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Brugmann's Brain Vomit 

Cleaning up the latest drivel from San Francisco's leading bull-goose loony

Wednesday, Sep 7 2005
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Someone leaked documents to Bruce B. Brugmann and the San Francisco Bay Guardian purporting to outline a merger between New Times Inc. and Village Voice Media.

Well, now, you know you just can't have the words "leaked," "documents," and "Brugmann" in the same sentence without feeling vertigo, dyspepsia, and an apprehensive sense of a big blow approaching.

Sure enough, driven by his demons, Brugmann took the paperwork and launched one of his infamous v-bombs, spewing brain vomit far and wide. This just in: Bruce Brugmann identifies another conspiracy for a sleeping nation.

The Bay Guardian publisher demanded that the U.S. Justice Department "go public and block the deal." He urged fellow owners of alternative newspapers as well as the general public to man the barricades: Alarm! Alarm! Media consolidation.

Brugmann stays up late dispatching e-mails, photocopying reams of paper, assembling packets in an endless, endless search for approval and attention. Imagine a needy ferret blogging.

If a merger was in the works, the parties involved would have signed a confidentiality agreement. So even if I knew what was going on, I couldn't talk like I knew what was going on. I'm only trying to clean up the brain vomit around here.

While I may not know what is going on, I do know that Brugmann can't count. In his headline, and his e-mail to a Web site announcing his scoop, and the opening graf in the Bay Guardian's story at the end of August, he claimed the rumored merger would create an "18-paper chain." A person with the normal set of fingers and toes would know that the actual number is 17. His first fact was wrong, and his accuracy did not improve as he moved from the trivial to the substantial.

Brugmann's most recent eruption did not happen in a vacuum, so while I am going to return to the merger documents, I'm also going to share with you Brugmann's effort to frame the discussion about a merger that's been rumored for months. Quite simply, the single most persecuted soul in all of alternative journalism wants a sit-down with the Justice Department, the federal agency that would review any such business relationship between Village Voice Media and New Times Inc.

Brugmann's merger attack is his latest salvo against New Times. In the past few months alone, his barrage has included a groundless lawsuit, an attack on the integrity of a press club that did not bestow honors upon Brugmann but did recognize our writers, and a sleazy advertising campaign that seeks to tar us and whitewash his personal corruption.

That's right: corruption.

It is no secret in our industry, or anywhere in the greater Bay Area, that Brugmann is bull-goose loony. Consequently, sane people desert any room that Brugmann is sucking the oxygen out of. Why engage a homeless paranoid in conversation about the contents of his shopping cart?

No one bothers to call Brugmann on his ethical and financial corruption because no one wants to be on a bizarre person's radar screen.

Still, when I see his accusations bouncing around the Internet or showing up in media analysis, I have to ask myself: What ever happened to old-fashioned research? I know the Internet allows folks to simply mirror their shadows endlessly, but does it make sense to perpetuate the disturbed utterances of someone who is a shameless fraud?

Here is a recent example of his dishonesty.

Last month Brugmann ran a series of full-page ads attacking Clear Channel and our publication, SF Weekly, because a Clear Channel subsidiary, a music venue, was advertising with us. There was no allegation of editorial impropriety, no allegation of a quid pro quo, simply the charge that running advertising from Clear Channel was immoral.

Precisely as Brugmann did with the article on the merger documents, his ads and stories bandied about allegations of "monopoly media" and "chains." Brugmann neglected to tell his readers that he'd personally taken hundreds of thousands of dollars from the very same Clear Channel business that he was now savaging. He only attacked Clear Channel when it stopped advertising with his paper in favor of ours.

Here is what Brugmann wrote: "Why are the Weekly folks fooling around with a greedy Texas corporation that's hell bent on muzzling dissenting voices and homogenizing the media? . . . Clear Channel, one of the nation's most notorious media conglomerates . . . Clear Channel equals monopoly media . . . Clear Channel equals Bush . . . Clear Channel equals censorship."

These are all phrases meant to catch the attention of the Justice Department.

If Brugmann felt this way about Clear Channel, why didn't he write this when he was cashing Clear Channel's checks for hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising revenue? Why was he so silent as long as he was paid? Clearly, Bruce Brugmann's opinions are for sale.

Clear Channel had been one of Bruce Brugmann's most important advertisers since 2000. For all his incessant fulminating about media concentration, Brugmann was happy to take -- by conservative estimates -- more than half a million dollars of Clear Channel's money to the bank, money that apparently bought his silence.

Why was he silent for five years? Why did he take its money for five years? He was silent for five years because he took its money for five years.

Bruce Brugmann's ethics are as convenient as any whore's.

For five years, Brugmann couldn't spend Clear Channel's money fast enough, but now his objections to the company are couched in anti-trust rhetoric: "Monopoly Media."

Here is the best insight into Brugmann's carnival-barker soul: The Guardian's September 7 issue ran more advertising from Clear Channel, which used both his and our paper to sell their message. We know what Brugmann is, and now we know what he costs.

And as he usually does, Brugmann speaks out of both sides of his yap as he appeals to the Justice Department to stop our alleged merger with Village Voice Media and sues us in California state court.

The federal government's concern in media consolidation is whether or not the new business has enough market power to drive up the price of national advertising. In other words, the Justice Department is there to protect not the reader, but the national advertiser. It wants competition to keep advertising costs low.

In the event of a merger, Brugmann asserts that we would have 15 percent of the membership of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (AAN) under our tent. What he doesn't say is that we would also have a minuscule percentage of the national advertising market. We would hardly have enough share of any part of the American market to raise rates like a monopoly.

We would not monopolize anything.

Ironically, Brugmann's lawsuit in San Francisco claims that our rates are too low. He would like to charge monopoly rates to his clients but cannot because of competition from us.

On another front, on Monday, Aug. 29, Brugmann resumed his assault on the San Francisco/East Bay Press Club. For something like 12 weeks, Brugmann has not stopped complaining that he did not win a single journalism award in the recently concluded competition.

Unlike the spin he gins up for public consumption, his disinformation campaign directed at fellow journalists -- and this is only the latest episode -- seldom sees the light of day. On the professional track, Brugmann stokes conspiracies in order to suggest to all reporters that they must beware of New Times. And in Brugmann's version, this, too, is fuel for Justice Department review.

While the media is loath to give publicity to Brugmann's never-ending list of fraternal grievances, his complaints within the press corps yield a wonderful insight into his mania, because he apparently conducts this correspondence free of the fetters of a sober editor.

At the end of August, he e-mailed the board of directors of the San Francisco/East Bay Press Club a copy of his merger article about New Times Inc. and Village Voice Media. His cover note mouthed more propaganda aimed at the Justice Department, doused as the e-mail was with terms like "megachain merger" and "predatory papers." In Brugmann's mind, the rumored merger was directly connected to his not winning an award.

Reviewing Brugmann's three-month obsession with the press club and one of our papers, the East Bay Express, explains why people do not call him on his sleaze. Who can engage in this sort of drivel for months on end other than Brugmann? At the same time there is an entertaining sickness to it all, like watching Raskolnikov sink ever deeper into his deranged fever in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment.

Consider Brugmann's July 18 epistle in which he mauled the East Bay Press Club's board of directors with a six-page, single-spaced diatribe about not winning a single award. He began his letter by looking back at his fights with Pacific Gas and Electric in, I kid you not, 1969. He segued into the predatory chain accusations, he reviewed our fight with the Justice Department, he marched them through the evils of Clear Channel. In his mind, he found a link between the press club's awards banquet and the Clear Channel ads that appeared in our publications on June 29, "five days after the awards dinner [emphasis mine]." He then announced that he was pulling the Bay Guardian out of the press club.

"We will be happy to return when we are assured that there is a more hospitable environment for our form of independent, locally owned and operated journalism that competes with and challenges media conglomerates and chains. Too bad. So long for now. Thanks very much, Bruce B. Brugmann, still an independent and competitive journalist working at the bottom of Potrero Hill in San Francisco, beneath the plumes of two ruinous private power plants, courtesy of PG&E and the mainstream press," concluded the publisher.

Except . . . God have mercy, Raskolnikov wasn't concluded. Brugmann then added a P.S. headlined: "Make Lemonade," a lengthy section on how the press club could enact his reforms.

Then he added P.S. 2: "The Chain Virus."

Then P.S. 3: "Clear Channel/BGP/New Times is a local story."

After that came P.S. 4: "Clear Channel Equals Monopoly Media."

Mercifully, our prolix protester wrapped up with his omnibus P.S. 5: "Backup material," in which he offered to send photocopies, memos, etc., etc., and did he mention that he was available for an interview? Because he is available for an interview.

The press club declined to enter into Brugmann's dementia.

The press club's sin was holding a contest in which Brugmann and his paper, the Bay Guardian, were not honored with awards. His paranoia focused on the press club because our editor, Stephen Buel of the East Bay Express, was president of the club this past year. Worse, one of the two co-chairs of the contest was a reporter, Robert Gammon, who worked for the Express -- though when he first took the post in the press club, he worked for a daily newspaper. Buel and Gammon, who are only two members of the 13-person board, stole the contest, according to Brugmann.

You see, it was another conspiracy directed at Brugmann. After all, the East Bay Express, our paper, won 12 awards, and Brugmann's paper, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, won zero. Many other publications won awards during the competition, but Brugmann remains convinced that he is a victim of a conspiracy.

Yet all of Brugmann's facts -- other than the fact that none of his articles won a plaque -- were wrong. Or, as Buel explains, " . . . not only wrong, but dishonest."

The judges were drawn from five press clubs across the country, including Omaha, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, New Orleans, and SPJ Far North. These are journalism associations in cities where New Times has no papers, journalism organizations where Buel and Gammon do not know a soul. As a safeguard, all entries go in without a byline or any identification of the publications submitting an entry.

Furthermore, Brugmann and the Bay Guardian did not win any awards in the last press club competition, either. That awards dinner was in 2003, a year when no one from our organization held office in the club. The East Bay Express took home 10 awards that year.

Earth to Brugmann: If you want to win journalism awards, pay a living wage to real reporters and stop relying so heavily upon interns, freelancers, and the politically obsessed.

Brugmann, who quaintly refers to himself as B3, is just as manic in his dealings with journalists outside the Bay Area. He wrote the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies and copied them his paper's story on the merger. B3PO (Bruce B. Brugmann Pissed Off) sent the AAN leadership a droning, robotic cover note labeled "Bombs Away."

So what exactly are we to make of this merger memo, or, more to the point, what did B3PO make of it?

While Brugmann charged that this merger was proof New Times was taking over the world, he was concerned primarily with the ownership of this new company. B3PO obsessed that investment bankers will drive this new company. He claims the merged newspapers would be "controlled to a significant extent by venture capitalists."

At the top of its story, the Bay Guardian describes my partner, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Jim Larkin, and myself as the " . . . Phoenix-based New Times and its primary venture capital firm, the Boston-based Alta Communications."

Contrary to what Brugmann is trying to imply, Alta is not our "primary" venture capital firm; they are our only venture capital firm. Not content with misleading readers, Brugmann goes on to suggest whenever possible that the merger is driven by New Times "and its banker."

Get it? Banker. New Times and its banker. Brugmann is as horrified of bankers as any of William Jennings Bryan's sodbusters.

For the record, Alta's investment in New Times is 14 percent. It would hold even less if a merged company came to pass.

In fact, even if Brugmann was right -- and I can't comment on that, but you know what they say about broken clocks -- Brugmann himself is forced to admit that the documents point out that a merger between New Times Inc. and Village Voice Media would be owned to the tune of 62 percent by myself, Jim Larkin, and our fellow partners at New Times, all of whom are full-time employees in the alternative newspaper industry. Many of the readers of the AAN newsletter have worked with our shareholders, people like Scott Spear.

This "investment banker" terror is typical B3PO hypocrisy. For years Brugmann has hidden the identities of his multimillionaire investors, his investors' interests and holdings, and the relationship between his investors' holdings in San Francisco and the Bay Guardian's coverage of those interests. But now Brugmann wants to raise conspiracy alarms about the very public ownership of both New Times Inc. and Village Voice Media.

Who are your investors, Bruce Brugmann, what are their holdings in the Bay Area, and how has that influenced your coverage in the Bay Guardian? What percentage of the Bay Guardian do your well-heeled investors control?

The question, quite simply, is whether or not Bruce Brugmann is for sale.

It's fun to ask Brugmann-like questions. But let's look at one of the answers, because it's of passing interest.

According to United States postal records, Brugmann's investors own at least 10 percent of his media empire, and probably more.

The Postal Service suspended the Bay Guardian's periodical postage discount in 2003 after Brugmann stopped filing the required paperwork, paperwork which lists the names of all investors holding at least 1 percent interest in the company.

While I don't actually lie awake at night worrying about what investors Brugmann protects, my questions about his paper's financiers are only partly rhetorical.

For example, one of his investors was Donald Werby, described in business publications as a billionaire real estate tycoon in San Francisco. Werby, who passed away in 2002, was a friend and patron of Anton LaVey. Werby underwrote LaVey's efforts at the Church of Satan (no, really). In 1989, Werby was indicted on 21 counts of having sex with underage prostitutes and paying for it with cocaine. One 13-year-old told the grand jury about smoking crack with the 63-year-old Werby.

I missed the Bay Guardian's coverage of its investor's indictment on child prostitution charges.

Of course, any publisher, even Brugmann, misses a story now and then.

But Werby made headlines for years in everyone's newspaper but Brugmann's.

The city's district attorney revealed that Werby and his brother tried to pressure his office into dropping the investigation because Donald Werby and his brother Robert Werbe (they spell their last name differently) were big campaign contributors. More headlines.

Three weeks after his initial arrest, Werby was arrested again, this time for trying to bribe a witness, a pregnant 17-year-old. More headlines.

Facing 15 years in prison on the sex charges alone, Werby pleaded guilty to a mere four misdemeanor counts and paid a fine. He served no jail time. More headlines.

The light sentence became the first major issue in the California attorney general's race in 1990 when the San Francisco prosecutor, Arlo Smith, was challenged for the state office by former Congressman Dan Lungren.

Lungren accused Smith of going into the tank and giving Werby a sweetheart plea agreement because the billionaire investor was a major contributor to the prosecutor's election coffers. The accusation was not lost in the election shuffle; in fact, the two candidates ended up in a physical confrontation over Werby. More headlines.

Brugmann did not break any of these stories. It is difficult to explain how B3PO could have missed articles that were this much fun. Nor did the Werbe/Werby brothers fade away once all of the criminal hooperocity died down. As owners of the historic Sir Francis Drake Hotel, the venerable Clift Hotel, and the far-flung Grosvenor Properties, the brothers made economic news for years and were regulars in Herb Caen's column.

In the '90s, the brothers' economic underpinnings were rocked with three loan foreclosures, four bankruptcies, and a financial judgment against them in a suit brought by the state of California. More headlines.

If Brugmann did not actually lead the pack in coverage of his billionaire investor, I remain hopeful that he did not skip entirely the opportunity to write about Werby. Although I was unable to locate any Guardian stories on the wayward financier, something may exist that did not yield to a Web search. I e-mailed Brugmann and his longtime editor, Tim Redmond, asking for a list of their Werby articles, but both remain oddly silent.

The point here isn't that Brugmann refused to expose his business partner, Donald Werby. (Hell, isn't there something rather charming about a billionaire real estate tycoon who will purchase the Church of Satan and allow his buddy Anton LaVey to stay there until the devil worshipper's death?)

The point is that Brugmann's raving about local investors versus investment bankers is idle posturing unless you examine the facts. Why is Donald Werby a better financier than an investment banker? As the 18th-century hunchbacked German writer and philosopher Georg Christoph Lichtenberg said, in obvious anticipation of B3PO: "It is not the force of his mind, but the force of wind that has carried that man so far."

In his article about the purported merger, Brugmann is vexed to apoplexy about the prospect of investment bankers like Goldman Sachs sitting in as minority shareholders in a new publishing group. I can't vouch for them personally, but I expect those boys at Goldman can't be any worse than an adviser who's coking up underage hookers. (I could be wrong about that.)

And if I am mistaken, Brugmann's memo from last May makes clear that the new publishing group would be run by Jim Larkin, David Schneiderman, and myself.

Whatever New Times does, it is no threat to Bruce Brugmann. The world is a more compelling place with B3PO publishing his version of reality. We want readers to have a choice. When we came to San Francisco, he bragged that it would be our Afghanistan. Well . . . it is a battleground, and that's how we like it.

One more thing I can tell you for certain. If such a merger was to come to pass, a lot of foolishness would be written about it. You can tell that just from the amount of foolishness that's already been written.

Scatter-mouths are already comparing such a merger to the end of days.

"It's the Gannettization of the alternative press," said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. Chester said this to the media columnist for the Boston Phoenix, one of the first altweeklies to acquire several publications, radio stations, and other holdings while, apparently, shedding its sense of irony along the way.

"[It's] not surprising," continued Chester, "given that advertising is the business model."

Chester's got us there. I don't know what trust fund cuts his checks, but advertising pays our bills and the bills of every single alternative newspaper. It also pays New Times writers a living wage and covers the cost of eyeglasses our kids need, medical coverage for domestic partners, paid vacations . . . well, you get the idea.

As for the Gannett comparison, my hometown has a Gannett paper. It reads better than the Bay Guardian.

But other than that, I think critics who compare us with Gannett offer the bitter rant of folks who have memorized speeches from Air America without ever actually reading our newspapers. The presumption is that growth and success -- particularly financial success -- are evil. The reality is that more than half the papers in AAN are part of a larger organization, and these groups generally have more journalism resources than the stand-alones.

At New Times, our writers have a virtual blank check to explore the issues in their communities without the burden of a political agenda (mine or their editor's). As a result, our reporters break stories that later rip through the mainstream media.

The disgrace of the serial rapes at the Air Force Academy in Colorado first saw the light of day in our Denver paper. In Cleveland, we recently published grand jury documents that the daily sat on. In Phoenix, our writers broke the polygamy scandal in the Mormon sect on the Utah/Arizona border, as well as the stories about poor people submitting to unnecessary surgery so that doctors and patients both -- but particularly the doctors -- could swindle insurance companies. You've read about all these stories in national dailies. Bob Norman, one of our writers in Fort Lauderdale, was recently selected as the best in the country by the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.

We have also pursued law enforcement records through the courts in Phoenix, not for weeks or months, but for years. We have successfully pursued the right to parody the establishment all the way to the Texas Supreme Court. And our writers have pursued their stories to Sakhalin Island, Mexico, Haiti, and Cuba.

Don't confuse our growth with our jones for journalism. I got in this business in 1970 to raise a little hell. I try to stay at it by writing myself, and it usually isn't a tedious screed like this.

Jane Levine, a former publisher of the altweekly Chicago Reader, told the Boston Phoenix media columnist her opinion of New Times: "I think they're committed to uncovering wrongdoing. It is generally accepted that they don't have a political position. But I think it's pretty clear that they're bulldogs about uncovering corporate or government malfeasance. That's alternative. I don't know whether it's Republican or Democrat."

That sounds mostly correct. We here at New Times don't forgive anyone his trespasses. We like to compete. We bring our lunch bucket and our shot glass. We expect our colleagues to do the same. We hope that folks will have a mess of fun on the way.

That's not Gannett; that's New Times.

And just supposing the rumors were true. What would that mean for the Village Voice? The New York publication is a newspaper that in recent times survived owners like Rupert Murdoch, Leonard Stern, and, for the past several years, Wall Street. If David Schneiderman were to team up with a couple of Irish guys, I've got to think it's a step in the right direction. Or, at least, it is not the end of Western civilization.

But I could be wrong about that, too.

Contact Michael Lacey at michael.lacey@newtimes.com

About The Author

Michael Lacey

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