Yellow-Bellied Journalism

Hearst executives' behavior in the Examiner sale was nothing less than cowardly

At the height of the media frenzy over the Hearst/Chronicle/Fang/Examiner horse-trading extravaganza last week, daily news reporters were calling me, seemingly one after another. The reporters asked a lot of questions about the impending changes in ownership of our two major daily newspapers, but it soon became clear they were interested, really, in just one thing: Was SF Weekly, they wanted breathlessly to know, going to file an antitrust lawsuit to keep the Fang family from taking over the Examiner? The judge's decision all but invited competitors to file such a suit, the reporters said; were we going to accept?

I treaded journalistic water, telling the first few scribes absolutely nothing by telling them that anyone who was serious about considering such a lawsuit would, ahem, have to, ahem, study the situation deeply. Then, late Friday afternoon, a reporter called, and, by doing what all the other reporters had done, handed me the angle for this column, fully formed.

This reporter, again, asked breathlessly whether SF Weeklywas going to sue. Again I began my tap dance. Then I got bored, and then I got mad, and then I said something very slowly -- so slowly that no half-decent reporter could miss the quote:

"Well, if Hearst's executives would quit being such a bunch of chickenshit cowards and just do the right thing, someone else wouldn't have to file a lawsuit to stop the Examiner sale."

The reporter laughed. He laughed in a way that strongly suggested what I was saying would not see print in his newspaper. You see, the reporter worked for the San Francisco Examiner, which, for another few months at least, is still owned by the Hearst Corp.

In the last five or six days, the Chronicle and Examiner have devoted hundreds of column inches to U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker's decision in Clint Reilly's antitrust lawsuit against the Hearst Corp. The papers duly (and often dully) reported that Walker had found Hearst's $660 million acquisition of the Chronicleto be acceptable under antitrust law. They faithfully recorded that Walker found a deal transferring the Hearst-owned Examiner to the Fang family "malodorous," but, all the same, declined to halt the stinky transfer, ruling that Reilly had no legal standing to challenge the Examiner sale.

The dailies discussed the judge's pointed assertion that the Department of Justice, which was supposedly examining the Chronicle transaction for antitrust purposes, had instead acted as a hey-boy for Willie Brown, Dianne Feinstein, and other politicos as they squeezed Hearst until it cried uncle and agreed to give the Fangs, longtime ardent supporters of Brown and the local Democratic machine, the Examiner, and $66 million in subsidies to run it. This gift to the Fangs was, apparently, the political tribute Hearst had to pay if Justice was to back off its antitrust investigation of the sale of the Chronicle.

The papers even mentioned that Judge Walker specifically found that two high Hearst executives -- George Irish, then head of Hearst's newspaper division, and Hearst President Frank A. Bennack Jr. -- had been "not credible" when they denied knowing of an offer last year by former Examiner Publisher Tim White to "horse trade" editorial-page favor to Mayor Willie Brown if he would quit opposing Hearst's bid to buy the Chronicle.

What the newspapers did not report was what Judge Walker's ruling meant, in toto. By stating, in a federal court opinion, that Hearst's deal with the Fangs was an anti-competitive act, aided by apparent misconduct by the U.S. Justice Department, Judge Walker was giving the Hearst board of directors legal cover to do the right thing.

Under the general theory that illegal contracts signed under egregious governmental coercion are just the teensy-weensiest bit unenforceable, Hearst could certainly have canceled the deal and saved itself $66 million.

But if the deal was canceled, the Hearst brain trust apparently reasoned, Mama Fang might sue! And Mayor Brown would be mad! And Sen. Feinstein wouldn't go to lunch anymore! And the Justice Department would be mean again! And Jack Davis would be ... Jack Davis!

So, even with a federal judge bending over backward to offer the opportunity to behave honorably, Hearst's managers acted like, yes, a bunch of chickenshit cowards and reaffirmed their smelly deal with the Fangs.

On Saturday, an Examinerstory said Bennack, Hearst's president, told subordinates that Hearst would build the Chronicle into a paper on a par "in size and importance" with the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, and the New York Times.

The story did not say whether Bennack was under oath at the time.

Not, apparently, that it would have mattered.

The scale for measuring the greatness of a newspaper is not circulation levels reached or Pulitzer Prizes won. Great newspapers are considered great because they have proven themselves to be brave. They have proven -- by publishing the Pentagon Papers, for instance, or pursuing the Watergate scandal -- that when confronted with the choice between political or financial expedience on the one hand, and public service on the other, public service always wins out. The Hearst Corp. has shown that it was willing to cave to political and financial pressure once, when it agreed, under threat, to give the Examinerand millions of dollars in subsidies to supporters of the mayor and a U.S. senator, and then a second time, when it reaffirmed this illegitimate pact, even though a federal judge had all but drawn a diagram, showing Hearst the way to cancel the deal, and serve honor, and advance the public interest in unbiased news, and open news markets.

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