Bay Guardian: Newspaper or Political Action Committee?

If you're a regular Bay Guardian reader, you know that the paper believes PG&E is the Antichrist and that municipal power is what God intended for the good people of San Francisco. With Proposition H, yet another public power measure, on the November ballot, Guardian readers have been served a regular diet of rants posing as journalism about PG&E ("PG&E First Big Lies," "PG&E's Lie of the Week") alongside editorials about the holy goodness of public power ("Cleaner and Cheaper") over the past few weeks.

Like most folks in San Francisco, we know that the Guardian is hardly objective on the issue of public power. But while it's one thing to engage in activist journalism, it's quite another to be an arm of a political campaign. We aren't just talking campaign contributions, although records do show the paper has thus far donated $846 worth of ad space to Yes on H, and editor and publisher Bruce Brugmann chipped in an extra $1,000 in cash to the cause. Perhaps more alarming is the role Guardian editors played in getting the so-called Clean Energy Act on the ballot in the first place, which the paper has neglected to mention.

Earlier this year, when Supervisors Ross Mirkarimi and Aaron Peskin were contemplating whether they should even put a public power measure on the ballot, they visited Team Brugmann at the paper's offices in Potrero Hill to seek its blessing. Peskin tells SF Weekly that he and Mirkarimi wanted to be sure the Guardian would be supportive (which, frankly, is like asking a crackhead if he'd like a free hubba rock). "That's the go-not go," he says of his thinking in consulting the Guardian.

The Guardian's backing may not translate into big money to finance a campaign — let's face it, Brugmann's $1,000 won't win the election. But you can't put a price on the value of having a propagandist with a 100,000-circulation weekly newspaper on your side.

In recent months, the Guardian has made Cheneylike promises before the invasion of Iraq: Public power advocates will be greeted as liberators!

One Guardian story last month boldly predicted that the city could take over PG&E, cut electricity rates, and still bring in more money than it spent. To come up with this rosy assessment, the Guardian low-balled the cost of buying PG&E's system in San Francisco as $595 million. PG&E estimates its system is worth more than $4 billion. While the utility's figure is probably inflated, the sky-high estimate is an indication that PG&E plans to extract everything it can from the city if eminent domain proceedings are initiated.

In the '80s, PG&E spent about five years fighting the acquisition of its system in the little city of Folsom over a relative pittance. In that case, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District reportedly offered PG&E $5.5 million; the utility, meanwhile, contended its system was worth around four times that amount. Eventually SMUD and PG&E settled on a price of $13 million plus interest.

There's no way $595 million does the deal in San Francisco, where PG&E has 370,000 customers. But by low-balling the PG&E acquisition figure, the Guardian can promise its readers even lower electrical bills under a public power regime. By the by, the only neutral party to throw out a dollar figure, the city controller, says acquiring PG&E's utility-related assets will likely cost "billions" (an assessment that inspired an outraged editorial in the Guardian with the headline "And now, the controller's big lie").

In an e-mail, Guardian executive editor Tim Redmond freely acknowledged that he met with Peskin and Mirkarimi and that he personally participated in early meetings in which activists debated what the ballot measure should say. "I wouldn't exactly call this 'behind the scenes involvement,'" he wrote. "I go to a lot of meetings and talk to a lot of activists about a lot of stuff. I think we've always been very open about the fact that we are a pro-public-power paper and a part of the public power movement."

Mayor Gavin Newsom has publicly questioned why the measure is on the ballot now; it's not as if anyone has been screaming to municipalize PG&E — except the Guardian, of course. Mirkarimi says he figured the timing was right because the expected high voter turnout inspired by Barack Obama's presidential candidacy could help pass a public power measure. Prop. H critics, however, point out that Mirkarimi will probably run for mayor in 2011, and contend that he's sucking up to the Guardian with this measure so he can get its endorsement.

Whatever the case, the antics surrounding Prop. H remind us of something former Weekly editor John Mecklin wrote six years ago: that the Guardian is not so much a newspaper but a political club.

Apparently we're not the only ones who feel this way. Someone going by the name "Charlie" (we swear it wasn't one of us) posted this comment on a recent Guardian blog item: "The Guardian is not a newspaper. It is a political pamphlet that uses its (dwindling) resources to advance an agenda, and support the campaigns and careers of a handful of politicians in City Hall."

Sounds about right to us.

Full disclosure: Earlier this year, the Guardian won a $15.6 million court judgment against SF Weekly and its parent company for selling ads below cost. The Weekly is appealing the decision.

 
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