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Chronicle's Boxer 'Endorsement' Reasserts Its Irrelevance

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A few scattered politicos across the country are still buzzing about the San Francisco Chronicle's refusal to endorse either Barbara Boxer or Carly Fiorina for US Senate. Why, they wonder, would such a reliably liberal paper refuse to endorse such a reliably liberal senator, even while conceding that her challenger is unacceptable?

Please allow me, as a lifetime Californian, to elucidate: the Chronicle is a terrible paper. It doesn't seem to have a particularly good relationship with Boxer. The "endorsement" is a rather slapdash attempt to regain national or statewide significance. And, yes, even an uncritical look at the piece in question makes it abundantly clear why the publication hasn't been taken seriously for a long, long time.

Once upon a time, when I was a very small child, the San Francisco Chronicle could have been described as the best paper on the West Coast. Today, that title belongs to the Los Angeles Times. The San Jose Mercury-News is known to give the Times a run for its money, and the Sacramento Bee is certainly a contender. Even papers like the Orange County Register deserve mention before the Chronicle when discussing the best or most influential newspapers in the state.

It should come as no surprise to anyone, then, that the paper has lost more readers faster than any other major newspaper in the nation. Throughout its decline, the Chronicle has invested and slashed in all the wrong places at all the wrong times. Management responded to early signs of decline by firing a quarter of the newsroom in 2007, opting instead to run more AP stories at a time when its primary competition was coming from Internet outlets running the exact same copy. 25.8% of its readership bailed in just six months of the following year. When Hearst threatened to close the paper (not necessarily a sign of poor quality, as the company had closed the far better Seattle PI shortly before,) the paper shifted to higher prices and fewer advertisements in an attempt to cover its operating costs. The paper shed another 22% of its remaining readership in 2009, while declaring victory over its economic problems -- in its own pages. Meanwhile, it has cultivated a reputation for lightweight reporting and analysis that has left an opening for papers like the Wall Street Journal and New York Times to create their own Bay Area sections.

For a California newspaper looking for national attention, Boxer makes a tempting target. She's a prominent, divisive but mainstream figure that an unthinking person's idea of a "serious" paper might turn its nose up at. The Chronicle has no visibly close ties with Boxer's office, and her Senate press operation, though solid, is not exactly known for its warmth. Unlike distinguished local Dianne Feinstein, Boxer is a figure more associated with the Democratic Party than San Francisco or California. And, frankly, if Boxer's office was a serious contact for the Chronicle, they'd be getting better stories. More likely, the best information out of Boxer's office is going to the competition.

Choosing not to endorse Barbara Boxer is of course a perfectly respectable, justifiable statement -- or it would be, for a newspaper that actually disagreed with her in substantive ways. But the Chronicle doesn't, and the editorial board's feeble rationalizations couldn't appear more desperate. If anything, the stunt's fumbled execution has given the national audience a rather conspicuous example of why the paper is no longer taken seriously.

In fact, the Chronicle analysis seems to be entirely based on statements supplied by the Fiorina campaign. They reject Boxer based on Fiorina's claims about Boxer, and Fiorina based on her own stated positions. Who wants to do all that messy, old-fashioned reporting when they can just call a press secretary?

The attack opens with a gem: "Boxer, first elected in 1992, would not rate on anyone's list of most influential senators." Regardless of their feelings about Boxer, anyone who follows Senate business knows that it is absurd to even imply that she does not wield above-average influence over the body. Boxer serves on the Commerce, Foreign Relations and Ethics committees and chairs the increasingly-important Committee on the Environment and Public Works. While not exactly Appropriations or Armed Services, those are fairly choice assignments. Chronicle competitor the Examiner has called Boxer the second most powerful woman in Congress and most powerful woman in the Senate. And, indeed, others have ranked her among the most powerful Democrats in the nation. Even the, shall we say, "outsider publication" Seventeen magazine listed Boxer alongside Angela Merkel, Nancy Pelosi, Madeleine Albright and Sonia Gandhi as one of the 23 most noteworthy women in politics (noting that she "rocks" for having been one of the "first Jewish women elected to the Senate"). That's right: Even teen magazines that can't spell Hillary Clinton's name know that Barbara Boxer's an important lady.

The ultra-lightweight and superficial assault continues:

Although she is chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee" -- Hey, look! They knew that! -- "it is telling that leadership on the most pressing issue before it -- climate change -- was shifted to Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., because the bill had become so polarized under her wing.

I'm not sure if anyone at the Chronicle knows this, as it hasn't appeared in a 30-second Carly Fiorina TV spot, but Republicans aren't exactly open to bipartisanship at the moment. Nor were they any more excited about the climate change bill with Kerry running the show. None of them hopped on board and, in fact, the little GOP support it had melted and the bill died after it left Boxer's hands. (Republicans had blamed Boxer for holding a vote to move it out of committee when they were not present -- because they were boycotting it. Senator Inhofe had blasted Boxer after the vote, all the while boasting that he wouldn't have voted for it, anyway.)

The paper seems even less interested in serious analysis as it continues:

We believe Californians deserve more than a usually correct vote on issues they care about. They deserve a senator who is accessible, effective and willing and able to reach across party lines to achieve progress on the great issues of our times. Boxer falls short on those counts.

A news organization that dealt in facts, not amateurish innuendo, would probably note that "correct votes" have substantial value. They also might note that "inaccessible" Senator Boxer operates six local offices around the state (compared that to the four operated by Dianne Feinstein, who will most surely land the paper's endorsement), and that her constituent services information is far more accessible than that of most big-state senators. They might also have noted that the "unaccomplished" meme has long been debunked by real reporters as an invention of the Fiorina campaign, and that Boxer has played a significant part in the underestimated accomplishments of the current administration. In short, a serious newspaper would not have made their blistering rejection a convinced regurgitation of the narrative fed to them by the Fiorina campaign. Real newspapers like the Times and Mercury-News are out to verify or refute those claims, not repeat them whether or not they have any merit.

But wait! There are still more addle-brained softballs to come:

"Boxer's campaign, playing to resentment over Fiorina's wealth, is not only an example of the personalized pettiness that has infected too much of modern politics, it is also a clear sign of desperation."

In reality, Boxer has re-solidified her lead in the polls by reminding voters that Fiorina gained her riches while sending Californian jobs overseas. That is not "playing to resentment over Fiorina's wealth." It is an entirely fair criticism of Fiorina's character.

Furthermore, the insinuation that it is somehow ill-manner or improper to criticize Fiorina's business record is nothing short of insane, given that her entire campaign could be summarized as, "I ran HP and hate Barbara Boxer."

And that is where the Chronicle non-endorsement really falls on its face. While dismissing Fiorina as a serious alternative, the editors never once mention that Fiorina's record at HP was abysmal. In fact, you won't find the words "Hewlett Packard" or letters "HP" anywhere in the piece. Instead, they are happy to assume that Fiorina's wealth is merely an earned result of success.

The real story, of course, is that Fiorina was an absolutely terrible CEO. HP stock fell 50% during Fiorina's tenure, jumped 7% the very day she was fired and, contrary to her constant claims otherwise, lagged well behind competitors while IBM and Dell snagged market share and pushed HP out of key areas. Long before she had the distinction of being the Republican nominee for California Senator, Portfolio even went so far as to name Fiorina one of the 20 worst CEOs of all time. Even in this economy, HP has made a significant recovery since Fiorina's forced departure.

Those facts will no doubt be turning up in Boxer ads late in the game, and I wouldn't be surprised to hear her mention it in their final debate. Since they haven't hit the airwaves yet, however, it is unlikely that the Chronicle editors are aware. Narrative over investigation has, sadly, become their style.

Luckily, their readers seem to be a few steps ahead of them. If you were to color in the counties Carly Fiorina lost in the primary, you would find a map of Silicon Valley.