Q&A: ‘S.F. Chronicle’ Editor Phil Bronstein

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By: Kathleen Sampey

Phil Bronstein, 54, is executive editor of the San Francisco Chronicle and currently appears in ads for the paper by Foote Cone & Belding in San Francisco. A dropout of the University of California, Davis, he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1986 for his reporting in the San Francisco Examiner of the unrest in the Philippines and has also covered conflicts in the Middle East, Peru, El Salvador, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. But he may be best known for having been married to Sharon Stone and for being bitten on the toe by a seven-foot-long Komodo dragon at the Los Angeles Zoo in 2001.

Q: Is this the first time you’ve appeared in an ad campaign?
A: They stuck me in an old Goodby, Berlin ad when they had the Examiner, when I was overseas. They did one that said something like, “When everyone else was going to press conferences, Phil Bronstein was going through Imelda’s drawers.” They thought it was funny, and I thought it was just stupid. This is different. This is talking about the paper and the Bay Area.

Why do an ad campaign now?
The paper in the past had not reflected all the things going on in the San Francisco Bay Area. It’s a long, rich tradition of history and innovation and creativity and the creation of trends in a cultural, business, and entertainment sense. We needed to make the paper reflect that. I think we’re far enough along in doing that.

How so?
We sent Sean Penn to Iraq. Not because we wanted a political screed — we know what his politics are; he has plenty of other forums to express those politics — but because he’s a hometown boy, and because he’s an extremely talented actor and director. He has an eye for detail and for character. We said, “Go over and write a diary of what it’s like. Your feelings. What you observe.”

Was there any fear of inaccuracy or exaggeration in what he reported?
We had several long conversations before he went. Then we had some pretty thorough editing sessions. By the time we got the two stories, it was an accurate and telling portrayal of what he saw over there. We ask because the news media has suffered several black eyes: Jayson Blair, Jack Kelly, and now Dan Rather. This is the big, dark secret that’s not a secret about our profession: It’s an art more than a science. We do the best we can, and sometimes there are bad practitioners.

What do you think of the Iraq coverage?
I think it’s the most difficult conflict I’ve ever seen to cover. I was in Peru in 1990 covering [an anarchist group]. They didn’t really care about good press. They just killed people randomly and in the most vicious way. Their whole political approach was to create chaos. [Iraq] reminds me of that. I don’t think we have a picture. Our government is very good at controlling their message. We had several reporters embedded, and they’re great reporters. But it’s very difficult not to be caught up in that moment.

Is TV still the most powerful medium?
I remember when they tried to stage a coup in Russia, and Boris Yeltsin stood up when they attacked parliament. I just remember being riveted by the images. That’s what television is great at. It’s not so good at context or perspective. That’s what print media ought to be able to do well. There’s a reason so many people get their news from Jon Stewart’s show. The reason is it’s entertaining, it’s wonderfully satirical, but also, The Daily Show does not take public officials at their word. Because it shouldn’t.

Was journalism your first career choice?
Absolutely. Always. When I was six I had a set of little ink stamps with letters, and I actually made my own newspaper.

What was your first journalistic assignment?
I did movie reviews for the school paper. I remember I wrote an entire review, which they published, in which I forgot to mention the name of the film. I learned as I went.

Who most influenced your career?
There was a guy in the ’30s named Caspar Reardon. He was a jazz harp player. He had a style that was completely unique. My parents had a 78 of his. The sound was so astonishing. He opened me up to try new things.

If you could work with anyone, living or dead, who would it be?
I’ve always had a fascination since I was a kid with Abraham Lincoln. He was complex and very savvy. You see the best and worst of people in times of great conflict.

You are fighting investigators’ request for reporters on the Balco steriod case to identify their sources. Are the First Amendment and reporter privilege under attack more than ever, or is it another cycle in history?
It sounds very much like McCarthy in the ’50s. Which probably in turn sounds like some earlier period. Yes, the government is being more aggressive. I also think it’s part of a cycle. But you have to fight any restrictions on the press. [Restrictions are] not really going to get you closer to the truth. The co-founder of The Wall Street Journal once said, “Facts aren’t the truth. They just indicate where the truth may lie.”

What do you consider your greatest professional achievement?
Staying alive.

Give me three words to describe yourself.
Middle-aged. Curious. Naive.

And three words that others would use?
Amusing. Passionate. Shy.

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