Interviews

The Interview: Phil Matier and Andy Ross

by Janet Reilly

Matier and Ross, on scoops, scandal and the future of California

Even though I grew up in Sacramento, my parents were lifelong subscribers to the San Francisco Chronicle. One of my vivid childhood memories is going downstairs to breakfast and seeing my mom standing at the kitchen counter, reading Herb Caen. It was a daily ritual for years. A generation later, my girls might have that same memory of me—only it’s not Herb Caen I’m reading, it’s Matier & Ross.

For anyone involved in politics in the Bay Area, (or even remotely interested in politics), Matier & Ross is mandatory reading.  And, if your name appears in their thrice-weekly column, it can either make or break your day.  Trust me, I know! 

For more than 25 years, Phil Matier and Andy Ross have been reporting on politicians and colorful personalities in San Francisco and beyond.  Their column brings us inside the halls of power and outside the normal boundaries of political reporting. (Matier is also a regular on KPIX 5 and KCBS Radio.) Recently, I had a chance to sit down with the journalists where they’re most comfortable—the Chronicle newsroom at 5th and Mission Streets.  It was late afternoon, just past their deadline for the next day’s column.  With their story filed (on time), they were relaxed, happy and ready to give me the scoop.

Meet this dynamic duo…

Many of us who have read your column for years feel like we know you two, but in fact, we know very little about you. Phil, let’s start with you.  Where did you grow up?

Phil Matier: Up and down the East Coast. My father was in the military…we moved around a lot.

And college?

Matier: University of Arizona, after a series of junior colleges. That was where I happened to be at the time, and they were handing out scholarships and I got one.

Did you study journalism?

Matier: The last two years. It was a very good program. It wasn’t theoretical, it was very technical. It was fun. It beats working.

Andy, you grew up in Albuquerque. What did your parents do?

Andy Ross: My father was a physician—psychiatrist, actually. My mom was a housewife, raised a lot of kids [Ross is one of seven], and had been a nurse at one point. They wound up in New Mexico, had a big family and encouraged me to go off and find something out about the world and explore. And so I ended up at UC Santa Barbara, then transferred to Berkeley. I graduated from Berkeley, and then went off to Syracuse. To be honest, I was an [undergraduate] English major and wasn’t really sure what I was going to do, but it was around the time of Watergate. Like for a lot of people in my generation, it was a compelling story, to be watching that close-up.

So was it Watergate, the desire to expose injustice, that got you interested in reporting?

Ross: My main motivation was I knew I would be a lousy schoolteacher if I stayed in English, so that wasn’t going to be good. I said, “I better find something a little more practical,” and I’m curious by nature. I like people, so the journalism really seemed to fit. But I didn’t work on the school newspaper. I didn’t do any of that.

Matier: These might seem like really banal reasons for getting into journalism, but for all that people project on us, we’ve never considered ourselves crusaders.   

How do you describe yourselves?

Matier: As just flat-footed reporters who go out there and figure out what’s going on and relay it.

Ross: And to try to get the story, and then tell it in an interesting way.

How did you two meet?

Ross: We were thrown together at City Hall in San Francisco while working for the Examiner.

Matier: That was during Dianne Feinstein.

Ross: And we were watching everybody feed stuff to the Herb Caens of the world, and we’d see things that weren’t always told the way that we would necessarily tell them.

Matier: There’s “journal-speak.”

What does that mean?

Matier: Oh, God almighty. Even to this day, you pick up newspapers and you read committee reports, committee meetings or statements made by the mayors and the supervisors—a lot of it was Kabuki. It was just kind of empty. You’re sitting there listening to all of this, and we were both going, “Bullshit. We know it’s bullshit.” And so we wrote a—

Ross: —prototype.

Matier: —prototype column. And we gave it to the Examiner editors and they said, “Nah.” [But] Larry Kramer [executive editor], who went on to found CBS MarketWatch and is now running USA Today, said yes.

What did he see in you guys?

Matier: I have no idea.

Ross: I think he just saw two young, ambitious reporters.

Matier: And he knew he could get us on the cheap.

Ross: The first editors actually didn’t say no. They just suggested that maybe behind the obits might be a good place for it, and Phil and I just sort of laughed.

Matier: Larry Kramer said, “Let’s go with this,” and that’s what happened.

What year was that?

Ross: I finally figured it out. It was around 1990.

Matier: I mean, it’s been a rollercoaster. There’s been ups and there’s been downs. You could only do what we do in maybe three other cities in the United States. You can do it in New York, Boston, you can do it here…and maybe Chicago.

Because there’s such an abundance of political news in San Francisco…?

Ross: Political news and personalities and just things going on here that put the city a little bit on…the cutting edge that make it an interesting place for these kind of stories to take shape and take hold.  I mean, everything, whether it’s the same-sex marriage fight or—

Matier: Like Jerry Brown says, there’s the same number of characters in Los Angeles, only they’re spread out over 3,000 square miles. In San Francisco, they’re in 49 square miles, so they can’t get up in the morning and go out on the street without bumping into each other and something happening. … For a while there, the little forgotten area of Hayward and Fremont was putting San Francisco to shame. I mean, we had Bill and Nadia Lockyer and X-rated videos, and Mary Hayashi, who was in the State Assembly and who shoplifted $2,600 of stuff out of Neiman Marcus, including leather pants. You don’t make that up. 

There’s a lot of talk in the media today about leaks. I’m sure you’re leaked a lot of information. How do you ferret out legitimate news from somebody who just has an axe to grind?

Matier: First of all, leaks are really overrated. A lot of what we do is go through incredibly long, boring reports. Because oftentimes, in today’s world, the truth, or the hiding, is right there. The facts are staring you in the face—it’s just whether or not you choose to go and read through them and see why the conclusion was reached.

Ross: Yeah, but don’t kid yourselves. A lot of people do have an axe to grind, and we do get a lot of that, and we expect that. The question is: Do the facts hold up, or is there some truth there? And like I said, most people call you because they have some message they’re trying to deliver, or something they want out there.

Matier: Most entertaining is when people leak stuff about themselves and then scream publicly, “Where did they get that, and how dare they write that?” And we’re saying, “You gave it to us!

That’s funny…

Matier: And, there’s a difference between a tip and a leak. I mean a tip is you should check this out and that’s it. … When you have a story like, let’s say, the Millennium Tower sinking, I mean, it’s not like that thing was hidden. Now, it wasn’t bubbling up, but it was on its way.

Ross: Yeah, but, nobody was talking about it. 

How many calls a week do you get from people pitching stories to you and how many of those stories make it into the column?

Ross: Very few. You just get a lot of stuff that’s either not that interesting or is misinformation or whatever. So, our job is to filter through a lot of that and try to find the best nuggets that are out there.

When I worked for the mayor of Los Angeles, most people I knew weren’t that interested in local politics.  It was all about the entertainment industry. So coming to San Francisco and seeing what a prominent role politics plays in this city was a real shock to me.  Politics is sport here. 

Matier: That’s a good analogy because when we started it was like sports reporting … everybody was covering what was on the field. We broke the rule because we covered what was going on in the locker room and the front office of a sports team. That had been sort of out of bounds on daily journalism. It had been in magazines or in books, but not a daily run. And, that’s what we did. We started covering both.

What’s the biggest scoop you’ve ever broken?

Ross: I don’t know. Is there one? We have stuff going back a long time, stuff even on the old days of the 49ers and Eddie DeBartolo.   

Matier: I don’t know, it’s more like, What’s your favorite episode? It’s either a soap opera or a sitcom. Sometimes you feel like you’re writing a script for a sitcom, and other times it is sort of like a West Wing or Law & Order drama. … It’s kind of like, Wow, that wave really broke, and it made a loud noise.  But, in the end, it’s just a wave, there’ll be another one in a couple of minutes.   

The way people consume news has changed so much over the last decade. How has it changed the way you write your column?

Ross: Everything moves a lot faster now. Once, we kind of just sat around and said, “OK, we’ll deal with this one next week, let’s take some time and really work it.” Now, you know you better either get it out there or you’re going to be left in the dust. But there are times still when we look at it and say, “OK, not so fast, you want to get it right.” It’s a juggling act, but it has put more stress on us, there’s no question.

Matier: It’s 50-50. First of all, that audience [on Twitter] is much more limited than people talk about. It just is. It seems to be the same people talking to each other. … [A tweet] is 140 characters, and it’s a dot. But people want three or four dots, they want the dots connected, and that’s what the difference is. And so I think our staying power is that we connect the dots.

You guys are as much a part of the political landscape as any politician. So do you take on certain personas? Phil, you’re more the hard-driving, no-nonsense half of the duo, while Andy has a gentler style. Is that accurate about who you are in your personal lives?

Ross: I don’t know if that’s the case. We sometimes play good cop and bad cop. That’s just a natural thing. And some people prefer dealing with Phil on stuff, some people prefer dealing with me on stuff. Our personalities are a little different. Ultimately, though, Phil and I pretty much have the same vision of what makes a good news story—and I think that’s what makes our column successful.

Who are some of the most impressive politicians you’ve seen come through the Bay Area?

Matier: There’s Dianne Feinstein, there’s Jerry Brown and there’s Willie Brown.

Ross: I think Phil sort of hit something. Those three have longevity. Their ability to stay in the game for so long, and be relevant and really set an agenda, I think is big. And there aren’t that many others who have been able to match that. We’ll see whether Kamala Harris reaches that, or Gavin Newsom. We’re so close sometimes to them, watching them, that we see a lot of warts oftentimes.

Who’s our next governor, and who’s our next mayor?

Matier: The mayor’s race, thanks to ranked-choice voting, is no longer a race, it’s almost a roulette toss. And I don’t think that’s good, I really don’t. I believe in elections and runoffs and debate, rather than everybody showing up and smiling and then some configuration of who smiled the most. The governor’s race is an open primary. … What we have right now in these races is the lineup of the expected. It’s the unexpected, it’s the celebrity walking in, somebody that’s known and not known for politics deciding—

Ross:  I mean, if George Clooney decided to run for governor tomorrow, that would just suddenly shake up the race—

Matier: Or Condoleezza Rice.

I don’t want to delve too much into national politics, but with Donald Trump in the White House, isn’t this a political reporter’s dream?

Matier: It is.

Ross: Absolutely, I mean, it’s energized newspapers, particularly in Washington and New York and elsewhere. Everybody is sort of playing off these stories, and it’s been fascinating.

Phil, let’s get personal. What is Andy’s most endearing quality?

Matier: It’s his sense of fairness. He always tries to be fair.

Andy, what makes Phil endearing?

Ross: What people don’t realize is that Phil’s actually got a sensitive side to him, even though it isn’t always on display.

What’s annoying about him?

Ross: Phil gets very singularly focused and sometimes distracted, and so sometimes it’s hard to command his attention.  “Phil, you there?”

Do you two hang out together outside of work?

Ross: No, we see each other so much at work. I think we need a break from each other on the weekends. And he’s too busy anyway!

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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