Of Hearst, Singleton, the WLSBs, and the documents of collaboration

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By Bruce B. Brugmann

To get the citizen's point of view, I have long maintained that every reporter and every editor and every publisher ought sooner or later to be the center of a story and see how the media works.

I found the exercise most instructive when the Media Alliance and the Guardian, represented by the First Amendment Project (Attys. James Wheaton, David Greene, and Pondra Perkins), went into federal court on Thursday to intervene and seek to unseal key records in the Reilly vs. Hearst/Singleton antitrust trial. Our three P.S. organizations put out a press release with the spokespersons listed for contact (Jeff Perlstein from the Media Alliance, James Wheaton and David Greene from FAP, and myself from the Guardian.)

I got several calls from the Associated Press (Terence Chea, who did an excellent story that ran around the country), Kate Williamson of the Examiner, James Allen from the alternative paper Random Lengths in San Pedro (who was rightly agitated about the Hearst/ Singleton deal to buy the Daily Breeze in Torrance and further encroach on his turf), Mark Fitzgerald of Editor and Publisher was in touch, and others. Significantly, even though Hearst and Singleton have a lock on the Bay Area press, not one of their many reporters nor editors contacted me. (Subtle point: that is the wave of the future with these folks). Nobody from Hearst or Singleton even called or checked in to try to make the point that, even though they have five law firms and l2 or so attorneys in federal court heaving and sweating mightily to argue they really aren't collaborating, they don't even have to make a show of doing the journalistic minimum of doing an honest story. More: they didn't even have to put on a show even though the lawsuit was aimed at their Achilles heel: their secret documents of collaboration. And of course they didn't quote me or, when they did in the case of the Examiner, they mangled my point about why we were suing.

For the record, I said in the press release and in interviews with reporters: "Our intent here is to ensure that the naton's biggest chains (Hearst, Singleton, McClatchy, Gannett, Stephens), as they move to destroy daily competition and impose regional monopoly in the Bay Area, cannot do so in the dark of night with sealed records that set a terrible precedent for the free press, the First Amendment, and open government."

And so the two big papers, the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News, gave us two more wimpy little stories buried deep in their business section. Those who are attentive readers of the Bruce blog would know how to find them. For example, the Chronicle put its wimpy little story in the Daily Digest column just above the fold on page two of the business section under the rousing head, "Media groups want documents unsealed."

Its last paragraph is classic monopolyese: "(Judge) Illston issued a preliminary injunction Wednesday barring MediaNews and Hearst Corp. from collaborating until at least April 30, when Reilly's case is expected to go to trial. (B3: Is this premature collaboration? Is it like premature ejaculation?) Attorneys for MediaNews and Hearst have argued that no collaboration plan is in the works but that should one emerge in the future, it would not be illegal." Repeating for emphasis: "Attorneys for MediaNews and Hearst have argued that no collaboration plan is in the works but that should one emerge in the future, it would not be illegal."
Marvelous. Simply marvelous. That is Hearst boilerplate corporate policy and it is a classic of self-immolation. Compare it with AP's version: "On Tuesday, Illston barred Bay Area newspapers owned by MediaNews and Hearst from consolidating some of their business operations until the lawsuit is resolved. When she issued a temporary restraining order against the alliance in November, Illston said she had been under the impression that Hearst's investment was solely an equity stake, but an April 26 memo had surfaced suggesting it actually was a bid to merge some of their business operations." Alioto got this scarlet letter in discovery and used it in his brief to show that Hearst was in effect lying in court about its documents of collaboration. The judge quoted from this critical letter, but it is still under seal and so are other key documents that would likely show the Hearst/Singleton plans for regional monopoly. Significantly, the AP story ran in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, a Hearst paper.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the bay, the Mercury News
was doing its own wimpy little story in the "Business Digest" in its business section, a two paragraph story with the rousing head "Plaintiffs seek records in antitrust media case." The story was not even a Merc story, it was pinched without attribution from the AP story (another wave of the future). From now on, I shall refer to these stories as WLSBs.

Over in the near East Bay, Josh Richman did a much better story that appeared in both the Oakland Tribune and the Contra Costa Times (a one reporter-covers-it-all concept that is another wave of the future.) Richman got some good quotes, including a notable one from Joseph Alioto, Reilly's attorney.
"'Oh, good, it's about time,'" Alioto said of the lawsuit filing, adding that it was crucial for all details of an antitrust case. 'It's the archetypal example of hypocrisy when major newspapers take the right of the people to know applies to everyone except themselves.'"(Note the copy editing issues, another wave of the future with the staff cutbacks).

Significantly, none of the Hearst/Singleton reporters could get a single Hearst nor Singleton executive to comment on the lawsuit in their own papers. The ducking was delicious. Richman wrote: "Alan Marx, MediaNews' attorney, declined comment. A Hearst spokesman could not be reached." The Merc/AP reported: "Hearst officials were reviewing the motion and could not comment Thursday, said spokesman Paul Luthringer. Representatives at MediaNews did not immediately respond to a request for comment." In short, the nation's biggest chains are seeking to impose an ever more conservative news, editorial and endorsement line on one of the most liberal and civilized areas of the world, just as they ought to be raising holy hell about Bush, the Patriot Act, and the unending war in Iraq. And they are stonewalling like hell, in federal court and in their own papers, to keep secret the documents of collaboration.

And so there you have it: the state of daily journalism in the Bay Area, Friday, Dec. 22, 2007. There is much more to come. Follow our stories and editorials in the Guardian, on our website, and in the Bruce blog. Things of great moment are in the making.

P.S. Repeating: where the hell are the antitrust attorneys in the U.S. Justice Department? And where the hell is outgoing Attorney General Bill Lockyer and incoming Attorney General Jerry Brown? B3