Chronicle reporting on Kim backfires

Flawed data, biased questions create furor at daily paper as investigative story is killed

A Chronicle story that was shaping up as a hit piece on Jane Kim was spiked this week after reporter Rachel Swan sent Kim a series of questions that even the Chron’s editor agreed were biased and based on inaccurate information.

The questions sought to challenge Kim’s credentials as – Swan’s term, not Kim’s – a “hero of the people” by suggesting that she grew up with a certain amount of privilege.

Sup. Jane Kim has not made her childhood a big issue in the campaign — but the Chron tried to

It’s bizarre because Kim hasn’t made her childhood a big issue in this campaign; she has said that she is the daughter of immigrants (true), that in her early years, her family lived in a small apartment (true), and that she has a history of working for social and economic justice (that’s a political statement, not a factual one, but she’s certainly been involved in progressive causes for much of her adult life).

Sup. London Breed has made her childhood – her life growing up in a housing project, raised by her grandmother – a key part of her campaign. Which is fine, and she should: It’s a powerful story.

But Kim has focused mostly on her record in public office, and has never called herself “a hero of the people.”

We know all of this because Kim posted a piece on Medium that includes all of Swan’s questions and her answers. I know that reporters are supposed to ask candidates tough questions, and that’s good and fair, but I have to say:

This looks really bad.

It looks bad because the entire tone is accusatory, as if Kim has done something wrong. But Swan never suggests that Kim has lied, put out false information, or hidden anything about her past.

The questions play directly into the sort of narrative that a campaign opponent like London Breed would want to promote in a tight race – and the information that the questions were based on reads to me like it was provided by opposition researchers who support Breed:

CHRON: Could it not be seen (sic) disingenuous to paint yourself as a hero of the people, when your father has this high-paying executive job?
 
KIM I’ve never said I was a “hero of the people.” I have said again and again that I’ll fight for the people of this city. And my record shows I’ve done just that. The way this question is asked leads me to believe this reporter has already pre-determined the outcome of this piece — which is why I am sharing the questions and my answers directly with voters.

 

Since when is Jane Kim’s father’s job – at a cosmetics company founded by a Korean immigrant – an issue in the SF mayor’s race?

CHRON: Your biography says you grew up in a one-bedroom apartment with your parents, alongside your grandparents. Describe that situation.
 
KIM: When I was born, my parents and grandparents lived together in a one-bedroom subsidized apartment. We lived there for six years. Like many immigrants, my family did not have much money when they arrived. But my parents were lucky to have good educations. And they were lucky to find a subsidized apartment. One of the reasons why I fight so hard for affordable housing is because I know what this apartment did for my family. It allowed my dad to go to night school and my mom to open a business.
 
CHRON: But your father was an attorney who became the CFO of a global cosmetics company in 1989. How did that improve your situation?
 
KIM: My father was not hired by a global cosmetics company in 1989. In fact, my father joined this company almost a decade later. By then, I had already left for college.
 
By the way, why does this question begin with the word “But…”? Is this a question or an argument?

 

Um … yeah. Why does the question begin with “but?”

Swan asked Kim about her “ownership” of a “luxury condo” in New York. Actually, that’s where her parents, who like many immigrants of their generation, have become successful, live. She’s on the deed because her parents are getting older and want to be sure that there are no issues about inheritance; that’s pretty common.

CHRON: Do you feel like that contradicts your campaign speeches about keeping luxury condo development out of the city?
 
KIM: The premise of this question is untrue and seriously distorts my record. I have not kept market-rate development out of the city. Instead, I’ve supported a number of projects with market-rate housing. I’ve simply negotiated for as much affordable and middle income housing as I could get as part of those developments. One reason I opposed SB827 is because it let luxury developers off the hook to contribute more to the City — and kept us from negotiating better deals in the future.
 

I particularly like this question. Kim hasn’t opposed luxury housing in the city; sometimes, I wish she had. She’s cut deals with a long list of condo developers to allow them to build market-rate housing in her district, in exchange for more affordable housing. You can find a lot of reasons to criticize Jane Kim, but keeping luxury condo development out of the city isn’t one of them.

And here’s where it gets crazy:

CHRON: You’re listed in records at the secretary of state’s office as the agent of service for Ivy Enterprises, a subsidiary of Kiss that your father helped found. Were you paid to do that and if so, why don’t you report that income?
 
KIM: That’s not me; it is a different Jane Kim. Kim is actually a very common Korean name. Even though we received these questions less than 24 hours ago, my team Googled “Jane Kim” and “Ivy Enterprises,” called the company and spoke to this other Jane Kim who confirmed her employment. I would suggest the Chronicle also verify information received from opposition research in the future.

 

This is just sloppy reporting. Swan referred my question to her editor. Audrey Cooper, the Chron’s editor, at first defended the questions in a note to Quintin Mecke:

Dear Quintin,

Respectfully, you don’t know what you’re talking about, and it comes off as quite naïve.

Rachel tried to reach Jane via her campaign staff, campaign manager and on her own number several times before being forced to email her some basic questions about her background. If Jane had responded the first six times, we could have had a productive conversation. It is really quite clever of her campaign to print these as if she is being attacked, but you’re missing the fundamental fact that we haven’t written anything. Rachel was trying to figure out if some of her preliminary reporting is correct. That’s what reporters do. I’m glad that Jane finally decided to answer these basic questions, although I’m still perplexed about why this was such a scary topic for her to discuss on the phone or in person.

Ultimately, I’m troubled that she seemingly only returns the calls of media outlets that give her one-sided coverage without bothering to get the other side. I can think of another politician who handles the media with similar aplomb. He’s currently in the Oval Office.

Seriously? Jane Kim is Donald Trump? That’s just nuts.

Let me explain something else about political campaigns. It’s often hard to get a candidate who is running for mayor directly on the phone first try; they’re always at events. When I need to talk to Jane Kim for a story about the Board of Supervisors during a normal period of time, I call her cell phone. IF I need to talk to her during a crazy mayor’s race, I call her campaign manager, Jon Golinger, or her media person, Julie Edwards, and ask them to set something up. Same with Mark Leno, or London Breed. That’s not because they are hiding from me; most of their days are totally booked. 

Edwards told me that the Chron never called her or Golinger about this story.

After she had time to meet with the reporters and editors at the Chron, Cooper gave me this statement today:

Yesterday supervisor and San Francisco mayoral candidate Jane Kim made public a series of written questions posed to her by a Chronicle reporter after several attempts to reach the candidate by phone had failed. After they were answered, the reporter and her editor concluded that they had asked questions based on incorrect information and, as a result, no story was written. However, those written questions were inappropriately worded and insufficiently researched. They failed to meet the journalistic standards of The Chronicle.

We strive to try to avoid bias in our reporting as well as the appearance of bias, and because of that we have assigned a new reporter and editor to cover the San Francisco mayoral race. We will continue to aggressively report on this race, including asking tough questions of candidates about their positions and backgrounds.

 

I can present a plausible scenario for what went down here, because I’ve been through it.

Let me tell you how this system works.

Reporters are busy during campaign season. With the decline in newsroom staffing, a lot of publications don’t have the time to do detailed investigative reporting on all the candidates.

(Although it’s not too hard to find the records of how all the major candidates voted on issues, something the Chron has completely ignored).

But the campaigns have no lack of resources, and they typically hire “Oppo” teams, opposition researchers who are paid to dig up dirt about other candidates.

Then a campaign approaches a reporter and says: Hey, got some great dirt on Candidate X. You can have it all. In fact, you can’t say it came from us, so the readers will assume it came from you – that you did all this amazing investigative work, all on your own!

I’ve been there. This has happened to me, many times. I have been the recipient of thick files of sleaze, some of it entirely relevant and newsworthy. And when I first started in this business, my boss, Bruce Brugmann, told me: Be really skeptical when someone asks you to do their dirty work for them.

So good reporters take the opposition research with a big mound of salt. You fact check everything; you ask what narrative this fits into, and why you are being used to push that narrative. You make sure the data you have is accurate and that you can stand by it – yourself, independently.

I have no idea where Swan and the Chron got the data dump that resulted in this line of questions. But I can say that Conor Johnston, a former Breed staffer and longtime ally, was peddling some of the same info on Twitter recently. It fits a narrative – a Breed campaign narrative.

I also know how oppo reseach works. These folks use online research tools to dig into a person’s life, on every level. I use some of the same tools; I pay for them, just like the campaigns do. These programs scour the web for public records and try to sort the hundreds of thousands of documents in some useful way. And I have learned that they are only about, well, maybe 80 percent accurate.

You get a lot of “false positives” – that is, you get a lot of Jane Kims who are not the same Jane Kim who is running for mayor of San Francisco. You get crappy data; you get old data. You get data that say someone owns a condo when they don’t really own the condo, they are just on the deed in case their parents die.

Maybe Rachel Swan just decided to research Jane Kim’s childhood on her own. I have no idea; no reporter would ever reveal where they got their data, and they shouldn’t. Maybe some Breed supporter turned the material over to Swan’s editors, who gave it to her and asked her to follow up.

Maybe the Breed campaign had nothing to do with this at all; maybe the mistaken identity of the Jane Kim in the questions was just the kind of mistake that reporters make when they do online research.

But I would think a reporter who was doing this research would have done a better job; again, it reads to me not like solid investigative reporting but like cheap, unfiltered, oppo research.

But this all does fit a pattern that I’ve seen in the past, because I have been involved in it, and the pattern looks a lot like this was a data dump from supporters of London Breed who are trying to attack Kim and that the Chron got caught in the middle.

I give Cooper credit for quickly admitting the mistake, and I hope that if indeed this came from oppo research, they’ve learned a lesson.