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Who Put the Chron on Steroids?

Steve Kettmann | February 4, 2008 | Story

Five years ago in Berlin, as I was covering the trial of former East German sports boss Manfred Ewald, the party-hack Dr. Frankenstein who made steroids a permanent part of world sports, my thoughts turned to the steroid-fueled giants who were transforming the sport I loved. As a kid growing up in San Jose, I watched lanky, loose-limbed Giants slugger Willie McCovey clobber low fastballs for towering home runs; more recently, as an Oakland A's beat writer for the Chronicle, I marveled at Mark McGwire's tight, coiled swing producing home runs with barely a twitch of all that muscle, which by then I understood was the product of years of steroid use. So during a break in the Ewald trial, I tracked down the athlete who had testified most movingly about how being fed steroids had messed up her health and life, and asked what she thought about U.S. athletes. "In all the disciplines of sports, you need power and energy," former discus thrower Brigitte Michel explained. "But steroids are a time bomb. They are always dangerous. I would tell athletes around the world, ‘Keep yourself off steroids.' I hope they pay attention."

I hoped so, too, but I doubted they would. I thought of players like Jason Giambi, who was just then coming into his MVP-winning prime for the Oakland A's. I'd covered Giambi when he was a fresh-faced rookie, entertained by his whole routine on how a big-league hitter needs to "feel sexy" up there, and then watched him swell and bloat with the steroids his friend McGwire had shown him how to use. Thinking about Giambi and the way steroids had transformed him, I had to admit that like all sportswriters, I was a big part of the problem. By 1998 at the latest, we all knew what was going on, and yet we never dug deeper, pushed for answers, or put warnings like Michel's out there where Giambi and McGwire would have to think about them. In short: we acquiesced. Worse, it seemed a safe bet that denial and unaccountability on steroids would continue to carry the day for the foreseeable future.

But it didn't. Two reporters, Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams of the San Francisco Chronicle, delivered a quick slap to the face of America, just when it needed it, and forced us all to stop pretending we could not see what was right in front of our eyes. Ever since the paper received an anonymous tip that raids on the Burlingame nutritional supplements company Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO) and the home of Barry Bonds' personal trainer Greg Anderson had turned up evidence that would conclusively tie Bonds and other superstars to steroid use, Williams and Fainaru-Wada have made sure Chronicle readers know more about the spreading scandal than anyone else.

Last March, they were the first to report outright that Bonds and Giambi got steroids from BALCO. Four months later, they aired the explosive testimony of the world's fastest man, Tim Montgomery—given to the federal grand jury that eventually handed down indictments against Anderson and Victor Conte, BALCO's mercurial founder—pinpointing one steroid Bonds had obtained from the firm. The reporters broke Conte's secret offer, made to President Bush, that he'd spill the beans about the track coaches and athletes utilizing his drugs "in order to clean up the Olympics." After a year of full-time reporting, Fainaru-Wada and Williams had scored so many scoops that they had taken home the coveted 2004 Dick Schaap Excellence in Sports Journalism Award.

Then came the twin bombshells that truly broke the story wide open. Two months ago, on December 2, the Chronicle revealed that Giambi had admitted under oath that he had, despite public denials, injected himself with both steroids and human growth hormone. The next morning, the paper reported what few believed would ever be uttered publicly: hometown hero Barry Bonds, perhaps the greatest ballplayer who ever lived, had also told grand jurors that he'd used steroids, though he claimed he didn't know what they were.

Suddenly it was open season. The media, baseball officials, the players' union, and politicians from John McCain and Nancy Pelosi to a certain former Texas Rangers owner stumbled over each other in a race to claim steroids as their "issue." For weeks, the words "as reported in the San Francisco Chronicle" have been everywhere. Even the New York Times, which in the past has gone through great contortions to avoid crediting the Chron for anything, cited the paper 23 times, often on the front page, in the first ten days of December.

Just when the media looked easier to manipulate than ever—so half-assed about fighting hypocrisy with truth-telling that nearly half of Americans still believe Saddam Hussein was behind September 11—Fainaru-Wada and Williams reminded everyone that reporting still matters. Forever changing the national conversation on steroids does not compare to exposing an illegal cover-up directed by the president. But to anyone who cares about sports, these two reporters became the Woodward and Bernstein of our times. "Their reporting has rivaled the Washington Post on Watergate," says Peter Gammons of ESPN, one of the top sports journalists of the past few generations. "If Fainaru-Wada and Williams don't win a Pulitzer, it will be like Barry Bonds losing the '91 MVP—a joke." "It's a national story with a local paper basically blowing everyone out of the water," adds Charlie Moynihan, a veteran ESPN producer who lives in San Francisco.

What makes the scoops noteworthy isn't only that the once-listless Chronicle newsroom is scoring them, says Howard Bryant, an Oakland A's beat writer for the San Jose Mercury News from 1998 to 2001 whose new book on steroids and baseball is due out in September. It's that at a time when the press tries mostly to "god up" athletes, any media outlet would work so hard to report whether its hometown heroes cheated. "Steroids was the biggest story of all our careers, in terms of the integrity of the game and its future, and we [sports reporters] all dropped the ball on this," he says. "So these guys have not only destroyed the competition on BALCO but they took everyone in our business off the hook. When I lived in San Francisco, people were always saying, ‘How could the newspaper in a city of this size and sophistication be so bad?' But 20 years from now when some student is doing a dissertation on the steroid era, we'll know who was doing their jobs and who wasn't. These Chronicle guys are doing their jobs."

In a world where everyone is a press critic, however, no accomplishment goes unpunished; the tendency is to sit back and poke holes. The big gripe today casts Fainaru-Wada and Williams as lucky stenographers who just jot down the revelations of hidden sources who seem to know every detail of the federal investigation and to be far too eager to scorch reputations. Others wonder if all the high-concept black-and-white TV and print ads, with executive editor Phil Bronstein touting the Chron's BALCO reporting as proof of the paper's quality, aren't premature, given the recent arrival of yet another cost-conscious publisher and the distinct possibility of a painful labor strike later this year.

That's the way of media talk, where grumpy complaints are considered smart and hip while unironic praise gets labeled naive or misguided. Long after Hearst bought the Chronicle and in 2000 fused its staff with the smaller, scrappier Examiner's to create a "supernewspaper," as Will Hearst put it at the time—"the equivalent of the New York Times and the Washington Post"—snarky second-guessing has remained the standard reaction to Chronicle aspirations. But the paper is much more aggressively reported than it was when I was there in the 1990s.

At that time a fetid mood of failure and dysfunction hung over the newsroom, and the rise of low-talent ass-kissers with no qualms about mouthing the management slogan of the week was an in-house joke everyone got. (The Examiner, meanwhile, was a seething hive of strivers eager for anyone to notice them or their paper.) After the merger and the ascension of the archenemy, Examiner editor Bronstein, to the helm, there was a lot of distrust and weirdness—as Bronstein himself puts it, "fierce competitors suddenly working together, with a lot of historical feelings that were pretty complicated." Bronstein, like anyone whose public image has long since run away from him, can sometimes come across as a cartoon character. But you have to give him this much: he understood his job was to open up the Chron's windows. He gave day-to-day power to an award-winning veteran East Coast hard-news guy, Robert "Rosey" Rosenthal. He, at least in his own telling, shunted aside people with "that gene of intrigue and whispering and office gossip." Having once written some of the better foreign reporting you'll ever read, he stuck with the Examiner concept of an investigative team free to swarm big stories. And then, by all accounts, he got out of the way. (A hands-off manager, he's often absent from the newsroom.)

By now the party line is that the initial postmerger weirdness is history, and based on everything I was told by people up and down the food chain at the paper, that actually appears to be true. But so is this: the combined paper has gained most of its new energy from former Examiner guys, including Fainaru-Wada, Williams, and the editor most responsible for the Chron's steroids coverage, former Ex city editor Stephen Cook.

Steve Cook started at the Examiner in the 1960s after being weaned on reporting by his father, the great Examiner city editor Gale Cook, a Stanford grad widely respected for his gentlemanly demeanor. The younger Cook grew up steeped in the Examiner versus Chronicle competition of those days, when the papers' reporters and editors—the usual mix of oddballs who didn't fit in anywhere else, so chose newspapers—chased stories all day and then met at bars like Jerry & Johnny's or the M & M to fight about what made a good reporter. When Cook was coming up, reporting was a calling, not a career. But while that's changed in most big-city papers—editors today attend lots of meetings, have long commutes to the suburbs, and value collegiality and sensitivity over an obsessive drive to bring a story home—Cook hasn't.

Of course, like many Examiner reporters, Cook always wanted to work at the bigger, influential Chronicle. He had worked at KPIX as a reporter and producer and at the Marin Independent Journal after graduating from San Francisco State in 1964, but Chron city editor Abe Mellinkoff wouldn't hire him, so the Examiner it was. He rose steadily, as he tells it, "learning by watching great reporters and writers I was supposed to be supervising" and eventually editing his own father. He was also assigned a new reporter who had come over from KQED.

"Steve was my first editor at the Examiner in 1980," Bronstein says. "He didn't like me at all." Cook confirms that. "His first story was a mess," he says.

Bronstein wasn't the only one to have trouble with Cook. For years the story that Cook fired his own father has made the rounds; its persistence says much about his reputation. "That's hilarious," Cook says. "I wasn't even the city editor when Gale left the paper. [He] took a normal retirement. The paper threw a big party for him and gave him a computer as a send-off." The elder Cook confirms as much: "Sorry, it would have made a good story, but my Steve didn't fire me." Still, the younger Cook knows that he's alienated people who've worked for him and also that, at 61, he's not about to stop pushing now. "Was I a hard-ass?" he asks. "I've always been intense. I wanted the story first and best. Have I mellowed? I hope not, at least not too much. It's hard to get the kinds of stories we want without intensity. Mark and Lance are pretty intense folks, too. As far as that goes, I don't think there's a laid-back person on our investigative team."

That I-team came over almost intact from the Ex and has distinguished itself on other stories as well, such as Fajitagate, the SFPD's problems solving violent crimes, and Gavin Newsom's financial ties to the Gettys. Some papers dislike the idea of peeling off a team of specialists, but Bronstein insisted, and set up the I-team in its own office, described by longtime Chron investigative reporter Susan Sward as "a dark, windowless, airless place with a few half-alive plants scattered about on shelves." So when the anonymous tip that the just-breaking BALCO investigation would implicate Bonds came in September 2003, it actually had somewhere to go: to Fainaru-Wada, a former sportswriter who, coincidentally, had recently jumped to the I-team. Soon after the tip came in, Cook mentioned it to a colleague just before the daily news meeting. "Good luck getting that in the paper," Cook says the editor told him.

Unwittingly or not, the comment reflected that "Why bother?" attitude I knew so well from the paper's days as a "velvet coffin" where talented people learned to aim low. But it also arose from a growing industrywide ambivalence about investigative reporting (combined with worry about filling the news hole) that dampens, at all but the best metropolitan dailies, commitment to this exhausting part of newspapering. "As much as people might have talked about Bonds possibly being involved with steroids," Fainaru-Wada admits, "the notion of anyone being able to nail that down probably struck people as unrealistic."

Yet in a distinct break with the old Chron culture, Cook kept the story going, and had the backing of Rosenthal, who gets positive reviews as the most powerful of several newcomer editors with no stake in the history. Though rumor initially had Bronstein being pressured by Hearst executives to bring on Rosenthal, Bronstein laughs that idea off. And one former Ex reporter says, "You have to give Bronstein credit. He brought in someone who could replace him in a second."

For his part, the 39-year-old Fainaru-Wada, whose grandfather edited a Romanian newspaper in 1930s Detroit, was ready for Cook's direction. He'd been a sportswriter for years—at the Knoxville News-Sentinel, Los Angeles's Daily News, National, the old Ex, and then the Chron. His move to investigative news mirrors that of his older brother Steve ("the most talented journalist I know," says Fainaru-Wada), who had gone from sports to foreign reporting, including two tours in Iraq for the Post.

"Mark got one source, then another, then another—classic good reporting," Cook says. "Within a month, he reported that a grand jury had been convened." At that point, Cook assigned longtime I-team writer Lance Williams to join in full-time, and another I-team member, Seth Rosenfeld, pitched in. Sportswriters versed in steroids coverage, especially columnist Gwen Knapp, contributed, too.

"I had never worked with the sports guys, and I thought it was so cool you could have them maybe get you a quote from Barry," says Williams, a 54-year-old reporter who brought a competitive streak and secretiveness to the operation. "It's a different culture in sports; they work together and collaborate. I'd never seen anything like it. People from the news side looked at our partnership and said, ‘How's this ex-sports guy [Fainaru-Wada] you're working with?' But if it was just me, we would have gotten killed on this story. Mark is as good as anyone I've ever seen."

Dogged bordering on frantic, Fainaru-Wada also makes a good foil for the calm and straight-faced, if privately quirky, Williams. Says Bronstein, "On occasion you want to say to Mark, ‘Take it easy, it's OK, everything will work out.' While Lance looks like he's never in a rush to do anything." Sward, one veteran Chron reporter on the I-team, who's watched them day after day, marvels at their energy for this story. "Here they have been at it for months, and they still come in excited, jumping on the phones, cajoling sources, bugging editors," she says.

Cook and the reporters won't say anything about their sources for the grand jury testimony and the feds' prosecution of Conte and Anderson for distributing illegal steroids and money laundering. "Whoever the source is, he is on the ground floor, like Deep Throat in the Watergate scandal," says Moynihan of ESPN. But the two reporters have gotten good stuff from elsewhere, too. Any reporter knows that on a story like this—with potential informants among defense attorneys, the athletes and their associates, the targets themselves, and the prosecutors' office—success begets success. For one thing, the more you know, the more credibility you have with sources; and when you get something a source doesn't have, you can trade it for information to use as bait for other sources. Then, once you're established as the leader on a story, sources are drawn to you since they know you'll do more with what they give you. Of course, the key element in all this is extremely hard work, which is why most reporters—and papers—tend to back off once they've made a splash with a story. But the Chronicle hasn't backed off.

Still, the decision to publish grand-jury testimony has drawn some serious slings and arrows. Calling such testimony "highly inflammatory and not too reliable," Jane Kirtley, a professor at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication, told the Stanford-based website Grade the News, "It can damage people's reputation and compromise the presumption of innocence." Bonds and Giambi testified only after being promised secrecy, which means the Chronicle made them victims of an illegal leak. U.S. Attorney Kevin Ryan has said his office will pursue the leaker. But everyone knows that people on every side of a criminal case are prone to leaks when they get frustrated that their prosecution or defense isn't coming together the way they'd like.

Did the benefit to the public of publishing outweigh the potential threat to reputations and the grand jury system? The Chron had an incentive to decide yes, given the boost in journalistic reputation it was likely to get from the stories. But Stephen Burgard, director of Northeastern's School of Journalism, thinks it was the right decision ethically, too. "Within the world of sports, it's hard to imagine a bigger story than this," Burgard says. "It goes to the fundamental integrity of sports and questions whether achievements are as authentic as they would appear." Also, parts of Bonds' grand jury testimony had already been reported by New York Daily News sportswriter T.J. Quinn, who was making a cell-phone call in a private nook during Bonds' testimony and overheard bits of Bonds' exchange with his questioners through a wall. "The public has a right to know," Chron sports editor Glenn Schwarz told me. "And it's not as if we broke in somewhere or did something illegal to obtain it."

When you spend your days reporting that sports heroes cheat, people react. You've made it harder for them to distance themselves from uncomfortable truths, like how profoundly steroids have changed a sport few like to see change. Says Williams, "We get quite a bit of negative feedback from Giants fans. Sometimes I feel like I have an audience of children and the content of my stories is that there is no Santa Claus." Bronstein says he was in a grocery store, shopping with his son, soon after the Giambi and Bonds stories ran. A man in a black and orange jacket spotted him and approached. "As you can see, I'm a Giants fan," the man said. "I'm really upset. I don't know what to think. Can you help me?"

"That was very poignant for me, and reflected the feelings of a lot of people in the newsroom who are fans," Bronstein says. "He wanted to believe in the mythology, and now as a thinking human being he realized he couldn't. There are some big questions that have to be answered: What's going on in a culture when you have to weigh 240 pounds to play baseball? And what are we asking of these athletes, starting in high school? Do we really want to run full tilt into the ‘Roman amphitheater' part of our cultural trajectory? That's a discussion people did have, endlessly, and not only in the Bay Area. I'm proud that the paper provoked those discussions."

The challenge inside the Chronicle newsroom will be to make sure that BALCO accomplishments aren't an aberration. Bronstein claims he is encouraged. "When I first looked up and saw Lance standing there talking to [former competitor] Susan Sward," he remembers, "I was overjoyed to think about the combined firepower we had. I've found a group who are talented and bright and anything that needs to get said gets said right to your face, so you can hash it out. Rosey is a very blunt guy, and I'm a very blunt guy." Listening to him, you imagine a newsroom in which naysayers desist, talent flourishes, and obsessive reporting is commonplace. If even one-half of that happens, BALCO might be remembered as the story that gave the Chronicle new life and credibility.

For sports journalism, the story poses more confounding challenges. Fainaru-Wada and Williams, remember, are not on the sports desk; until they started digging, nearly all of the hundreds of sports journalists, from beat reporters and sports editors to the TV guys, went about their business as if doping didn't exist. "Are we a trade industry?" wonders Bryant, the former Merc sportswriter. "Do you do this job because it's cool to hang out in four-star hotels on the road and drink beer and chase women and tell your friends you're as close to these guys as anyone? Or do you do it because you're a journalist? At times like this, you realize why you do it."

Still, there's reason to be skeptical whether the Chron's drive on this story will be emulated in the future, even by the paper itself. Ask yourself a question: What about McGwire? Who is asking him the hard questions about the year he broke Roger Maris's home run record? He was Giambi's best friend, and I've spoken with a number of reliable inside sources who've talked in explicit detail about his steroid use. But have any editors sent a reporter to show up at his door in Southern California, the way reporters often show up at front doors to badger coaches who've just been fired? Apparently not. What are they afraid of? Probably the truth.

Steve Kettmann, a Chronicle sportswriter from 1990 to 1998, is author of One Day at Fenway: A Day in the Life of Baseball in America.


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