April 17, 2013

There was an interesting Community Voices piece in Oakland Local last week by someone named Robert Selna, criticizing one of my recent Oakland Local CounterPoints columns.

In my column in question (“How Hardball Is Played In Oakland (And I’m Not Talking About Baseball)” Oakland Local April 11, 2013), I commented on the fact that individuals who have been loudly criticizing the development of the old Oakland Army Base by Oakland developer Phil Tagami and his California Capital & Investment Group are “suddenly coming under fierce attack [themselves] from unexpected sources.”

I know a little bit about the Oakland Army Base development issue first-hand because I’ve been reporting on it since the first of the year, not for Oakland Local, but for the Oakland Post newspaper: (“Reid Upset Over Tagami’s Base Evictions” January 18, 2013; “Tagami Conflict Of Interest Charged In Army Base Evictions” February 22, 2013; “Reid, McElhaney Call For Army Base Hearing” March 14, 2013; “Army Base Investigations Loom; Tagami Conflict Of Interest Charged” April 11, 2013).

And that’s what got Mr. Selna a little upset.

In An April 13 Oakland Local Community Voices column called “Does Oakland Local Distinguish Between Reporters And Columnists, Facts And Opinion?”, Mr. Selna writes that “the fact that Allen-Taylor the reporter can … find a home for his opinions in Oakland Local regarding the very topics he is reporting on,” Mr. Selna writes, “immediately removes any credibility from Allen-Taylor’s news stories...”

Mr. Selna does not provide any reason why this should be so. He does not offer any instance where any facts in my Oakland Post stories are incorrect or misreported, nor does he attempt to dispute any of the conclusions in my Oakland Local CounterPoints column. He concedes that “Allen-Taylor is entitled to his opinion.” He just contends that if I happen to give that opinion about a subject in a different forum and at a different time from the news stories I am writing about that same subject, it somehow taints the objectivity of those news stories so much that it “removes any credibility” from them.

That’s somewhat strange logic because according to Mr. Selna’s thinking, I could hold the exact same opinions on the Army Base development, and write the exact same news stories, but so long as I did not let readers know that opinion, the news stories would be “credible.” What type of person, I wondered, would come to such an odd conclusion.

It was impossible to tell when Mr. Selna’s Community Voices piece first posted to Oakland Local last Friday, as no bio appeared with his commentary. After I began making a few email inquiries, however, the following information suddenly got tacked to the end of his piece:
“Oakland native Robert Selna is a land use and real estate development government affairs and communications consultant. He is working on the Oakland Army Base project. An active member of the State Bar of California, Selna worked as a staff writer and freelance journalist and for 16 years until 2011. In his most recent reporting position, as a staff writer at the San Francisco Chronicle, he covered land use, development and real estate.”

While none of the information in Mr. Selna’s Oakland Local bio is incorrect, you have to supply some missing pieces to fully understand the reasoning behind his “Does Oakland Local Distinguish” commentary.

For example: the Selna bio merely says that “he is working on the Oakland Army Base project.” You have to go to Mr. Selna’s LinkedIn page to find out that what he is working on is “managing government affairs and communications on behalf of [the Army Base] developers partnering with the City of Oakland; representing the project with government, regulatory agencies and the media.” In other words, Mr. Selna is a public relations consultant for Mr. Tagami’s Oakland Army Base development and, therefore, his “Does Oakland Local Distinguish” commentary was part of his job. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s nice to know.

There’s another couple of interesting items missing from Mr. Selna’s Oakland Local bio.

The bio says while at the Chronicle “he covered land use, development and real estate.” What it doesn’t say is that several of Mr. Selna’s Chronicle articles were about the Oakland Army Base development (“Big Plans For Old Oakland Army Base” July 18, 2009, “Big Oakland Port Project Takes A Step Forward” July 23, 2009, “Oakland Signs Deal To Develop Old Army Base Land” February 12, 2010). And you have to go to Mr. Selna’s company homepage [] to figure out that after he left the Chronicle in 2011, Mr. Selna established his ROJE Consulting firm in the Rotunda Building at Oakland’s Frank Ogawa Plaza, the same building owned by Oakland developer Phil Tagami.

There’s nothing that explicitly prevents a reporter from writing articles on a company or public agency and then immediately turn around and get a job as media representative or public relations manager for that same company or public agency. As reporting jobs dry up in the faltering newspaper economy, a lot of reporters are doing it. But it does cause one to take a closer look at the fairness or possible bias of the reporters’ stories in the time before he or she left their reporting job to take their public relations job, something I wrote about some years ago when education reporter Alex Katz left the Oakland Tribune to take a job as press secretary for the Oakland Unified School District (“Ethics Issues Raised In Oakland School District Hiring Of Reporter” Berkeley Daily Planet January 31, 2006.

But that’s something for Mr. Selna and his former Chronicle story readers to resolve amongst themselves.

For my part, like most reporters, I have opinions about the issues I’m reporting on. From time to time, in my CounterPoints columns and in other forums far removed from my news articles, I’ll express those opinions. I think that makes it easier, rather than harder, for readers to detect any instances of bias in my news reporter and for that reason alone, I think Mr. Selna’s charges in his Community Voices “Does Oakland Local Distinguish” commentary are unfounded.

[Note: As a result of this column and the resulting discussions with the Oakland Local newspaper publishers, my relationship with Oakland Local was severed and the CounterPoints columns ceased being published in Oakland Local.]