“Newspapers are the intellectual bridge between citizens and their government,” says Clint Reilly.
Backing up those words, Mr. Reilly, over the past decade, has become a crusader for competition and independent local journalism at Bay Area newspapers.
In 2000, he filed a landmark federal lawsuit to challenge the sale of the morning San Francisco Chronicle to the Hearst Corporation, then the owner of the afternoon paper the San Francisco Examiner.
Mr. Reilly felt the merger would create a virtual monopoly in news information in San Francisco and decided to take action when others declined to become involved. The lawsuit provided a behind-the-scenes look at the deal by exposing the corporate conduct of the companies being challenged. During the trial, Examiner Publisher Tim White acknowledged on the witness stand an astonishing breach of journalistic integrity, testifying that he offered to “horse trade” favorable editorial coverage of specific local elected officials in exchange for support for the Hearst purchase. The revelation led to the immediate firing of Mr. White and brought to light other controversial aspects of the Hearst Corporation’s conduct.
Although the Chronicle sale was eventually approved, U.S. District Court Judge Vaughn R. Walker stated for the record that Mr. Reilly’s lawsuit was a “useful public service.” Walker called the U.S. Justice Department-approved Hearst deal for The Chronicle “malodorous.”
The judge also declared that both the CEO of the Hearst Corporation and head of Hearst’s newspaper division were “not credible” on the witness stand. And he chose to award Mr. Reilly payment of his legal fees, despite the fact that he lost the case on legal grounds.
To this day, the lawsuit, Reilly v. Hearst, continues to be studied by academics and activists concerned about media concentration and power.
In 2006, Mr. Reilly was back in federal court. He filed an antitrust lawsuit to prevent MediaNews Group, Inc. and Hearst Corp. from combining aspects of their business operations as a prelude to creating a regional newspaper monopoly.
Again, electing to spend his own money when others refused to act, Mr. Reilly resurrected his struggle for media-ownership diversity, reliable local coverage and contrasting editorial points of view.
In a 2007, Hearst and MediaNews settled, agreeing to refrain from combining operations in Northern California. Presiding over the case, U.S. District Judge Susan Illston issued a key ruling, determining that an individual who is deprived of news coverage is economically damaged and has the right to file a lawsuit.
Also as part of the settlement, MediaNews agreed to give Mr. Reilly a quarter-page of free space in every MediaNews Bay Area newspaper in which to publish a weekly column. It also awarded him the right to nominate local citizens to sit on the editorial boards of each of those papers.
The precedent-setting ruling will impact media consolidation cases for the rest of the 21st century.