Let the Sun Shine, You Hypocrites

Journalism is under attack from lefties who promote public access to information.

Anschutz has yet to receive accolades as a local civic hero. While the Constitution enshrines news-business entrepreneurship as vital for a healthy republic, ordinary people take this for granted.

"The Examiner is obnoxious. The way they MAKE you pick up their garbage" was a typical comment on the Chronicle's Web site, following the story about Mirkarimi's proposed law.

The Examiner already provides a phone number so residents can request not to receive it, so it's unclear what the legislation would accomplish — aside from creating a tool by which detractors levy fines against a newspaper that happens to have a conservative editorial page.

By deadline, Mirkarimi hadn't responded to my request to discuss this proposed legislation. But motivation-wise, I can surmise this much: His swipe at the Examiner is without great political risk. This is a season of environmentally insignificant, yet symbolically heavy green measures. Mirkarimi got this enviro-opportunism ball rolling last year with an anti-plastic-shopping-bag initiative; Mayor Gavin Newsom parried with an edict ending city purchases of bottled water. Mirkarimi has couched last Tuesday's anti-Examiner attack as anti-litter. And Newsom held a bullshit press conference last Thursday urging restaurants to stop selling water in plastic bottles.

"Excellent!!! I wholeheartedly support this effort," was another Chron reader comment about the proposed law. "Thanks Ross! Once again you make me glad that you're my supervisor and represent my district," was another.

I'll add my own: "Kudos, Ross! You've shown that enviro-grandstanding means more to you than an unfettered fourth estate."

Another Local Darkness Week attack on journalism is closer to home: Bay Guardian Company, Inc. vs. NT Media LLC, SF Weekly LLC, et. al.

For 11 years I've been loath to enter into the sniping that sometimes goes on against the pamphlet published by the plaintiff in that case. For one, I believe it sometimes provides a service to readers: I myself enjoyed a taste-test review of store-bought barbecue sauces it published in, if memory serves, 1997. What's more, I admire anyone who tries to make a go of it in the news business.

That's changed. In early March, the Guardian was awarded up to $15.6 million based on the idea that SF Weekly engaged in unfair business practices.

The notion was that SF Weekly sought to harm the Guardian by selling advertising below cost, then making up the difference with money from our parent company, Village Voice Media. The Guardian now seeks an injunction seeking to force SF Weekly to halt this practice.

SF Weekly was not selling ads for less than the market would bear; rather, it "sold below cost" because its expenses were more than its income.

Key to SF Weekly's cost structure has been the fact it employs more than twice as many full-time reporters as the Guardian does. And on the two occasions I was able to learn what top Guardian reporters earned, the amount was less than half what SF Weekly paid for equivalent positions. In other words, SF Weekly frittered away more money on journalism than the Guardian did, in hopes that eventually the paper would carve out a niche among readers and advertisers.

Guardian attorneys argued that this was the sharp end of a plot to hurt the little guy. As someone who's been the beneficiary of this journalistic largess for 11 years, let me tell you what it looks like from the inside. It's meant that we've been able to spend extra time working on stories designed to make a difference.

SF Weekly stories last month provoked California Assembly hearings on defrauding the elderly. SF Weekly has published exposés about abuses by labor leaders that helped embolden a dissident movement within America's largest labor union. SF Weekly stories exposed the Navy's Hunters Point nuclear activities, and uncovered and halted an illegal plot by SFO officials to siphon millions of public dollars to Honduras. And between 1997 and 1999, the paper's news columnist George Cothran exposed the inappropriate dumping of San Francisco Giants' toxic waste at the Altamont landfill.

This sort of reporting costs money. In the case of the 2001 story "Fallout: How nuclear researchers handled — and grossly mishandled — the Cold War's most dangerous radioactive substances," staff reporter Lisa Davis was relieved of all other duties for a year to dig into historical records, interview former employees and scientists, and set up and manage a cooperative research initiative with the Monterey Institute of International Studies. While this project could theoretically be criticized from a newspaper-business balance-sheet perspective, it had a near-immediate practical effect. Two weeks after the story's publication, Representative Nancy Pelosi and Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer signed a letter to the U.S. Secretary of the Navy demanding information about nuclear waste at Hunters Point Naval Shipyard.

In 1999, staff writer Peter Byrne spent much of the year investigating apparently curious investments involving Willie Brown. The resulting story described how the mayor had made official decisions benefiting business entities that were partners in his private business endeavors.

I flew to Mexico City to report on the international politics of whale migration, and to Tegucigalpa, Honduras, to investigate illegal business dealings by San Francisco government officials in connection with the privatization of that country's airports. The resulting stories provoked officials to halt the scheme. This week's paper includes a story by Lauren Smiley detailing how a contractor, which was subject to a city nondiscrimination agreement, apparently oversaw apparent systematic racial discrimination as well as extortion of workers.

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