Mecklin

Cleaning Out the Swamp

Because my wife is from New Orleans, she and I occasionally compare politics, as practiced there and here. I think a bit of cross-cultural comparison could be helpful right now, because a few of our local notables have been behaving as if they were Louisianans, and that behavior is being misportrayed as roguishly San Franciscan, when it is something else entirely. To be sure, there is something entertaining about watching the publisher of a major daily newspaper admit, under oath, that he offered to trade favorable treatment in his paper's opinion pages to the mayor of a major American city, if that mayor would just quit making business life difficult for the daily. Even former Louisiana governor and periodic criminal defendant Edwin Edwards would be hard put to concoct a sleazier tale of business and politics.

But this proposed trade, which has earned Examiner Editor and Publisher Tim White a non-working trip to the Hearst woodshed, is not just the astonishing and entertaining breach of journalistic ethics that most news accounts focused on last week. It is a breach of journalistic ethics tied to the actions of -- or, at least, beliefs about the likely actions of -- a variety of powerful Northern California political players. I am not a lawyer. I did not eat lunch with Tim White and Willie Brown when they supposedly discussed trading kindly newspaper opinions for mayoral favors. So I cannot say with certainty that this proposed trade represented a piece of an extortion campaign that was directed against Hearst as it attempted to buy the San Francisco Chronicle, and that caused Hearst to offer to pay political allies of Mayor Brown $66 million in subsidies, if they would be so kind as to take over the San Francisco Examiner.

But generally available facts about the Hearst-Chroniclesaga make it reasonable to wonder whether something similar to extortion has occurred, and reasonable to call for the type of full-scale federal investigation with which the citizens and politicians of Louisiana have long-standing acquaintance. When our so-called leaders behave like swamp vermin, they ought to be treated as such.


The Hearst Corp.'s attempt to buy the San Francisco Chronicle and divest itself of the San Francisco Examiner has already entered the pantheon of great and nauseating San Francisco political stories. Many of you doubtless have been following the tale, day by day, as the trial of a lawsuit over a proposed sale of the Examiner, filed by businessman and former mayoral candidate Clint Reilly, plays out. Still, I think a proper explanation of why the White-Brown lunch represents something more important than a lapse in journalistic judgment requires that I lay out the basic background of the Chronicle-Examiner saga.

Last August, Hearst, publisher of the afternoon Examiner, agreed to pay $660 million to buy the larger morning Chronicle. Because antitrust law likely would prevent the firm from owning both papers, Hearst put the Examiner up for sale, first as a package of disjoint assets no one was foolish enough to seriously bid upon, and then a second time, in a more complete offering. Clearly, Hearst would have preferred to simply close the Examiner, which is only a tiny fraction of the Chronicle's size. But because the San Francisco dailies are currently published in a government-sanctioned noncompetitive arrangement known as a joint operating agreement, the disposition of the Examiner came under the scrutiny of the U.S. Justice Department's antitrust division. Through the end of last year, as Justice reviewed the proposed sale of the Chron and disposition of the Ex, a noisy campaign to "save" the Examiner was pursued, notably in the pages of the San Francisco Independent, a thrice-weekly "newspaper" thrown on stoops -- and then often into dustbins -- throughout the city. This campaign coincided, to a remarkable degree, with expressions of concern by local politicians, including Mayor Brown, about the fate of the Examiner, and the loss of editorial "voice" that would occur if it were simply closed.

The political dimension of the campaign against Hearst should not be underestimated. In a genuinely distinguished article published late last month, Chronicle writers William Carlsen and Reynolds Holding described what appears to have been a political campaign, conducted by elements of the Democratic establishment of Northern California, aimed at persuading Hearst to sell the Examiner to members of the Fang family, who own the Independentand are full-throated supporters of the aforementioned Democratic establishment.

The timeline of this campaign, as reported by Carlsen and Holding and amended with information that has subsequently come into the public record, lays out approximately this way:

Late in July, before Hearst's acquisition of the Chronicle had even been announced, Mayor Willie Brown meets with Tim White, then editor and publisher of the Examiner, and tells White that he really, really ought to consider settling a private lawsuit with the owners of the Independent. (A pleasant little quote from an e-mail White wrote memorializing this discussion: "Willie then reflected that it was really not smart for us to have something like this predatory pricing case 'hanging around' when we're trying to get something big done like an acquisition or merger. He observed that funny, undesired consequences often ripple from something like this, even if one thing has nothing directly to do with the other [emphasis mine].")

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