The media blows a media story

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By Tim Redmond

The Bay Guardian and Media Alliance have succeeded in getting about 90 percent of the previously secret records in the Clint Reilly media consolidation case opened to public review.
But you wouldn’t know that from reading the news stories in the monopoly dailies that the suit challenges.
In fact, the press coverage of Judge Illston's ruling shows very neatly how media consolidation and a lack of competition throttle public access to the news.
None of the local dailies (all of them owned by big chains involved in this case) got the story remotely right. The Chronicle’s Bob Egelko, who is normally a decent legal reporter, reported only that Judge Illston had ordered the release of “some MediaNews Group records” but “allowed MediaNews and the Hearst Corp., owner of The Chronicle, to protect most of the documents they had sought to keep sealed.” The seven-paragraph story ignored the main point: When we filed the motion in court to unseal the records, the newspaper barons immediately agreed to make the bulk of the material public. There are thousands and thousands of pages of legal material filed in the case so far, and the publishers didn’t even contest our contention that most of it should never have been sealed in the first place.
“MediaNews Group and Hearst were asked by Media Alliance and the Guardian before they intervened to unseal everything. They declined to unseal anything,” said Jim Wheaton, attorney for the First Amendment Project, which represented us. “But as soon as Media Alliance and the Guardian moved to intervene and unseal, MediaNews and Hearst surrendered on almost all the sealed documents. They fought only to keep some parts of five exhibits and one brief sealed, which comprised 19 separate excerpts (of which six were duplicates, leaving only 13 distinct items).
There’s a lot of legal gobbledegook here, but for the record, here’s how Wheaton explains it:

The following documents were originally filed under seal, in their totality (with court docket numbers):

o Motion for Temporary Restraining Order (“TRO”) and Order to Show Cause (“OSC”) (#70)
o Declaration of Daniel Shulman (#70)
o Memorandum in Support of (“ISO”) Plaintiff’s Motion for TRO and OSC (#71)
o Declaration of Daniel R. Shulman ISO Plaintiff’s Motion for TRO and OSC, including all exhibits thereto. (#72)
o Reply Memorandum ISO Motion for TRO and OSC (#88)
o Supplemental Declaration of Daniel R. Shulman ISO Motion for TRO and OSC including all exhibits thereto (#89)
o Memorandum ISO Motion for Preliminary Injunction (“PI”) (#91)
o Second Supplemental Declaration of Daniel R. Shulman ISO Plaintiff's Motion for PI, and all exhibits thereto (#91)
o Plaintiff’s Supplemental Memorandum ISO Motion for PI (#96)
o Second Supplemental Declaration of Daniel R. Shulman, including all exhibits thereto (#97)
o Third Supplemental Declaration of Daniel R. Shulman ISO plaintiff's motion for PI, including all exhibits thereto (#108)
o All 34 exhibits attached to the various Shulman declarations (#s 70, 72, 89, 91, 97, 108)
o Declaration of James M. Asher in Response to OSC Regarding Application for PI and three Exhibits thereto (# 102) (These are all duplicates of other items already filed under seal.)

She has ordered ALL of that unsealed, except for:

o part of two pages from Reilly's Reply Memorandum ISO of the TRO (#88)
o portions only of just six of the 34 exhibits attached to the Shulman declarations (and their duplicates in Asher's declaration); the declarations themselves were completely unsealed

Everything else was unsealed. All parts of all the memoranda, all the declarations, and all the other exhibits were unsealed.

Also – and this is key – Illston gave the Guardian and Media Alliance the right to remain legal interveners for the duration of the case, giving us standing to immediately seek the release of any future documents filed under seal.

In one of the nastier little twists to this story, Egelko referred only to “a media group and a weekly newspaper” without ever mentioning Media Alliance or the Bay Guardian.

I send Egelko an email, and he said the reference to the Guardian was cut for space.

The Contra Costa Times ran an Associated Press story by David Kravets that was even worse. The headline: “Judge denies request to unseal MediaNews, Hearst suit papers.” The summary: Illston denied almost everything the Guardian and Media Alliance wanted.

The San Jose Mercury News ran four paragraphs of the same AP story.

That story was, as I’ve pointed out above, utterly inaccurate, embarrassingly so. I called Kravets and asked what had happened, and he acknowledged that he had left out the background – the fact that the media barons, in response to our case, had agreed to unseal most of the records. “I plead guilty to leaving out the background,” he said.

Wheaton is contacting AP and the Chron to seek corrections; we’ll let you know.

In the meantime, think about what happened here: The Times and the Merc, both owned by Dean Singleton’s MediaNews Group, run the exact same inaccurate AP story on a major media case involving their parent companies. The Chron, which is supposedly their competitor, runs its own inaccurate story. None of these people (representing the free press of Northern California) are acting like competitors, and none of them give any support or credit to a major effort at opening up the federal courts.

Welcome to the monopoly media world of the Bay Area, 2007.