The judge misses the point

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EDITORIAL The federal judge who allowed the largest media merger in Northern California history to go forward unimpeded did what far too many judges do in cases like this: she ruled narrowly on the tightest definition of the law and missed the overall point entirely. Judge Susan Illston rejected a bid by San Francisco real estate investor Clint Reilly to block Denver billionaire Dean Singleton's effort to buy virtually every daily newspaper in the Bay Area and set up an unprecedented media monopoly. Reilly had sought an injunction against the deal, arguing that once it's approved there will be no way to halt the obvious damage. Illston noted that Reilly had raised "serious questions" and agreed that there's "a need to examine the proposed sale to ensure that no long-term harm will come to Bay Area residents." But she insisted in a 16-page opinion that the deal posed no "pressing and imminent danger." Wait: no imminent danger? One person could soon control every single significant news media outlet in the entire Bay Area save for the Hearst-owned San Francisco Chronicle — which also has a financial partnership with Singleton. What does Illston expect? That a year or two down the road, when residents of the region find themselves without any credible local newspapers and advertisers find nothing but high monopoly rates, someone can reexamine this and find that it was a bad idea? That's silly. The time to put the deal on hold and address Illston's "serious questions" is now, before it's too late. Nobody will be able to unscramble this egg. But Illston didn't get that at all. Instead, she ruled that the real threat of great harm was to the defendants — the billionaire publisher and his business associates. Actually, they face no risk of harm at all — except for the threat to their ability to make obscene profits by gutting newsrooms, combining operations, and tearing the heart out of Bay Area journalism. This is how Singleton, known (for good reason) as "Lean Dean," operates. He likes what he calls "clusters" of papers — groups of newspapers in adjoining geographic areas. He centralizes as many functions as possible, reduces staff to the minimum necessary, then sits back and watches the cash roll in. In the Bay Area, that will probably mean that the big, expensive newsrooms of papers like the San Jose Mercury News and the Contra Costa Times will be pared down, perhaps merged into a single operating center. The various papers will share stories, so there won't be much difference (or competition) between them. Old-fashioned concepts like investigative and enterprise reporting, which require time and resources, will disappear. None of this requires a law degree and a judicial robe to comprehend. It's been happening all over the country; Singleton's record is clear. Of course, it didn't help that Reilly was all alone on this, a single local businessperson trying to block a massive media merger that the state and federal governments are apparently ready to approve with only cursory examination. The outcome might have been very different if Attorney General Bill Lockyer had appeared before Illston representing the state of California. But Lockyer is sitting on his hands — and the US Justice Department just announced that it won't pursue the matter and is going to allow the merger to proceed (see www.sfbg.com). This doesn't have to be the end of the case, by any means. Reilly can and should go forward with his suit as aggressively as possible. And Lockyer, who is running for state controller, and Jerry Brown, who is running for attorney general, need to stop ducking this issue and take a firm stand against the merger. SFBG PS All of the papers involved in the merger covered the ruling, but none of them quoted outside experts critical of Illston's decision or critical of the merger itself. Bruce B.