Reilly’s victory

Pub date May 1, 2007
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL In the days following the historic settlement of Clint Reilly’s lawsuit against the Bay Area’s newspaper barons, the local dailies, the media blogs, and the trade publications such as Editor and Publisher were buzzing with debate and speculation over a few of the agreement’s terms.

Would Reilly actually get space in the local papers to make his political points every month? Where would that space go? Would it be paid ad space, or would he get it free? Would he be able to appoint a citizen member to the editorial boards of Dean Singleton’s dailies (including the San Jose Mercury News and the Contra Costa Times)? Or could the papers’ managers reject his nominations?

Back and forth, back and forth. And all of it entirely missed the point.

This was the fine print of the deal, the stuff that, a few months from now, nobody will remember or care about. You could get the real news from the headline in a blog post by former Chronicle city editor Alan Mutter: "Hearst-MediaNews deal scuttled."

That’s what happened here: Reilly, acting with his own money, with no support from the federal or state regulators, broke up a deal that would have put the owners of the Chronicle directly in business with Singleton’s MediaNews Group, the owner of almost every other major daily in the region. It would have been the end of daily newspaper competition in the Bay Area.

The Hearst Corp., documents that came out during the suit showed, wanted to combine some printing, distribution, and sales efforts with MediaNews Group. And Hearst wanted to convert an investment in MediaNews into direct stock in the company’s local papers. That would have, in effect, made one of the last non-MediaNews papers in the area part of the same business group.

As G.W. Schulz reports in "Beyond the Reilly Settlement," on page 11, if Reilly hadn’t intervened, nobody would have known about it until it was over and too late to stop. That’s the point here, and that’s what journalists, political scientists, and critics ought to be talking about.

Instead, we’ve heard outrage from some editors over the fact that Reilly might get some space in the papers. It’s really a nonissue; he could have bought ad space for his opinions anyway, and all that the settlement did was give him that space free. And a lot of papers ask citizens to serve on advisory boards; Reilly’s nominees are very unlikely to change anyone’s editorial policies.

Meanwhile, where is the outrage over the original Hearst-MediaNews deal, which would have ended editorial competition the same way the 1965 joint operating agreement between the Chronicle and San Francisco Examiner did? Where is the outrage, for that matter, over the fact that the Chronicle is now putting ads not from Clint Reilly but from Pacific Gas and Electric Co. – greenwashing ads that are demonstrable lies – on the front page of the paper, without even a tagline that says "paid advertisement"? Where is the outrage over the fact that Democrats Bill Lockyer (the former attorney general) and Jerry Brown (who now holds the job) were ready to stand back and let all this happen?

And where is the concern among all these civic-minded types about the fact that despite Reilly’s best efforts, it’s entirely possible Hearst will wind up trying to sell the Chron to Singleton anyway – and none of the federal or state authorities seem to care?

Remember, if Reilly hadn’t sued, one of the most dangerous, rotten tricks in newspaper history might have gone unchallenged.

As it is, the full information only came to light because the Guardian and Media Alliance went into court to force it open – and now Reilly and his attorney, Joe Alioto, have the right under the settlement to seek federal Judge Susan Illston’s permission to make the remainder of the key records – including the settlement agreement – public. They should do so, immediately, and Illston should grant their request. The public interest in the newspaper barons’ schemes couldn’t possibly be greater. *