Mecklin

Cleaning Out the Swamp

Asher described this decision as similar to those many businesses often make. In some respects, he is correct. Many businesses weigh the possibility of litigation when making decisions.

But no company should be required to pay tens of millions of dollars in an atmosphere of implicit threat of devastating government action -- an atmosphere that government officials and their close associates create -- simply to be allowed to carry out a legal business transaction.

Judge Walker has a daunting task. He must untangle the disgusting web of sleazy political and business behavior revealed by Clint Reilly's lawsuit, and determine whether it violates antitrust laws. It is quite possible that the judge will find plenty of disgusting behavior, and no antitrust violations. There is, after all, a long history showing that the smaller of two daily newspapers in a given metropolitan market inevitably winds up closing its doors. And if the Examiner is, indeed, inevitably headed toward failure, Hearst should be legally free to close it -- or, for that matter, to give it, and $66 million, away.

But antitrust violations and extortion are different legal concepts. Reilly's lawsuit is an act of courage that has revealed much about the intertwining of the media and the government in San Francisco. But it is a private lawsuit that must, as a matter of law, focus on antitrust concerns.

The public interest requires that it be established, by credible investigating agencies, whether government officials in San Francisco and/or their allies have engaged in an illegitimate $66 million squeeze play in regard to Hearst, the acquisition of the Chronicle, and the sale of the Examiner. Clearly, this means the Justice Department must investigate the actions of its own antitrust division in this matter, and determine whether California political actors were able to exercise unwarranted, and perhaps even unlawful, influence on Justice. For credibility's sake, the proper congressional committee may also need to investigate the murky circumstances surrounding this proposed acquisition and sale, and to determine whether the unhealthy political vapors of the bayou have wafted north and west and infected the governing classes of San Francisco.

John Mecklin (John.Mecklin@sfweekly.com) can be reached atSF Weekly, 185 Berry, Suite 3800, San Francisco, CA 94107.

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