raising hell,” a call-out to the Bay Guardian. I don’t hide who I am.

In the vein of fairness, dear readers, if you read me and disagree with my stances — write me, criticize me respectfully on Twitter or Facebook. I welcome dialogue.

And to the politicians who are sensitive about your coverage, my advice is this: Don’t shoot the messenger. You’re the ones enacting “compromise” policies, or stuffing your feet repeatedly in your mouth.

That’s why you are written about — and not for any other reason.

On Guard prints the news and raises hell each Tuesday. Email him at joe@sfexaminer.com.

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