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Municipalizing Bruce 

Since Bruce Brugmann is so enamored of public ownership, maybe voters should take control of the Bay Guardian

Wednesday, Nov 13 2002
Now that voters have decided San Francisco's public-power ballot measure, Proposition D, it's time to examine another burning public-policy question: the compelling case for public ownership of the San Francisco Bay Guardian.

Yes, the Guardian. Though it's surprising to many, the Guardian -- the newspaper that campaigned for public control of PG&E -- is a private company. Of course, we know the Guardian from its hip, black street-distribution boxes found on public sidewalks, and from sections of it (and sometimes whole copies) found on public transportation (e.g., Muni), and for its longtime support of public housing, public health, and public transit. The Guardian's pages promote the public sector, and detail government proceedings and intrigue with such passion that many assume the paper's already a publicly owned enterprise, like PBS or the Congressional Record.

But it's private. According to the Guardian's own statement of ownership, published on Page 108 of its Oct. 23 edition, the paper is not only that, it's a corporation. You know, like Bechtel. In fact, in an interview a few years ago, Guardian Editor and Publisher Bruce B. Brugmann casually disclosed that his associate publisher, Jean Dibble, holds a Harvard M.B.A. That's the same degree that President George W. Bush has. Make no mistake -- the Guardian isn't just a virtuous newspaper that comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. It's a business.

But, as I see it, the Guardian is a business too good to be left in private hands. Sometimes I marvel at the Guardian's acres of breathless political coverage, which doesn't stop even when the last vote, or ballot-box lid, is counted. Where else can you learn that there are 11 (or maybe it's 13) members of the Board of Supervisors, and that the fate of civilization depends on them?

Besides, there's so much other stuff inside the paper. Like the sex ads, which, in their own way, comfort the afflicted. And here's where to find listings for improvisational performance art (other than on the 19 Polk), politically correct tobacco ads, and, just maybe, that impossibly hip and progressive seafood restaurant that serves the braised ahi ... with tattoos and pierced fins.

Clearly, the Guardian is a public resource that deserves public ownership. The benefits that would accrue if the paper were publicly owned are obvious. Just as the net cost of electricity is lower to consumers when the public owns a utility, the net cost of the Guardian could be lower if the public owned or controlled it. Of course, it's hard for us to see, under the pervasive capitalist worldview we all live with, how the cost of the Guardian could be lower if it's already given away for free. In that case, the Guardian would pay us to read it -- an idea, by the way, that's occurred to the staff of SF Weekly before.

Then again, there's a sense that the Guardian, as an institution, should be preserved whatever the cost, and there's no better way than public ownership to make sure that it survives. In fact, given the sluggish economy, and the staggering drop in ad revenues for many publications, public ownership may be necessary one of these days, to keep newspapers afloat. What if the Guardian failed, or went bankrupt like PG&E? Well, that wouldn't be pretty. But it doesn't take a Marxist (although it's always easier when you are one) to suggest that the common good should always come first. As both Marx and Lenin understood -- though not at the same time -- when the public (or government) owns and runs a business, nobody ever gives a damn whether it's making money or not. The only important thing is that it's still there. For example, the Old U.S. Mint on Fifth Street in San Francisco hasn't made a nickel in more than 60 years, but it's still there. As with most things in life, cost shouldn't be the main issue. Who really cares if the electricity that comes out of the wall is 20 percent cheaper, or municipally owned, or not? The vibrator is still going to need batteries.

So, let's hurry up and prepare a ballot proposition, BG, for next year, that would establish a Municipal Editorial District (MED) to seize, own, and control the Guardian and wrest the power from the hands of a few, and place it in the hands of the many. Or even better, in all of our hands. No longer will decisions be made in hierarchical, patriarchal, and editoriarchical structures, but by dedicated councils of public-spirited, grammatically minded, free-range civil servants who make publishing decisions based on the commonweal, not on just what Bruce likes.

After all, isn't political coverage as important as electricity? (I think Gray Davis said that.)

About The Author

Len Albin


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