The Other, Other Side of the Kirkpatrick Firing Story: How Corporate Media Ignored, then Perverted My Reporting on the City’s Smears of Police Commissioner Harris

Posted on February 26, 2020


Last month, I reported on a 50k contract outgoing City Administrator Sabrina Landreth paid to a private investigator, Public Interest Investigations, to investigate a community-appointed Police Commissioner. The contract was ostensibly to investigate claims about Harris that had been made by City employees. Some of these claims were disproved a short time later—as they had already been submitted by the accusers to the Ethics Commission and summarily dismissed for lack of evidence or because they were not ethics violations.

It goes without saying that the most obvious lede and narrative-orbit for this story was garden-variety City government waste and abuse of power. The claims were already in the City’s appropriate investigative and enforcement agency. They were questionable claims which focused on bearing and tone. The claims were arguably petty and obstructive. There was no need for the costly contract, and that was obviously one of the reasons I reported about it. The investigator themselves had been in the news previously for charging UC Berkeley 57k to investigate the misuse of 5k’s worth of services. Regardless, my small Patreon blog is the only record of the contract at the time. No Oakland paper or news source followed up or covered it though the documents were publicly available and linked in my story–and even City Council Person Rebecca Kaplan referred to them at a Committee meeting, giving my publication credit for acquiring them.

One of the complaints listed in the contract memo was a claim about coercion around towing fees from Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick, the director of the department the Oakland Police Commission was created to oversee, discipline and investigate. I first heard about Kirkpatrick’s towing fee accusation when I had been investigating another smear from Kirkpatrick, which involved a concerted effort by SFPD, OPD staff, Kirkpatrick and Phil Matier, an SF Chronicle columnist.

Like the claims about Harris’ actions at her child’s school, the towing fees claim seemed contrived and exaggerated. In fact, last week just days before the Police Commission voted to fire the Chief, the Ethics Commission dismissed some of these complaints as well. Both seemed likely attempts by Kirkpatrick to smear a Commissioner and undermine the credibility of the new organization. Though the story of how the school accusation made its way to Phil Matier’s desk is obviously newsworthy, we do not currently have a media willing or capable of that reporting. My Patreon has the only record of the trajectory of that smear– including one of its central actors, Matier–and that posits the events from the point of view of the victim of City government bullying, Harris.

I was at my wage job when the SF Chronicle, East Bay Times and local TV news stations released their public relations firm-motivated coverage of Kirkpatrick’s dismissal claims on Monday, February 24. I don’t base my reporting on whether a corporation will pay me to do it, and the price for that is living an extremely poor life and having a part time job where there’s barely free time enough to get my phone out, much less read a news story.

When I got home, I started seeing the reporting—boilerplate that seems in its beats, characters, evidence and hook-lines to have all come from the same place. And that’s an entirely believable explanation as Kirkpatrick had hired Sam Singer, an ex-journalist, and PR-savior for luminary toxic dumpers and predatory house-flippers to tell her “side of the story”. Nearly every article reported an “internal memo” or “confidential report recently made public*” or “internal city document recently made public”, that was the evidence for Kirkpatrick’s claim that Commissioner Harris had tried to extort her—and for Kirkpatrick’s allegation that the Police Commission then spent 8 months trying to fire her for the slight.

This “document” was the memo and contract from Public Interest Investigations that I had acquired through a City of Oakland public records request. It took me some time to understand that this was the same set of documents because of how absurdly it was characterized by Monday’s reports. The only portion of interest to the media was its utility in showing that there was a piece of paper in a City hall file that repeated the allegation. True, it did have Kirkpatrick’s allegation—because Sabrina Landreth was paying Public Interest Investigations 50k of City funds to treat the allegation seriously. The memo is the record of the contractor confirming that this allegation is in the scope of work. There is no other mention of it, there is no report, currently, according to the City. The corporate media descriptions of the document I had based my reporting on had nothing to do with the public record I used—it was unrecognizable in the descriptions.

Obviously, in January when I published the story about the City’s contract with Public Interest Investigations, I felt demoralized that my good reporting was ignored. That’s a common feeling. I’m the last reporter at Oakland City Hall, and if this piece does anything, it will explain why and how that came to be. I probably would have felt just as bad if my reporting has been ignored and the media replicated my story months after it was relevant—which is what happened with my reporting on Impact Fees.

But all this was nothing compared to the feeling of seeing my work not only ignored, but its elements perverted to accomplish the exact opposite of my intent. Rather than show the City’s systematic bullying attacks of a civilian Commissioner, a working mom from East Oakland who donates her time for free to work on the Commission, they were being used to bolster cowardly excuses for one of the attackers.

While its true that local news is suffering from the lack of a sustainable model and hemorrhaging from constant budget cuts at the expense of capital, the problem does seem deeper than this. Maybe, charitably, this is a problem of purpose. Journalists are supposed to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, that’s the old saying. But its clear from the Oakland we live in that some parts of the equation are missing or scrambled in the mind’s of City reporters and/or their editors. Whether this is an effect of incompetence, corruption or structural problems is hard to say. But it’s clear that the only people that can illuminate the intricacies of the problem have no interest in doing so.


* the inaccurate claim that the documents were a “confidential report recently made public” was made by Megan Cassidy, who contributed to Matier’s story about Harris’ son’s school. The claim was not corrected in subsequent days.

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