Watchdog Catfight

Activists aren't happy about the deal struck between Clint Reilly and Bay Area media barons

Last week Clint Reilly, the multimillionaire real-estate-investor-turned-media-gadfly, declared victory over the daily newspaper hegemons he accused of conspiring to create a Bay Area monopoly. But in the days following the settlement of Reilly's freelance antitrust lawsuit, the deal turned out to be unpopular with just about everyone — especially reform-minded activists who had lionized his cause.

"Clint Reilly's victory wasn't much of a victory for anyone but Clint Reilly himself," says Ted Glasser, a professor of journalism at Stanford (and a former colleague of mine).

Reilly claims that the settlement entitles him to, among other things, a free quarter-page ad once a week to ruminate on the public interest in MediaNews Group's 11 Bay Area dailies including the Oakland Tribuneand San Jose Mercury News. That news disturbed Linda Foley, national president of the Newspaper Guild. Foley says she's glad Reilly stepped in, but "chagrined that in exchange for a settlement of a business situation MediaNews has turned a portion of its newspapers over to someone, carte blanche. That really does cross an ethical line in journalism."

Last year Reilly sued to stop Media-News, run by Denver media tycoon Dean Singleton, from owning practically every daily in the Bay Area except for the San Francisco Chronicle. But Hearst Corp., owner of the Chron, had its own complicated financial role in the MediaNews acquisition, something Reilly also objected to as anti-competitive. While the suit's settlement did stop Hearst from secretly merging parts of the Chron's business and editorial functions with Media-News, it did nothing to undo MediaNews' takeover of Knight-Ridder castoffs, the Mercury News and the Contra Costa Times— which is what some media activists really wanted.

"This whole thing reeks like a robber baron redux. ... Unfortunately, we can't get too excited about the crumbs for which he settled," says Jeff Perlstein, who directs Media Alliance, an activist group that teamed up with the Bay Guardian to sue both sides to open up sealed evidence in the case. Media Alliance and the Guardian appear headed in different directions now: Publisher Bruce Brugmann praised Reilly on his blog after the settlement was announced (and told us his paper no longer has legal standing to take the case further), but Perlstein says Media Alliance is still examining its options. "We're talking with our lawyers," Perlstein said in an e-mail.

Despite the widespread disappointment with the settlement, Phil Trounstine, a former Merc columnist who runs the Survey and Policy Research Institute at San Jose State University, says Reilly couldn't have gotten a better deal. "The notion that Reilly should have pushed this all the way," says Trounstine, who was slated to testify for Reilly as an expert witness, "is somewhat Quixotic."

Perhaps. But the media activists were gearing up for one hell of a joust against those newsprint windmills.

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