Newspapers' big story is their own ethics

Reputations suffer when news-business wall is breached

May 13, 2000|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

SAN FRANCISCO - A multimillionaire newspaper subscriber who sued to block the merger of San Francisco's last two metropolitan daily newspapers has opened a door on the deal-making and political power struggles in this city.

The case took on new dimensions for newspaper people May 1, when Timothy O. White, publisher of the Hearst-owned Examiner, suggested in federal court that he had been willing to treat Mayor Willie Brown less critically in his paper's editorials in exchange for the mayor's support for Hearst's plan to buy the more successful Chronicle.

That set off alarms in both San Francisco newsrooms. It also rattled journalists across the country, who have cringed at a succession of stories that suggest the traditional wall between a newspaper's business interests and its news and editorial coverage is being breached more and more often."Unfortunately," said Tom Kunkel, dean-elect of the University of Maryland's College of Journalism, "most readers will logically walk away with the impression that the media are just as scummy as they thought they were."

The most recent convulsions began last fall, when the Los Angeles Times admitted agreeing to split the ad revenues from a special section on the city's new Staples Center with the arena's owners. The outraged response from the staff and journalists around the country prompted the paper to apologize, publish an investigative report and establish guidelines on editorial independence.

Last month, it was disclosed that the Boston Herald had asked a reporter to stop writing articles critical of an advertiser, a bank that holds the mortgage on the Herald building. The reporter was suspended, reportedly for speaking publicly about the matter, but was reinstated.

Journalists distressed by those incidents note that they were brought to light by the same newspaper people who are mortified by them, which they say shows that the profession is policing itself."I don't think there has been a lapse or lessening of standards. This can happen and has happened in the past," said Edwin Guthman, a former editorial page editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, and member of the Los Angeles City Board of Ethics, and now a senior lecturer in the University of Southern California's journalism department.

Guthman added that "the appearance is serious enough.... . The integrity of a newspaper is invaluable."

Observers of the industry say newspapers - and especially their executive editors - are under enormous and increasing pressure from their corporate parents to help the management team meet shareholders' profit expectations. The dangers are that some executives might allow those corporate financial pressures to leak into the paper as decisions to cover, color, or ignore stories in ways that help the company's profitability."It is a scary time," said KeayDavidson, 47, a science reporter at the Examiner since 1986. "Newspapers are one of the few places left in our culture where people are charged with holding up the banner of doing the right thing. I worry that the banner is falling from our hands right now."

Surveys suggest that many readers suspect the banner has already fallen, said Kunkel. "But if they can get past that, they will realize who is ratting out the bad guys. It's the media."

White's testimony in San Francisco came on the first day of the U.S. District Court trial of an antitrust suit filed by Clint Reilly, a longtime political adviser, one-time mayoral candidate and downtown real estate tycoon.

Reilly, who failed in a bid to buy the Examiner, thinks he was treated unfairly by the Examiner in his mayoral race last fall against incumbent Willie Brown. But he says his only motive in the lawsuit is to preserve a second newspaper voice in San Francisco.

Circulation at Hearst's Examiner has sunk to 108,000. It has survived this long only because of a 1965 joint operating agreement with the Chronicle, under which the two papers share advertising, circulation and production facilities, and split the profits 50-50.

That agreement is to expire in 2005, and Hearst's executives decided that their best financial move in San Francisco was to buy the competition and close the Examiner. They offered $660 million.

To appease opponents of the sale, the company later agreed to sell the Examiner for $100to businessman and publisher Ted Fang, a Brown ally. Fang wants to focus the new Examiner on the city's neighborhoods and ethnic minorities.

Hearst had to offer Fang $66 million over three years to close the deal, and it's still likely to fail, Reilly's lawyers say. That makes it a "sham" designed to give Hearst an illegal monopoly, they say.

White told the court that he was sent by Hearst to San Francisco last year to expedite the Chronicle purchase. That included heading off political opposition from Brown.

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