News & Views from 465 California Street

Newspapers as Watchdogs

Clint Reilly

When does a newspaper cease to be a legitimate watchdog of the public interest? Do a newspaper company’s own ethical lapses impeach its credibility as an independent watchdog of the public interest?

In 1973, I was a very young political organizer. I participated in a campaign for Governor of Arizona. The United Farm Workers Union, led by Cesar Chavez, was strongly backing a candidate against the Republican Governor, “one eyed” Jack Williams, who opposed the right of farm workers to organize. Chavez recruited me to manage the campaign of the Farm Workers’ candidate, Jerry Pollack, against Williams. The Arizona Republic was the most important newspaper in the state. Eugene Pulliam, the uncle of former Vice President Dan Quayle, owned the Republic and ran it with an iron fist. Pulliam had no compunction about destroying Democrats with front-page lies and smears. Chavez had launched a campaign to register new Democratic voters, particularly Latinos. The effort was a great success and nearly 75,000 new voters were registered.

What happened next was an eye opener for a naïve political activist. The Arizona Republic simply began to publicly speculate that the voters were illegally registered, though they were registered by trained volunteers in strict compliance with the law. Soon the Maricopa County Registrar of Voters — an elected Republican — declared all 75,000 new registrants invalid on the grounds that they were illegally registered. The sole recourse was a long, costly court battle. Chavez was forced to abandon the campaign against Governor Williams and retreat to California.

I had witnessed the brute strength of a newspaper monopoly to create parallel truth and enforce its agenda on a trusting public.

I .F. Stone, the legendary muckraker, famously said, “All governments lie but disaster lies in wait for the countries whose officials smoke the same hashish they give out.” But who covers the story when a monopoly newspaper is smoking its own hashish?

The Hearst Corporation owns the San Francisco Chronicle. The Chronicle often places itself on a moral pedestal in judgment of public officials and official public policy. The Chronicle has a daily newspaper monopoly in San Francisco.

On October 11, 2001, the Hearst Corporation was assessed the largest fine in history for concealing critical documents from the Federal Trade Commission. The effect of the Hearst subterfuge was to cause pharmaceutical prices to Medicare consumers across America to be increased by hundreds of millions of dollars. Hearst lied to the FTC. The Chronicle never covered this story.

In late 2005, The Hearst Corporation announced a $300 million dollar investment in MediaNews Group’s purchase of the San Jose Mercury News and the Contra Costa Times. Improbably, Hearst executives declared that the investment did not impact competition in the Bay Area. Subsequently, documents came to light showing that the Hearst/Chronicle had signed a secret agreement to combine business operations with MediaNews in the Bay Area. Again, Hearst lied to the public.

In 2000, I filed an antitrust suit against Hearst‘s $700 million dollar purchase of the Chronicle. In that case, Federal Judge Vaughn R. Walker, who is now Chief Judge of the Northern District, issued the following opinion of the actions and testimony of Frank Bennack, President and Chairman of Hearst Corporation and George Irish, the President of Hearst Newspapers in America…. “Irish and Bennack were aware of White’s
(publisher of the Hearst Examiner) overtures to horse trade favorable editorial coverage in exchange for Willie Brown’s support of Hearst’s Chronicle acquisition…. In their testimony Bennack and Irish denied knowing of White’s overtures to Brown until White testified about them in trial on May 1, 2000. These denials are not credible and the court does not believe them.”
The head of Hearst Newspapers and the Chairman of the Hearst Corporation were accused in a federal judge’s ruling of lying on the stand.

Just little white lies? Who watches the watchdog?

Comments (1)

  • You already know the answer to this.

    No one.

    Even when some are brave enough to declare that something is amiss, it is suffocated, discredited, or suppressed.

    My Chinese roommate (who spent 24 1/2 years under “communism” which we Americans would GASP at) says that while her government censors their news and says as much, perhaps we have it worse here in America in that they censor our news and do not say a word.

    She might be right.

    Posted by: Jr Accountant | May 3rd, 2009 at 11:06 pm

Add a Comment


Home   |   Blog   |   Legal   |   Contact