Who Really Broke the BALCO Story?

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By: Allan Wolper

No matter what other news organizations might have done, Watergate will forever be a Washington Post story. The Pentagon Papers will always belong to The New York Times — and the baseball steroid scandal is the property of The San Francisco Chronicle.

Last fall, to make sure no one in Northern California had forgotten the paper’s stellar investigation, the Chronicle featured its editor, Phil Bronstein, in a two-month television advertising campaign.

“Reporters here at the Chronicle broke the BALCO story,” Bronstein said in one of the ads, referring to the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative in Burlingame, Calif., a sports nutrition center that was at the heart of the scandal. That ad “was one of 10 that we ran,” Allen Olivo, the newspaper’s vice president of marketing, told me recently.

Nearly all the spots aired during the two-month period before the Chronicle broke the biggest story of the scandal, based on a grand jury leak — that New York Yankee slugger Jason Giambi had told a grand jury that he had used steroids.

Bronstein’s assertion that his newspaper broke the BALCO story angered the newsroom of the San Mateo Daily Journal, a free, six-day daily with a circulation of about 20,000 that just celebrated its fifth birthday.

The Daily Journal had been cited in newspapers around the country for its piece by Dana Yates on the September 2003 law-enforcement raid on BALCO. The Journal had e-mailed a copy of its eight-paragraph, front-page story to the Associated Press, which distributed the report with a Daily Journal credit — as did the Chronicle two days later, in a short news brief on its inside pages.

“It’s hard for a small paper to receive credit for stories that it breaks,” Jon Mays, editor in chief of the San Mateo Daily Journal, told me.

Anxious to retain its historic role in the BALCO news sweepstakes, Mays encouraged his publisher, Jerry Lee, to write a letter to Bronstein to make the Journal’s feelings known. Lee wrote a low-key letter that congratulated Bronstein on his paper’s steroid stories and predicted a Pulitzer Prize for its grand-jury scoop.

“We have no issue with your recent marketing campaign,” Lee wrote in a letter that Bronstein read to E&P. “It was tremendously well done. We have one small issue with your contention that the reporters at the Chronicle broke the story, when in fact, The Daily Journal was the first to have the story.”

Bronstein wrote back, thanking Lee for his kind words, congratulated the free daily for its early stories, and apologized for any suggestion that the Chronicle had the very first report on the BALCO raid.

He told me he did not recall that the Daily Journal had done the first piece: “Did we misstate our role in the steroid investigation? I don’t think so. But I understand how they felt. I never have a problem with giving people credit. But oversights happen.”

He didn’t have to apologize to Lee. But he might have sent a note to the television stations on which his ads ran.

While the Daily Journal’s BALCO scoop was the first one to be published in a newspaper, it came after several area television stations had featured the BALCO raids on its early evening broadcasts — the night before the Daily Journal hit the sidewalk.

“Cheryl Hurd, our reporter in the Oakland bureau, got a tip early that day that something big was going down,” said James Sanders, news director for KNTV, an NBC outlet in San Jose. “She called and asked if we should stake the place out. I said, ‘Go for it,’ so she did.”

And later that day, an anchor for the station had this lead to her story: “Dozens of federal agents swooped down on a laboratory on the peninsula today. The target: BALCO Laboratories, a company that designs supplements for big-name professional athletes.”

Hurd noted that Barry Bonds and other high-profile athletes were customers of BALCO, but didn’t mention that it was the start of the steroid scandal. “No one knew what it was about,” said Hurd. “Money laundering, or what. We didn’t want to say ‘steroids,’ because we didn’t want to be sued. We were careful.”

So was Heather Ishimura, a television reporter for KGO-TV (the ABC affiliate in San Francisco), who was also at the BALCO bust. “Our copy mentioned the BALCO clients and its history,” said Kevin Keeshan, news director of the station. “But we did not say anything about steroids.”

The initial piece by the Daily Journal did not use the term “steroids” either. Ironically, the Chronicle television campaign ran on both KNTV and KGO.

But the stations shrugged off the hubris of the Chronicle, noting that the newspaper had done the best work in the country on the steroid scandal. “I saw the spots,” laughed KNTV’s Sanders, a former newspaper columnist for the Colorado Springs Sun and a reporter for The Pueblo Chieftain & Star Journal. “I appreciate that you’re setting the record straight, but it doesn’t matter who gets credit for things. This business is not about throwing your chest out. It’s about doing the work.”

Keeshan also felt Bronstein had every right to crow. “They did a great job on the steroids story,” he said. “And when we get an exclusive, they’ve given us credit.”

I got into the who-really-broke-BALCO story because I wrote a column last month that mistakenly identified another local paper, the San Mateo (Calif.) County Times, as the one that published the first account of the BALCO raid. Mays quite properly e-mailed E&P with my mistake and we corrected it.

He also complained about the Chronicle taking credit for breaking the steroid story. Afterwards, I told him that we would try to find out how many other news outlets had not properly credited him, a reporting job he said was long overdue.

When I began turning up material about the television stations, Mays explained, “We didn’t get the story from them. We could have posted our story [the same time they broadcast it], but we didn’t. We still were the first newspaper, even though we weren’t the first news organization.”

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