The “Hub” at Fresno City Hall got me thinking on Monday about journalism, public safety and ambition.
Combine those three elements and you usually get an explosion. Stay with me as I try to prove my point.
The “Hub” is my name for the area just to the south of the Council Chamber on City Hall’s second floor.
The elevators are there. So, too, is the door to the City Attorney’s Office. Off to one side are the Council Chamber’s foyer; the well-traveled path to the City Clerk’s Office and the Finance Department; City Hall’s beautiful formal entrance; and the twin stairways that take you to the always-busy Planning Department on the third floor. Off to the other side is the entrance to the offices of the Mayor, the City Manager and the seven Council Members; the doorway leading to the stairwell that provides top city officials with a shortcut to the executive parking lot; and a pair of bathrooms.
All roads in Fresno’s municipal government go through the “Hub.” A reporter standing there long enough is almost guaranteed to find something interesting.
So it was on Monday that I walked to City Hall. I passed through the “Hub” and into the Executive Offices’ waiting room. City Hall Communications Director Mark Standriff was kind enough to meet with me.
Standriff kidded me gently about my most recent piece in CVObserver. The 1,000-word piece was based on an email I’d received from former Fresno County Supervisor Doug Vagim about the city’s new water conservation rules.
Standriff with a smile said Vagim knows me well – that an email with some policy jargon and a bit of populist sizzle was enough to get me hopping on a story that no other reporter in town would bother to touch.
I had to laugh. Standriff was right. As I said to Mark, that’s the beauty of the digital world and the gig economy. An unemployed reporter with considerable experience at City Hall, a need for $50 and prompt access to a quality Web site such as CVObserver.com can quickly turn a tip into a news story available for free to anyone with a modern digital device. To paraphrase A.J. Liebling, freedom of the press no longer belongs solely to those who own one.
Standriff and I chat several times a week in that waiting room. I tell him about my story ideas. I ask to speak with city officials.
On Monday, I told Standriff of my interest in a Public Utilities story. Public Utilities is a gold mine of story ideas. Standriff said I needed to talk to Public Utilities Director Tommy Esqueda, who wouldn’t be available until next week.
I asked Standriff is someone could fill in for Esqueda.
“I don’t want David Taub to beat me on this story,” I said. I smiled, but I wasn’t joking.
Taub, as you no doubt already know, is a reporter with GVWire, a new online news site. The “GV” stands for Granville, as in Granville Homes and its high-profile president, Darius Assemi.
That’s right – the immense and fabulously rich business empire of the Assemi family has moved into the world of modern journalism. I’ve known Taub for years. He’s talented, smart and hard-working. He’s not afraid to chase a policy story that seems offbeat but could turn into something important.
In other words, Taub knows how to “smell” a story. And I suspect Darius Assemi trusts Taub’s nose. That doesn’t seem to be the case anymore in the local mainstream media who, for economic reasons, must concentrate on stories guaranteed to get a certain number of consumer clicks.
That’s why I didn’t say to Standriff, “I don’t want The Bee to beat me on this story.” I don’t write stories that interest my old employer.
Standriff is a pro. He said he would try to find someone for me this week.
I left the Executive Office waiting room. My plan was to walk home. That’s when the magic of the “Hub” hit me.
I bumped into John Ellis outside the City Attorney’s Office. Ellis is the former Bee political columnist who now serves Mayor Lee Brand as governmental affairs manager. I’ve known John for years. We started to talk about sports.
We didn’t get far. In a matter of seconds, District 4 Council Member Paul Caprioglio came through the Executive Office doors, headed for home. Caprioglio had been on vacation in Montana for several weeks; his arms were full of mail and reports.
“Cap” stopped to talk to Ellis and myself.
A few seconds later, Police Chief Jerry Dyer came out of the City Attorney’s Office. The Chief couldn’t miss the three of us.
“Uh-oh,” Dyer said. “What have we here?” The Chief joined us.
A few seconds later, Fresno County Supervisor (and former District 2 Council Member) Andreas Borgeas came through the “Hub.” Borgeas joined the group.
We were joined late in the confab by Deputy Chief Robert Nevarez.
I give you a half-dozen news nuggets from all that chatter:
1.) Caprioglio said he drove past the Vinland Park splash pad on Gettysburg Avenue and saw about two dozen youngsters enjoying the water features. (As I wrote last week, the splash pad was temporarily down due to mechanical “bugs.”) Caprioglio said his plan is to get a splash pad built in Melody Park by 2019.
2.) Caprioglio showed us photos of his vacation cabin in Montana. One of Cap’s guests during his vacation was Mayor Brand.
3.) It’s no secret that Borgeas plans to run for California’s 8th Senate District seat in 2018. Borgeas said he’s raised $500,000 so far. He said he expects the campaign to cost about $1 million. The 8th Senate District is so big that it includes parts of the Sacramento metropolitan area as well as portions of Fresno.
4.) Borgeas said the county is moving swiftly toward hiring a public information officer. Others in the group said they’d heard that two Bee reporters have interviewed for the job. I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the top candidates is Marc Benjamin, The Bee’s long-time county reporter.
5.) There was considerable speculation about Assemi’s plans for GVWire. Perhaps Assemi views the disruption occurring in news media as an opportunity to set the policy-making agenda in Fresno and the Valley. The rumor is that GVWire’s staff will soon include more news professionals than just David Taub. In other words, Darius is on a hiring spree.
6.) Is Bee Editorial Page Editor Bill McEwen on the verge of retiring? That’s what two in our group had heard through the grapevine (not to mention from a source inside The Bee newsroom). If so, would McEwen find a job elsewhere in the local media scene? Maybe even Assemi’s upstart property? That, too, is a well-traveled rumor out there. (Don’t forget – Big Bill several years ago came close to leaving The Bee to join Congressman Jim Costa’s team.)
But one bit of commentary from our group chat really stuck in my mind. As I’ve already noted, Chief Dyer joined us after a meeting in the City Attorney’s Office. What was he doing in there? The Chief was cautious in his answer, saying only that his business involved a state Public Records Act request from an out-of-town group. The PRA request involved the Chief’s expense receipts while on official city business.
Dyer said it is his understanding that the group has made the same PRA request to every city in the state with a police department and a chief.
Dyer said he has always been scrupulous in the handling of his expenses. He said he is confident that there’s nothing unusual about his documentation.
I thought to myself: “I believe you, Chief. But I read Heather Mac Donald this morning. It’s a tough media world out there for cops.”
Mac Donald, as I’ve said before, is the best cops reporter around. Her most recent City Journal piece is titled “Conjuring Disrespect.” The subtitle: “A much-touted study of Oakland police shows determination to find racism, not cops’ bias.”
Mac Donald’s article deals with what she calls “the exploding field of bias psychology.” A part of bias psychology is “implicit bias,” which Mac Donald describes as “the idea that nearly everyone approaches allegedly disfavored groups with unconscious prejudice.”
Mac Donald writes: “In June, a team of nine Stanford psychologists, linguists, and computer scientists released a paper purporting to show that Oakland police treat black drivers less respectfully than white ones. The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, elicited a huzzah from the press. The Washington Post, the New York Times, and Science, among many other outlets, gave it prominent play. ‘Police officers are significantly less respectful and consistently ruder toward black motorists during routine traffic stops than they are toward white drivers,’ gloated the New York Times.
“Reading the coverage, one expected reports of cops cursing at black drivers, say, or peremptorily ordering them around, or using the N-word. Instead, the most ‘disrespectful’ officer utterance that the researchers presented was: ‘Steve, can I see that driver’s license again? It, it’s showing suspended. Is that—that’s you?’ The second most ‘disrespectful’ was: “All right, my man. Do me a favor. Just keep your hands on the steering wheel real quick.’”
The study in question analyzed officer body-camera footage from 981 car stops made by Oakland police officers in April 2014. Mac Donald reports that blacks were the drivers in 682 of the stops, whites in the remaining 299. A total of 36,738 discrete officer utterances were studied.
Mac Donald in her long article does a superb job of explaining how the researchers oversold their findings.
“In their franker moments,” Mac Donald writes, “the researchers all but admit that their study makes a mountain out of a molehill. ‘To be clear,’ Dan Jurafsky, a linguistics and computer science professor, told Science, ‘these were well-behaved officers.’”
But, Mac Donald adds, those “franker moments” have been rare.
Mac Donald writes: “The authors titled their study ‘Language from police body camera footage shows racial disparities in officer respect.’ A more accurate title would have been: ‘Language from police body camera footage shows that officers treat all drivers courteously but are more colloquial with young black drivers.’”
A lot of this nonsense is fueled by the Digital Age’s madness for clicks. But that’s our future.
I’ll be lucky to get $50 for that Public Utilities story. Hope I beat Taub.
Photo: The Fresno Bee