Monopolies are forever

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July 28, 2006

By Bruce B. Brugmann
(henceforth to be known as B3 in this Bruce blog)

Earlier this week I dropped by Christopher’s Books on Potrero Hill, my favorite neighborhood bookstore, and was delighted to find a new grassroots newspaper that is published, written, edited, and distributed by a l3-year-old young lady.

Oona Robertson calls her paper “The hill, a Potrero Hill Kids newspaper.” She writes that she has “lived on Potrero Hill all my life. I like to read, write, fence, play sports and be in nature. I live with my mom, dad, sister, brother, fish and cats. I hope you enjoy my newspaper.”

She says her paper is “for kids of all ages.” The current issue has a poem titled
”Ode to my cat,” an essay headlined “The benefits of not owning a car,” part two of a serial about l5-year-old kids spying on a rich man in a mansion in Napa, four “fun summer recipes,” a synopsis of two kids movies (“Cars” and “Garfield, a Tale of Two Kitties”), a review of “The Alex Rider series,” a “Corn Cake Monster” comic strip, advice for bored kids during the summer (“try the ultimate water fight: invite all your friends and kids from your block to come to your house for the ultimate water fight…bring water balloons, water guns, water bottles, buckets, soakers, anything they can think of...Then go into your backyard or out front and either organize teams or have a free for all."

The monthly paper is sold for $l at Christopher's Books, but Oona says for an extra $3 she will hand-deliver her paper, but only to the houses of Potrero Hill kids. She will also take ads for $l. And she will take editorial submissions from kids. (Send ads and submissions to the hill, %Christopher's Books, 1400 l8th St., SF 94l07.)

The hill is an amazing bit of entrepreneurial journalism, which I was reading as an email came in from my source in Contra Costa County, a news junkie and First Amendment warrior, who regularly alerts me to news in the Contra Costa Times that doesn’t appear in the San Francisco Chronicle. Did you see that the judge is going against Clint Reilly on his antitrust suit, he asked. No, I replied, I didn’t see the story. So I checked and sure enough, buried on page 9 in the Bay Area section, with a wimpy little head “Early ruling denies bid to halt big media sale,” was a story in the classic Chronicle tradition of minimalist and pock-holed media and power structure reporting. For attentive Guardian readers, you know our competitive-paper line. But this story had major whoppers and raised in 96 point Tempo Bold a new flurry of unanswered questions about a media monopoly move that will (a) allow Denver billionaire Dean Singleton to buy the Contra Costa Times, San Jose Mercury-News and Monterey Herald, plus a batch of weeklies and free dailies, and pile them up in his existing stable of papers that ring the bay, and (b) thereby gain a chokehold on Bay Area journalism for the duration, and (c) destroy the last remaining daily competition in the Bay Area--with the Chronicle-- by getting Chronicle owner Hearst to assist and invest in the deal with undisclosed multi-million dollar stakes in other Singleton properties outside the Bay Area.

Whopper No. l: “In issuing the preliminary ruling (against Riley and for the Hearst/Singleton consortium), U.S. District Judge Susan Illston said the defendants faced greater harm than Riley if the sale of the San Jose Mercury News and Contra Costa Times was halted. ’I don’t see imminent irreparable harm to the plaintiffs,’ she said.”

Whopper No. 2: “Alan Marx, an attorney for MediaNews (Singleton), said there will be no cooperation between Hearst and MediaNews after the transaction. He said serious delays to the sale could force MediaNews to incur interest rate penalties of at least $22 million on loans that MediaNews has arranged to finance the purchase.”

Pow! Pow! Pow! If this single ownership chokehold on the Bay Area is not “irreparable damage,” then what is? Why is the federal judge worried about “irreparable damage” to billionaires in New York (Hearst) and Denver (Singleton), as well as the other billionaire partners to the deal in Sacramento (McClatchy) and MClean, Va. (Gannett) and Las Vegas (Stephens), and not worried about “irreparable damage” to the public, to readers, to advertisers, to competitive papers, to the health and welfare of their local communities, and to the marketplace of ideas principle underlying the First Amendment?

Some other key questions that the Chronicle and the other participants in the deal aren’t raising and answering: How can the publishers proceed before the Justice Department and the Attorney Generals approve and sign off on the deal? Why don’t they ask Attorney General Bill Lockyer about the status of his investigation? Lockyer, after all, is running for state treasurer and is on the campaign trail, as is Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, who is running for Attorney General. Lockyer appeared on the Will and Willie show on the Quake last week and left the room, just before Guardian executive editor Tim Redmond came on. Redmond opened up his remarks by saying that he wished he had known Lockyer was on the show, because he would have asked him about his investigation. And then Tim and Will Durst and Willie Brown discussed the impact of the Hearst/Singleton issues in an open and lively way almost never done in the mainstream media. Why are Lockyer and Brown on the lam, and allowed to be on the lam, when they are once again running for major statewide offices? Let me note that they refuse to answer our repeated questions on the deal.

More questions: why, if Hearst and the other publishers feel they can’t cover themselves, don’t they get comments and op ed pieces from journalism or law professors at nearby UC-Berkeley, Cal-State Hayward, Stanford, San Jose State, SF State, USF? Why don’t they check with other independent experts such as Ben Bagdikian of “Media Monopoly” fame, who is living in Berkeley? Why don't they quote Norman Solomon, a local media critic who writes a nationally syndicated column? Or Jeff Perlstein, executive director of Media Alliance or the Grade the News media reporting operation housed at San Jose State University? Why don’t they quote union representatives at the Chronicle and Merc? Why don’t they quote any one of the six U.S. representatives from the Bay Area that called on Justice and the AG to carefully scrutinize the sale? Why don’t they call on Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, who introduced a local resolution opposing the sale, or any of the other supervisors who approved it unanimously? (Note: the Chronicle refused to run the Mirkarimi resolution even though I personally hand-carried it to the Chronicle City Hall reporters in the City Hall pressroom.) Why is it left to the handful of remaining independent voices to raise these critical questions?

I'm sending these questions to the local publishers, and I'll let you know what they say.

Hearst has never been much good on local power structure issues (witness its blackout of the PG&E-Raker Act scandal), but things will only get worse when it is comfied and liquored up with Singleton and there is no real daily competition in the Bay Area. The way Hearst and the other billionaire publishers blacked out and minimalized this critical story--a story critical to their future credibility and influence--is a harbinger of the future of journalism in the Bay Area and beyond. Alas. Alas.

I sometimes think that Oona Robertson and the hill can do better.

This is my first blog, so please be kind until I get the hang of it and get safely out of my Royal typewriter past. I have much to say, in a journalism career that started at age 12 on the famous Lyon County Reporter in my hometown of Rock Rapids, Iowa. I wrote a rousing story about catching a trout in the Black Hills on a vacation with my parents. I wrote a column for four years during high school, wrote off and on through the years and even worked a summer as the only reporter on the paper. I learned a couple of key things in the College of Community Journalism in Rock Rapids: that it is important to be accurate, and good spirited, because the locals know the story and read the paper to see if you got it right. And that, when you write about somebody, you write knowing you may seeing them later that day at the Grill Cafe or Brower's Pool Hall or the golf club.

In Rock Rapids, I always felt I was having an ongoing conversation with the the people in town and on the farms. And, for the past 40 years at the Guardian, I have felt that the Guardian staff and I were conversing with our readers and the people of San Francisco. So now, with the magic of the internet and the blog, I hope to converse even more directly with our readers. Join the conversation. Join the fun. B3