The lawsuit that seeks to stop the monopolization of daily newspapers in the Bay Area isn't just a business dispute. Real estate investor Clint Reilly argues that he would be personally harmed by the deal (which gives him standing to sue), but in reality, this is about the future of mainstream news media in one of the nation's largest and most politically active markets. If the Hearst Corp. and Dean Singleton's MediaNews Group have their way, it's entirely possible one corporate entity could effectively control every single significant daily paper in San Francisco, southern Marin, the East Bay, the South Bay, and the Peninsula. And since TV and radio news stations tend to take their cues from the daily papers, that means one corporate entity would decide, to a great extent, what sort of local news will be available to several million people.
It's more than a legal issue. It's a major public policy issue — and that's why the papers shouldn't be allowed to fight this out in secret.
On Dec. 21 the Guardian and Media Alliance, a nonprofit media activism organization, filed a motion in federal court seeking to intervene in the Reilly lawsuit and asking Judge Susan Illston to unseal the key records in the case. Our point: this is a huge national story, and the public interest in knowing what the biggest and most powerful newspaper chains in the country are planning for the Bay Area is clear and overwhelming.
But the way the big chains have set things up, there's no way for the public to find out much of anything — except what Hearst and MediaNews want us to know. Under the terms of a court order the chains wrote and got approved, anything — evidence, briefs, depositions, even legal motions — the newspaper barons want to mark secret is automatically sealed. Of course, the newspaper lawyers can decide to publicize anything they want to put out to bolster their side of the story. In other words, the newspapers — which, after all, are accused of trying to violate antitrust laws and create a media monopoly in the region — have complete control of what information does and doesn't come out of the trial. That's exactly how they want it — and exactly how things will go if they get away with their merger plans.
It's hard to fight the big chains. Almost every experienced media lawyer in town works for or has partners who work for one of the chains, so they all have conflicts of interest. The news media organizations, like the California Newspaper Publishers Association, the California First Amendment Coalition, and the Society of Professional Journalists, all have board members who work for the chains.
And of course, the big newspapers themselves, which love to fight to unseal court records in other cases (like billionaire Ron Burkle's divorce case), are all either involved or have allies who are involved, so they won't touch the case.
So it's fallen to the Guardian, an independent paper, and Media Alliance, an independent activist group, to work with the First Amendment Project, an independent public interest law firm, to promote the public interest in unsealing the records.
We know there's a lot of information that ought to be out in the light of day. Already, one document discussed in open court shows that Hearst, which owns the Chronicle, has discussed ad sales, printing, and distribution deals with Singleton's group — which is supposedly a competitor. What else do these companies have planned for the Bay Area? Will Hearst and Singleton wind up in some sort of joint operating agreement? Is this the end of daily newspaper competition? Will one billionaire publisher be able to put a conservative spin on all editorial coverage in the region? The public has a right to know.
Court documents are presumed public, and the newspaper chains have shown no reason why anything other than a few narrowly defined records should be kept secret.