By: M.L. Stein Internecine feud breaks out among San Francisco weeklies over ads from association of big businesses sp.
Alternative publisher Bruce Brugmann, whose usual media targets are major dailies and chains, is locked in a bitter dispute with a group of neighborhood weeklies he accuses of being bought off by a downtown business organization. The weeklies have struck back, charging Brugmann's city-wide San Francisco Bay Guardian with false reporting. One community newspaper publisher said a libel suit against Brugmann was "under discussion." The battle is ironic because Brugmann has long been a champion of neighborhood papers. A few years ago, he led a successful fight to kill proposed legislation that would tax free newspapers, as well as paid ones. More recently, his name was at the top of a list of weeklies supporting the San Francisco Independent's bid to retain the city's legal advertising, which the city moved to the San Francisco Examiner. The current fracas began with a July l3 Bay Guardian story by Martin Espinoza, alleging that the Committee on Jobs, a private business association, "co-opted" the neighborhood papers by lavishing thousands of dollars in advertising on them in return for news stories about the association's agenda and general editorial support. The committee's stated purpose is preventing corporations and jobs from fleeing San Francisco by creating a more favorable business environment. The group is composed of 23 of the city's largest employers, including Bank of America, Chevron, The Gap and Pacific Gas & Electric Co. Brugmann and Bay Guardian managing editor Tim Redmond, on the other hand, regard Jobs as a deeply conservative group seeking to privatize city services and "crush progressive politics," as Espinoza's story stated. In an Aug. 3 story, Espinoza reported on a document showing that Jobs members spent nearly $48,000 for 11 ads in various neighborhood newspapers during l992 and l993. The document was a letter from David Ish and Maggie McCall, publishers of the New Fillmore and Marina Times, respectively, to Dan Fisher, chairman of the Gap stores. The letter makes clear, Espinoza asserts, that the San Francisco Neighborhood Newspaper Association "could be used by large companies to polish their tarnished images." Espinoza also said that Mark Mosher, a Jobs political consultant, wrote bylined opinion pieces for several community papers. SFNNA editors and publishers hurled a barrage of protest letters at the Bay Guardian and defended themselves in their own papers. In a column headed "Newspaper Editors Not for Sale," Paul Kozakiewicz of the Sunset Beacon declared: "To suggest that all the editors and publishers of the neighborhood press were bought off is ridiculous. I have known my co-publishers for for almost six years and all of them would just as well drive taxis or wait tables rather than compromise their integrity by taking money to influence their editorial coverage." Kozakiewicz conceded that SFNNA members met with Jobs representatives on several occasions, just as they meet with other business groups "with a point of view to discuss," but he denied being co-opted by any of them. "We're in the trenches covering local news, giving local merchants an opportunity to communicate with their local markets and create a sense of community in the neighborhood," he explained. When the Beacon ran Mosher's column, the editor said, it was clearly labeled as opinion and his identity was revealed. Ish made no apology for SFNNA's dialogue with Jobs. He said the business group's goal is to end "the false dichotomy of downtown versus the neighborhoods, and to see what we could do working together to help create the climate for a healthy tax base" and more efficient government. In a jab at the Bay Guardian, Ish said, "Of course publishing a paper which seems to be read for its personal ads and other material related primarily to entertainment affords one the luxury of thinking you're being taken seriously when you run editorial material on matters such as city politics, which is so far out of touch with reality it's the first section you reach for to wrap your fish in." Speaking for SFNNA, Ish labeled the Bay Guardian's charges "unsupported and unsubstantiated" and said the group is discussing suing. But he added, "We'll have to find a lawyer who would take it on a contingency basis. We're as poor as church mice." In a letter to the Guardian, McCall stated: "You cannot co-opt an individual who agrees with you . . . . You have impugned my editorial integrity . . . . No one ever has or ever will be in a position to buy me off. I am not for sale." A Beacon editorial called Brugmann a "bully" whose paper has published a "tissue of lies" about SFNNA's relationship with Jobs. It described his paper as "more like an entertainment and advocacy sheet where news takes the form of one-sided exposes . . . . There is never anything approaching balance." Charles Ratliff, publisher of the New Bayview, wrote the Guardian: "If your attack should kill or cripple our paper, will you take our place? Your paper is packed with ads from businesses both big and small. Have your advertisers co-opted, seduced or bought you off?" New Mission News publisher Victor Miller said Espinoza's stories contained "gross misstatements of facts and unsupported assertions." Brugmann said the Guardian obtained documents supporting the allegations from the University of California, San Francisco, a Jobs member, through the California Public Records Act. "SFNNA members have been promoting Jobs' agenda for the last couple of years while hustling for ads," Brugmann said, adding that some neighborhood weeklies that ran Mosher's pieces failed to identify his link with the group. "Jobs desperately needed grassroots support, and they have been able to get it through the neighborhood papers," he said. Among other things, Brugmann accuses Jobs of working to turn over for private development the Presidio, an Army base the government is closing in a prime location. The Guardian has urged that the Presido be administered by the National Park Service. Redmond of the Guardian said in a column the paper is "sorry" to be squabbling with "friends and allies" in the neighborhood press, but contended it was "very unusual for any newspaper publisher to hold editorial meetings regularly with a major political group that is also a major advertiser and to discuss both the lobbying group's political agenda and the paper's financial needs." ?( Bruce Brugman-the Beacon called him a "bully" and said his San Francisco Bay Guardian published a "tissue of lies.") [Photo & Caption]