New: Book Report: Gaudy Century

I'm taking the day off work today. It's the day after a Bay Area Night Game (a rather-fun instance thereof). It was one of those Bay Area Night Games that actually happens at night, and thus I was up way past my bedtime last night. But I was prepared! As a veteran of these games, I've learned an important night game technique: schedule a vacation day for the day after.

Today I slept in. And I made it to the kinda-newly-opened California Academy of Sciences. This was my first time seeing the place since it re-opened. There was new stuff to see--the rain forest exhibit is pretty darned nice; not as impressive as the Eden Project, say, but much much easier to reach from my apartment. There's a big penguin display. There were "old friends" to look at, too: the pendulum, the alligator pit. I was sad to see that the two-headed gopher snake had died, but honestly it wasn't especially active back when it was alive.

I was bumbling around, not paying much attention to some taxiderm-ified bear, except that I noticed "Monarch". This was a locally-famous bear&emdash;famous as a publicity stunt by Hearst, the newspaper magnate. It's a sad story--Hearst hired a hunter to bring a live bear back to the city. The bear, named "Monarch", lived the rest of his life in captivity; but the local zoo didn't want him, so he was just in some cage in Golden Gate Park. His image appeared on the papers; the Examiner was "The Monarch of the Dailies". His image also appeared on the California flag--I guess if you're a flag designer who needs some bear, art, it's handy to have a captive grizzly to look at. Too bad that the California grizzlies were going extinct around this time. (You can call up the museum's phone-based interpretive text for Monarch: 1-415-294-3602, then enter 6#)

Why did I have this bit of San Francisco history rattling around in my head? A few months ago, I read Gaudy Century, a book of anecdotes and maybe-history of San Francisco newspapers.

Newspapers are in trouble these days, but newspapers have always been in trouble. This book is full of tales of newspapers going under. Most newspapers started up without a business plan more sophisticated than that of the Underpants Gnomes.

There has been much tearing of hair and gnashing of teeth over the ongoing collapse of newspapers. Sure, there are blogs--but those don't have armies of fact-checkers. Then again, newspapers get things wrong. If you've ever seen a Real Journalism article about something where you know the facts--at first, it can be jarring when you see how far off they are from the facts.

Gaudy Century is a book on the history of San Francisco newspapers. It was written by John Bruce, an editor of the Chronicle. I guess it's riddled with errors. Unlike a blog with a nice comments system which allows feedback from around the world, this was a physical book. Thus, the only errors I know about are those that inspired previous readers of this library book to scribble in the margins--or those which triggered my b---s--- alarm and prompted me to look things up.

This book claims that the first newspaper for "negroes" was published in San Francisco. There's no detail backing up this claim; The relevant Wikipedia article on "African American newspapers" disagrees and cites sources. What made Bruce so sure that San Francisco was first? We'll never know; he doesn't tell us.

A few pages later, book says "The People's Party won [the San Francisco city election] with a scant margin." Someone underlined that "scant" and wrote "Check your facts, Bruce!" out in the margin.

Later on, he claimed that the term "hoodlums" originated in San Francisco. I looked that one up--and folks agree with him there. But it's not a good sign when the reader's tempted to double-check claims because "I bet I could fact-check this with a simple web search for [etymology hoodlum]" rather than because "This is an especially outrageous claim."

I ended up treating this book as a book of local myths and legends. Seen that way, it has some good yarns. Maybe Hearst was exciting. Maybe the de Youngs were murderous. Maybe some things in this book were true; or maybe they're better than that.

Here's a strange thing about newspapers: it seems that plenty of them were founded hoping to sway personal opinion. This whole teetering-on-the-edge of economic collapse seems familiar because most of these newspapers weren't started up with sound business plans--they were trying to get people to read, but were harvesting minds, not dollars. That is, they'd present reports of current events, financed by advertising, hoping that folks would adopt the opinions of the editors. Why didn't they just publish their opinions? Of those who wanted to spread their opinions, why did so many choose news reports as the, uhm, hook? Why not, say, recipes?

Growing up, I wasn't too excited about newspapers. Reading this book--I guess maybe my lack of excitement might be because the San Francisco papers were relatively weak-sauce. I hope that some medium emerges that serves investigative reporters well; or if not "well", at least better than newspapers have. And ideally that medium would allow for reader comments--if the margins of this book, are any indication, it's useful to let your readers check your facts.

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Posted 2009-03-23

 bob wilhelm said...


Nice reflection about SF facts and tales. Now, what do I do we my collections of old san francisco stories -- like Herbert Asbury's The Barbary Coast (excerpts online at Google),M1

27 March, 2009 10:48
 lahosken said...

"The Barbary Coast"

Sounds interesting, thank you. I have appended this to my "to-read" list.

28 March, 2009 09:47