Judge to open secret files in SF media merger case

by Tim Redmond, SF Bay Guardian

In a victory for sunshine in the federal courts, a judge ruled Jan 24th that many of the documents in a groundbreaking lawsuit over media concentration in the Bay Area will be released to the public.

Federal Judge Susan Illston agreed with the Bay Guardian and Media Alliance that several of the nation’s largest newspaper chains should not be allowed to keep key records in the lawsuit under wraps.

The suit, filed by San Francisco real-estate investor Clint Reilly, seeks to overturn the deal that allowed Dean Singleton’s Media News Group to take control of every major daily newspaper in the Bay Area except the San Francisco Chronicle. Hearst Corp., owner of the Chronicle, is also a party to the merger deal, and Reilly charges that the big chains want to wipe out newspaper competition in the region.

There’s already plenty of evidence the Hearst and Singleton are conspiring: In November, Illston issued an order blocking the Singleton papers, which include the Oakland Tribune, San Jose Mercury News, and Contra Costa Times, from entering into an arrangement to sell ads with the Chronicle.

She issued that order after Joe Alioto, Reilly’s lawyer, produced an April 26 memo showing that Hearst and Singleton were discussing joint printing, ad sales and other business deals.

The newspapers have tried to keep all of the documents in the trial under court seal, claiming that the records involve competitive business secrets.

The Guardian and Media Alliance filed a motion Dec 21, 2006 asking Judge Illston to unseal the records. Among other things, the motion argued, the media behemoths had failed to follow court rules in filing thousands of pages of documents under seal. A hearing on the motion was set for Jan. 26.

But Illson ruled Jan. 24th that no hearing was necessary. Since the motion was filed, she stated, the media conglomerates agreed to release a number of documents, and Illston ordered the release of others.

Some records, which Illston has reviewed and found to contain confidential business information, will remain secret.

The judge also granted the request that the Guardian and Media Alliance remain as legal intervenors through the course of the case, with the right to move to unseal any future documents.

“We hope this decision will set the precedent for the public to keep media barons from sealing court records in the dark of night to facilitate their moves to monopoly,” said Bay Guardian Editor and Publisher Bruce B. Brugmann. “And this decision should set an important precedent to keep court records in all cases open to the public.

The defendants in the case include Hearst, Media News, McClatchy, Gannett and Stephens Media.

Jeff Perlstein, Media Alliance executive director, said: "The bosses at these media giants are hereby put on notice: our communities aren't going to sit idly by while they build monopolies and cut jobs and local coverage. We're going to do all we can to ensure the public knows what's really going on with this merger. We need local, diverse ownership to ensure the local and diverse information the Bay Area needs and deserves."

Media Alliance is a 30-year-old nonprofit media advocacy group with 1,800 members. The Bay Guardian is the largest independent newsweekly in Northern California.

The Guardian and Media Alliance were represented by attorneys Jim Wheaton and David Greene of the Oakland-based First Amendment Project.

Read the judge's order here

See how the media blew this story

article originally published at http://www.sfbg.com/entry.php?entry_id=2701&catid=4&volume_id=254&issue_id=278&v....

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey