The Mark Morford and The Morning Fix Saga (2001)

1-Apr-01 (but no, it’s no April Fool’s joke)

The Article That Set Me Off: « Suspends Three Staffers Over Column »

My E-Mail to the offender and many other Bay Area Media staffers:

An open letter:

I may disagree with what you have to say, but I shall defend to the death your right to say it.” – Voltaire
They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” – Benjamin Franklin

Robert Cauthorn
Vice President, Digital Media
San Francisco Chronicle /
San Francisco, CA

Mr. Cauthorn:

Regarding the article, 3 Staffers Suspended Over SF Gate Column, written by Dan Fost on, March 28, 2001 (with advance apologies for the length of this missive – but I have a lot to say):

The article states: ”[Mark] Morford writes an edgy column called Morning Fix that appears daily on the Web site and goes out to about 13,000 people via e-mail.

“The column typically offers humorous and controversial takes on offbeat news stories culled from The Chronicle and wire services.”

The article reports the fact that you indefinitely suspended Mr. Morford because he wrote an edition of the newsletter that you personally found offensive. You also suspended (without pay) two other staffers who prepared and approved the column for publication, even though they apparently had nothing to do with its creation.

With all due respect, sir, as a professional journalist and communicator (not to mention one of 13,000 Morning Fix subscribers and 250,000 SFGate readers), I am much alarmed at the spectacle of a corporate vice president not only censoring one of his professional staff journalists, but also indefinitely suspending him, as well as two other members of his staff who did not apparently share the executive’s personal concerns regarding Mr. Morford’s writing. And not only that, but also publicly and in print castigating Mr. Morford, while not allowing the readership to view the column in question, referring to his work as “grotesque.”

SFGate keeps me up-to-date several times a day on anything worth knowing about the Bay Area. I am a faithful reader of it and the Morning Fix. I will not defend or condemn Mr. Morford’s column; due to your censorship, I am unable to read it and judge it for myself. He’s written other things in the past that I think are more “edgy” than what the offending, censored column is alleged to contain.

Yes, Mr. Morford does indeed sometimes skirt the edge of propriety, as he himself acknowledges. A newsflash for you: That’s the point of the whole exercise! Mr. Morford crafts well-written, amusing and sometimes thought-provoking articles that do indeed push some boundaries. And that’s what makes the Morning Fix_special, unique and a de rigeur daily read. That same sort of style is also what makes _SFGate a unique, entertaining and worthwhile source of information, as opposed to dry, formal, “straight-up” writing found on other news sites. It keeps me coming back for more. And that, Mr. Cauthorn, is, after all, the real measure of success for your SFGate staffers.

What concerns me, however, is the rather extreme actions taken against three excellent staff members – actions which have the appearance, according to your own news article, of being wholly out of proportion to the offense. While I do, in fact, agree with you that Mr. Morford needs to mix freedom of expression with a commensurate level of responsibility, this is pretty ridiculous.

I was taught that the journalistic process goes something like this (greatly simplified):

1. Writer writes something.
2. Editors proofread and correct the copy, and use their judgement and discretion to decide to publish it or send it back to the writer for redrafting. If there is some question as to appropriateness/legality, others in the organization can be consulted, i.e., lawyers.
3. If the decision is made to not publish the article, the article is not published. Or, a rewrite is submitted, edited and published.

You’ll notice that nowhere in this description is there any mention of a process where, if a writer’s submission is considered inappropriate, that writer is not allowed a resubmission or told “don’t do that again,” but is instead suspended, his publication cancelled, and the writing criticized in public as “grotesque” by an executive of the company.

Are you just experiencing a failure of courage? Or is there something else going on here that we don’t know and that you didn’t print? If so, why did you give us just part of the story? With all due respect, you do an outrageous disservice to your readers, sir. If the content was inappropriate (and it may well have been – how do I know? You won’t let us read it), you should have allowed Mr. Morford to rewrite the column, or choose another subject to “riff” on. Or even, horrors!, allow the readers to decide for themselves. The majority of Morning Fix readers are smarter and more reasonable than you appear to think, and quite capable of deciding if we wish to applaud Mr. Morford effort, send him a canned ham in appreciation, delete it in disgust, write him an outraged, condemning e-mail, cancel our Morning Fix subscription or burn him in effigy on the steps of City Hall. Having the courage to allow the readers to make journalists accountable — what a concept!

If you get nothing else from this e-mail, please understand my main point: American journalism is increasingly co-opted and taken over by corporate interests which rarely coincide with public interests, or even with subscriber interests. (And, as an aside, I deny that a corporation should have the right to free speech – Supreme Court decision of 1886 be damned!) The Morford Matter is symptomatic of greater American journalistic disease and decline. Case in point (from the San Jose Mercury-News): “Jay T. Harris resigned… as publisher of the Mercury News, saying he feared that corporate budget demands could result in ‘significant and lasting harm’ to the newspaper and the community it serves.” Journalism is now considered simply a product to be pushed by executives who hop from industry to industry – the equivalent of toilet paper, toothpaste, a ‘plane ticket or a Big Mac.

Whether the press is liberal-biased or slanted-right is a smokescreen; Journalism, in fact, with rare exceptions, is now corporate PR, in most egregious and insulting form. And that, sir, is highly offensive, outrageous, dangerous and unacceptable for American democracy and society. If drawing a parallel between your Mark Morford decision and the decline of free press and journalism in America makes you laugh and think I’m overwrought, then you’ve proven my point and I rest my case and thank-you-very-much.

Please explain to myself and the 12,999 other Morning Fix_subscribers and 249,999 other_SFGate readers (preferably in print on SFGate) how your actions serve the causes of free speech, and creative, engaging journalistic free expression – as opposed to “Oh my god! Somebody might sue us or cancel an ad or subscription or be offended!” – i.e., corporate interests. Are you trying to protect me from something? If so, how did you know that I needed to be protected? Did I participate in market research of which I was unaware? When I subscribed to the Fix, did I thereby give my implied consent to place myself under your protection and abdicate my responsibility and privilege to think for myself? Funny. I missed getting the memo on that. Do I owe you a “Thanks for protecting my fragile little mind?”

Finally (aren’t you relieved), I must say I am not surprised by the Morford censorship/suspension, however. My colleagues and I have a long-standing bet about when A.) Morning Fix would be censored by the Chronicle_and even outright cancelled; and B.) When the fresh, original and funny writing on the front page of _SFGate would go corporate – dry, serious, disengaging and not worth a visit. It is with bittersweet feelings that I report that my guess of “sometime in the first half of 2001” appears to be coming true.


And shame on you.

Free (and Un-Gag) the Morford Three! Save the Gate!

Sincerely, Steve Pollock, San Francisco

(Note: I would be more than happy to give you my address and phone number for verification purposes, should you desire. Please reply by e-mail if you wish to have the information. And thanks for reading.)

Mark Morford’s Response to My E-Mail:

Incredible piece of work, Steve. Can’t thank you enough for your powerful and pointed defense. You’ve articulated a myriad of vital points not just about me and my columns, but about media and its spurious and often sinister corporate relationships in general. Marvellous. I thank you.

Remains to be seen how this mini-saga will shake out, whether or not my columns will survive. But with support like yours, I sure as hell know I’m on the right side of the debate.

Mark Morford

Carl Hall ’s Response to My E-Mail:

‘Hello and thanks for sending me a copy of your note to Gate management. You make some cogent points.

I am a staff writer at the Chronicle and also president of the Northern California local of the Newspaper Guild, which represents Chronicle employees and, by virtue of a new agreement with the Hearst coporation, most Gate employees. I just wanted to let you know that we will not rest until any and all injustices done in connection with this matter are corrected. You might already have noted in the Chronicle story that our member is not suffering any loss in pay.’

Robert Cauthorn’s Response to My E-Mail:

‘From: “Robert S. Cauthorn”
Date: Mon, 02 Apr 2001 00:34:05 -0700
To: AirBeagle
Subject: Re: Mark Morford and The Morning Fix

‘Mr. Pollack, [he misspells my last name]

Thanks for taking the time to write at such length about this incident.

For obvious reasons, I can’t discuss the details of staff issues with people outside this organization. However, please understand that I would never take such a step lightly and the column involved presented a serious problem.

It provides you any comfort with respect to your effort to cast me as some kind of soulless corporate hack — and from message I’m inclined to doubt that it shall — I happen come from the editorial side of the house and have worked as a writer and editor for more than 20 years.

Your description of the process is in part true, however it ignores aspects of the reality of web publishing. In normal publishing cycles before the page lands in your lap literally scores of people have seen it and vetted it. Web publishing’s accelerated pace means that sometimes no more than three people might have seen a piece before it hits the web. In this climate, matters of judgment become critically important.

I feel it would be a mistake to read too much into this with respect to the future approach of the Gate. The Gate’s unique voice and, indeed, its distinct flavor with respect to the Chronicle, is something we all savor.

Being edgy and risk-taking isn‚Äöt a binary condition it‚Äös not all or nothing. It just happens that in this case, the column went beyond the pale. Incidentally, unlike most _Fix_columns, this one was not intended as humor – it took an advocacy position and what was being advocated proved to be deeply problematic.

Best wishes,
Robert S. Cauthorn
VP Digital Media
San Francisco Chronicle

Frank’s Response to Bob’s E-Mail:

‘Typical corporate response, albeit a very slickly crafted one. It is the Special Variation 1A of the standard corporate response, that is, the "market populist deniability" response: I am not really a corporate hack, because I say I am not. Ergo, I am not. I am Big Brother, but I am not Big Brother, because I say I am not. Right = Wrong; Greed = Beneficence; War = Peace; et cetera.
He could be a speechwriter for Gray Davis. I.e.: from Davis’s remarks before the state party convention yesterday:
‘Davis promised convention delegates that if a rate hike proves to be necessary, ‘You can be sure of one thing from this governor: I’ll fight to protect those least able to pay, reward those who conserve the most, and motivate those who are the biggest guzzlers to cut back.’’" <LA Times, 4/2/01>

And finally, Mark has the last word on April 5:

Where opinion meets benign syntax abuse …

So it wasn’t really a vacation and it wasn’t really all that desirable a break but it all worked out in the end, I suppose, more or less, onward and upward, and for those who are interested in the Fix’s odd publishing lapse lo these past couple of weeks it was detailed in our very own SF Chronicleright here and noted again today here and for the record it was all rather enlightening and unfortunate and ethically sticky and not all that much fun, really, just like a thorny little journalistic brouhaha should be.

Overall a surprising and somewhat frothy, morally pregnant incident involving the Fix which was also picked up by various media outlets, everyone from KCBS to Romanesko’s Media News to the AP to the American Journalism Review and what a strange surprising mini-tempest it was, and me without my umbrella.

A rather tame and borderline pitiable fifteen minutes of fame for yours truly, and it ain’t exactly warming the heart of my cockles to think that a semi-scandalous blip regarding one of my columns may be the apex of the Fix’s rise to ticklish infamy and shimmery glory and free saki shots at area sushi bars, but what can you do.

But we’re all back on track now, more or less, and jiggling onward with one notable change for Fix readers, and it is this: the Notes & Errata column normally running every day in this space will now only run twice a week, to give the column more time for depth-plumbing and quality control and perhaps actual research now and again, with the other three days to be filled with obscure cookie recipes or bad teen poetry or whatever I can think of, or perhaps nothing, considering the rich panoply of glorious lickables the Fix already proffers. Ahem.

In sum: Morning Fix five days a week; Notes & Errata centerpiece column included twice a week (also running separately on the Gate). Edge and wryness and happyfun journalistic blasphemy fully intact, hopefully, only better and richer and more pointed but with the same grammatical gyrations and quirky innuendo and disparaging verbiage directed at the pope and Shrub and Jennifer Lopez, simultaneously. Thoughts, comments, who-the-hell-cares? Let me know.’