How can you trust newspaper chains that can't cover the big story: their secret moves to end daily competition in the Bay area?

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By Bruce B. Brugmann

Click here for the Guardian editorial Reilly's Victory

Click here for the Guardian story Beyond the Reilly settlement

I was glad that I went to the Clint Reilly press conference April 23 and saw for myself what Reilly and his attorney Joe Alioto won in their historic settlement with Hearst and Singleton and just how the two monopolizing newspaper chains would cover the story about their own monopolizing moves. This was a crucial litmus test for them and their pleas that this was all their way of staying alive and "competitive."

In a phrase, the coverage of the chains (and their Gannett and Stephens chain partners) was lousy and confirmed the essential Reilly point: that they weren't competitive chains and that they couldn't be trusted to cover such a big local story about themselves or each other.

When I was asked by a reporter for my opinion of the settlement, I sat down and battled out my comment quickly:
"I think Reilly again performed a major journalistic and public service by taking on a tough and expensive antitrust case that neither the Bill Lockyer/Jerrry Brown AG's office or the George Bush/Alberto Gonzales U.S. Department of Justice wouldn't touch. I think it was a major feat that he accomplished what he did: (a) expose the Hearst/Singleton documents of collaboration and secrecy; (b) force a public and journalistic debate on the issue of regional monopoly, and (c) force Hearst and Singleton to rescind their secret collaboration and investment agreements and force them to compete for the duration.

"Wouldn't it have been simply awful if no one had come forward to blow the whistle on the secret moves of the nation's biggest chains, headed by conservative publishers from Denver and New York, to kill daily competition and impose regional monopoly on one of the most liberal and civilized regions in the world? Wouldn't it have been simply awful if someone, like the Guardian, Media Alliance, and the First Amendment Project, hadn't come forward to sue and blow the whistle on the monopolizers working secretly to lock up the Bay Area and then suppress the documents of collaboration in the federal antitrust case?"

Well, that is the position of a locally owned and operated independent alternative in San Francisco, one of the few left in California. The position of the Hearst and Singleton press was and is starkly different.
The Chronicle led the way in setting new standards of monopoly news ethics: on Wednesday, the day of the press conference, it carried its second front page PG@E ad, with not a word saying it was a paid political ad or what it was or why it was on the front page. The next day, the Chronicle buried the Hearst settlement story beneath the fold as a rummy little one day story with a one column head in the business section. The clear message: with Hearst, electricity monopoly trumps newspaper and chain monopoly.

Elsewhere, in the land of Singleton clusters, its flock of papers didn't do much better with the story but at least they didn't run front page ads from PG@E. What all the Hearst and Singleton papers did, however, was miss or gloss over the key point: Reilly did win a major victory by severing the emerging Hearst and Singleton partnership that would give them control of all Bay Area dailies. Instead, the papers emphasized what Reilly lost, the opportunity to unravel the Singleton purchase of the Contra Costa Times. San Jose Mercury News, and Monterey Herald. But alas, this was never really in the cards because, as Reilly and Alioto pointed out at the press conference, the Justice Department had already approved the sale and because Federal Judge Susan Illston had already made two rulings against Reilly to break it up. Alas again.

Both the Hearst and Singleton press picked up on lesser watchdog issues and lathered and steamed themselves to try to make them appear to be ethical "outside influence" issues. That Reilly could name a citizen to the editorial boards of Singleton papers (a good idea, I think, since they all now speak with a centralized conservative editorial voice out of sync with their Bay Area communities.) That Reilly could write a weekly column for free for the Singleton papers (perhaps he could liven up papers that are getting more and more cookie cutter bland in Singleton clusterland.) That Reilly as an outside agitator would be getting the minutes and agendas at the same time that directors of the California Newspaper Partnership get them (who else will watchdog this malodorous outfit, which as Alioto quipped to me at the press conference, "is another lawsuit.") None of the papers covered the story as they would a big business or political story. It was pretty much a one day story in the three B monopoly tradition, buried, blacked out, and biased.

The stories were light on explanatory quotes from Reilly or Alioto. There were few follow stories and no real background nor context. There were no quotes from independent experts or journalism professors or attorneys on beneficial free press impacts. No quotes from politicians nor activists on beneficial civic impacts. No quotes from First Amendment/public activists on the beneficial watchdog impacts. No quotes from anybody that would really back up the Reilly win and explain what really happened and how important it was to journalism, local communities, and public policy. Mostly quotes from Hearst/Singleton attorneys and executives slaving to catch up and shore up their defense. Perhaps most important, none of the chain stories provided links or access to the available press conference and court documents, so people could judge the case and the coverage for themselves. (The Guardian tries to always provide documents and links with its stories and blogs>) Meanwhile, the Gannett chain, the nation's biggest, and the Stephens chain rarely run industry stories and I couldn't find that they started with this big one, even though they are partners with Hearst and Singleton in the CNP and defendants in the Reilly litigation.

I checked with a knowledgeable source who closely monitors how these chains cover the news. "I agree with you," he said, "that Hearst and Singleton go out of their way to not cover themselves or each other. Seattle is a case in point." And he explained that the Seattle Times/Blethen family and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer/Hearst had blacked out much of the coverage in their papers of their competitive battles for supremacy and self-preservation in their Seattle joint operating lockup situation.

And he said, "I'm not sure how a story is to get out when two companies own all the dailies in the area. TV is no help because they get 90% of their news from the papers. AP could do it but they don't seem to have much staff anymore. It is a problem." (B3: AP, with the dailies as clients and Dean Singleton as the new chairman of its board of directors, is not about to carry this flag up the hill or down the hill. In fact, AP continued its minimalist coverage with but one chain- friendly short story without much background or context.)

The impertinent questions: how can Hearst and Singleton papers be trusted if, in the middle of AG and Justice Department investigations and regulations, and mired in a highly visible antitrust case, with the entire Bay Area watching, they can't do a credible job of covering themselves or each other in a national front page story involving their own monopoly manipulations? Will they now have an incentive to really compete and try to do better? Or will they just bide their time and try to hook up again later on?

Perhaps the best clue is that the chains are still fighting ferociously to keep secret the records of the trial that the Guardian was not able to make public in its successful suit. Hearst and Singleton don't want the public to know what they really were up to and that they might try again. It took Editor and Publisher, the industry trade magazine that has done the best reporting on the issue, to report that Reilly will soon be back in court with a motion to unseal all documents and depositions in the case, including the secret settlement agreement. The magazine quotes Alioto as saying, "I just think the judge is going to kill them. It's so hypocritical because the whole thrust of newspaper reporting is the right of the people to know...It's not a good public relations thing."

These crucial free press/open government points were not published in any Hearst, Singleton, Gannett, nor Stephens chain paper. Nor were they published by the Associated Press nor any other publisher organization. Next step for Riley and citizen activists: reform the antitrust laws. Stay alert, there is much more to come. B3, still working as a competitive journalist in San Francisco since l966

Postscript: I find it hard to criticize the work of reporters and editors of papers doing corporate policy stories like this one. This is one of the most unenviable jobs in journalism these days: writing the corporate policy story of your own decline and demise. I always try to make that point as clear as I can. I wish the monopolizing publishers and owners and CEOs and attorneys would write their own stories, with their own bylines, and their own statements and then do blogs so people could comment directly to them on their handiwork. And I wish the reporters and editors could write what they really think about all this, in their papers and on their blogs. Is this too much to ask in this new era of Galloping Conglomerati publishers and Citizen Reilly watchdogs?