Alligator Journalism p.10

By: JOE STRUPP

IT’S NOT QUITE the Loch Ness Monster, Big Foot, or the Abominable Snowman. Still, the recent sightings of an alligator in a popular San Francisco lake have caused a curious stir unseen for some time among local residents and media.
And the city’s two daily newspapers ? the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner ? have led the charge with their own bizarre battle for coverage of the elusive reptile.
Since the Chronicle first reported sightings of the 3-foot gator in August, the newspapers have spent more than two weeks attempting to top each other’s coverage. Stunts have included: the Examiner’s use of a psychic to telepathically contact the alligator, the Chronicle’s hiring of an alligator hunter, and an Examiner editor donning a wet suit in search of the creature.
“I think it’s all in the spirit of fun and we are just trying to have fun with it,” said Chronicle city editor Jerry Roberts, a longtime Bay area journalist. “I thought it might be a good one-day story, but I didn’t expect it to be the local feeding frenzy that it is.”
The separately owned Chronicle and Examiner, which compete for readers but share profits as part of a joint operating agreement, have long had a reputation for covering unusual issues, often outlandishly.
But even longtime news veterans began shaking their heads about the circulation battle over the alligator story.
“The circulation wars are playing a part in this, but it is a definite ecological story and it is typical San Francisco because it is fun,” said Examiner reporter Dennis Opatrny. “Is it silly? Yes. But it’s also war.”
It began in August when the Chronicle’s Steve Rubenstein wrote a story poking fun at recent sightings of an alligator in Mountain Lake, a small pond located inside the former Presidio military base, which is to be a national park. The story said the gator, if it existed, had probably been dropped there by a former owner and might be in danger of dying unless taken to warmer waters.
Rubenstein also reported that the Chronicle had conducted a fruitless “mud-caked search” along the shores of the lake.
“I think there is a lot of sympathy for something that is out of place, and it was an animal that wasn’t supposed to be there,” Rubenstein said. “People stick up for someone who has lost his way.”
Two days later, the Examiner published its first alligator story, including graphics detailing the lake’s location and background information on three alligator species. The paper also began a contest ? “Name the Gator” ? and invited readers to send in entries.
For the next week, both papers followed efforts by the National Park Service, city workers, and the San Francisco Zoo to find the reptile. The Chronicle hired a professional alligator hunter, Jim Long, from Florida, and paid his way to San Francisco with orders to find and remove the animal.
Quick to respond, the Examiner’s story criticized the Long hiring and called him “a reptile hit man.” Reporters Seth Rosenfeld and Craig Marine said Long “makes his living slaughtering the beasts, skinning them and selling their meat to restaurants that serve deep-fried gator chunks with honey mustard sauce.”
In the same issue, the Examiner also reported that its editor, Phil Bronstein, and reporter Opatrny had donned wet suits in an effort to save the alligator from the Chronicle’s “hit man.” A photo showed the two about to enter the lake, but being stopped by park officials.
“It’s appalling to me that a newspaper would hire a mercenary who kills what he captures under the guise of trying to save this poor young reptile,” the paper quoted Bronstein as saying.
“The Chronicle hired this hired gun to go out and kill this critter and we thought they were wrong in sensationalizing this whole thing by hiring this killer,” said Opatrny. “We wanted to do the humanitarian effort to rescue him in the most humane way and figure out the best way to save him.”
But the Chronicle’s Rubenstein said the Examiner’s criticism was unfair to Long and called its rescue efforts a publicity stunt.
“I don’t think the Examiner is in the right spirit of this,” Rubenstein said. “This is a light, fun story and they are squeezing it too much. I don’t think it stands up to scuba tanks and wet suits. It should have a little more humor and grace.”
Long left town without finding the alligator, and after two weeks, the alligator remained missing, prompting the Chronicle to begin a Gator Watch, including a graphic of a cartoon gator and a count of days passed since the reptile was first spotted.
The same day, the Examiner wrote about a local psychic, who was told in a telepathic conversation with the reptile that his name was Fred and he enjoyed chicken.
Although both papers have admitted an element of fun in the gator jousting, they have been criticized for wasting resources.
“I think both newspapers have shown they are willing to give less coverage to serious news,” said Ben Bagdikian, a former Washington Post editor and journalism professor at the University of California-Berkeley. “It can be a problem if they are squeezing out more serious news, and I’m afraid it has always been a part of American news for quirks that really don’t mean much, but make for fun and games, to get covered.”
Peter Sussman, president of the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, also said the coverage was overdone.
“It’s certainly embarrassing,” said Sussman, a former Chronicle reporter. “It is making a very big deal out of something that isn’t. It’s always very easy to get a good human interest story out of animals, but harder to get the kind of coverage we need on other issues, like welfare reform and international concerns.”
San Francisco Zoo officials said the media attention by both newspapers had actually hampered their efforts to find the reptile.
“The whole response from the press and the public has made the work very difficult to catch him because he is so shy,” said zoo curator David Robinett.
“The whole situation created this pattern of frenzy at the lake, and the animal became a lot more reclusive and that makes it almost impossible for ?(Strupp is a freelance writer.) [Caption]
?(The San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner have led the charge with their own bizzare battle for coverage of the elusive reptile) [Caption]
# Editor & Publisher n November 23, 1996

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