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Monday, March 3, 2008

The Brute Fires Back

Posted By on Mon, Mar 3, 2008 at 5:27 PM

Plus: The Chronicle Awakens!

By Andy Van De Voorde

It was a long weekend down at the courthouse bureau, where The Snitch whiled away the hours playing Nerf basketball, reading the papers and generally trying to kill time as he awaited a verdict in the Bay Guardian’s predatory pricing lawsuit against the SF Weekly.

The hours move slowly when contemplating the fact that you’ve been sued under a Depression-era “below cost pricing” law that requires a remarkably low burden of proof from plaintiffs—and the fact that in this case the plaintiff did everything but cry on the stand in an attempt to play the hometown victim for a jury whose members had admitted in large numbers pre-trial that they didn’t much like “big media.”

(That verdict still hasn’t come, by the way—the jury opted to knock off at 1:30 p.m. Monday without rendering a decision.)

The tedium was broken, though, when your faithful correspondent saw that the San Francisco Chronicle had finally deigned to weigh in on the case.

Chronicle reporter Meredith May dutifully acknowledged that she was a former Guardian writer.

But her Saturday piece was a balanced look at the dispute.

The Snitch particularly enjoyed being referred to as “hit man” while his pony-tailed nemesis at the Guardian, Tim Redmond, now apparently is stuck for life with the moniker “Puffy.”

Regardless of the eventual verdict, it would appear that, in one small way, justice has been served.

There were a handful of slight misfires in May’s piece that deserve comment, however.

It’s worth pointing out, for instance, that while the Chronicle said the Weekly has five staff writers and the Guardian three, the correct number for the Weekly is six including news columnist Matt Smith.

Yes, that means the Weekly has twice as many writers as the Guardian even though the Guardian is more profitable and has a larger circulation.

Though The Snitch doesn’t have access to Guardian pay stubs, he’s betting the average salary is a few clicks higher over at the Weekly as well.

All of this, by the way, is not just a mathematical exercise or flaming self-aggrandizement: Staffing differentials were actually a key point in the trial.

The Guardian accused the Weekly of not “living within its means” in part because it employed more writers and editors than penny-pinching Guardian boss Bruce Brugmann was willing to put on the payroll.

Guardian attorneys even suggested that hiring more journalists than your competitor despite the fact you are losing money is a de facto attempt to “injure” the other party by putting out a better paper.

And though the Chronicle described both the Weekly and Guardian staffs as “small” (true enough by daily standards), it’s important to know that, by comparison to most alternative weeklies in this country, a paper with six full-time staff writers (not to mention two full-time calendar editors, a copy editor, a music editor, a Web editor, an art director and a 24/7 Snitch) is a veritable cavalcade of salaried talent.

The Chronicle story was also notable for the quotes from Brugmann and Puffy, both of whom leaped at the opportunity to recycle familiar political diatribes.

“This is a case about whether independent, locally owned media can survive in an era of newspaper consolidation when Dean Singleton owns every paper from Vallejo south to Santa Cruz,” Redmond told May.

It is the common Guardian position: We are not attempting a venal dash for cash, we’re serving as the point of the spear in a noble crusade.

And interesting that Redmond would bring up Singleton, the Denver-based media mogul to whom the Guardian owes hundreds of thousands of dollars in printing debt yet continues to bash in its pages without owning up to that inconvenient truth.

Also: Isn’t it funny that a paper that swore up and down during the trial that daily papers are irrelevant to its financial condition specifically cites them when asked to encapsulate the meaning of this six-week legal action?

Does The Snitch detect a familiar whiff of…hypocrisy?

Like his loyal lieutenant, Brugmann used all the appropriate Guardian buzz words when speaking to the daily reporter.

“There is nothing more essential to the health and welfare of a community than a strong, locally owned independent alternative newspaper,” The Brute told May.


Would your Snitch be out of line if he humbly suggested that a well-staffed police and fire department, decent hospitals and perhaps even an operable sewer system might be slightly more important to the “health and welfare” of your average American city than a tilted tabloid known mostly for bullying its opponents and waging jihad against the local electric company?

Your correspondent also wishes to note that, despite the Guardian’s rhetoric about being a “family owned” paper, it has outside investors just like most newspapers, and not all of them (gasp!) even live in San Francisco.

Those minority shareholders include heirs and heiresses to dynasties such as the Matson shipping fortune.

At least one, according to deposition testimony, has the gall to live in Arizona, the same presumed hell-on-earth where Weekly parent company Village Voice Media (formerly New Times) makes its home.

The Snitch also notices that while Puffy was given space to pontificate in May’s article, your mild-mannered scribe was not contacted for comment. (Although VVM executive editor Mike Lacey and Weekly editor Tom Walsh were contacted and declined comment.)

Being left out of the limelight didn’t bother the shy Snitch, whose quiet ways are a natural result of being raised from birth in the federal witness protection program.

By the Guardian’s standards, however, not being contacted for comment is an outrage.

Your Superior Court reporter refers, of course, to the other big story to emerge over the weekend: Puffy’s long-awaited hit piece on the “hit man.”

It all started last week, when Redmond grew indignant at not having been contacted for comment before The Snitch ran a story noting that, in 1979, a pair of student journalists had the audacity to print a story quoting former Guardian employees as saying the paper lied to advertisers about its circulation and artificially inflated its readership.

Puffy demanded that The Snitch provide him with a quote for a story he intended to write about the fact that The Snitch had written a story.

If your head is spinning, rest assured that The Snitch’s was as well.

Brugmann got into the fray last week as well, confronting your faithful correspondent at the courthouse to demand an explanation.

During that encounter, The Brute wagged his finger at The Snitch and threatened that a story was coming.

It would be “very embarrassing,” assured Brugmann.

He got that right.

Sure, Redmond’s article threw down on The Snitch for not living up to “journalistic standards.”

That much was expected.

But Puffy also took the opportunity to hurl a few more insults at the San Francisco State University students who penned the piece in the magazine feed/back.

That made The Snitch sit up and take notice.

Redmond’s piece referred to Caroline Young and Penny Parker as “inexperienced rookies” (as compared to the grizzled and seasoned Tim Redmond of 1979, one assumes) who had conducted what felt to Brugmann like a “McCarthyite witch hunt.”

Redmond’s article did not acknowledge that those “rookies” had found sources willing to go on the record about the Guardian’s allegedly dubious business practices, instead claiming that the students themselves were the ones who “told Bruce he was cheating his advertisers.”

Nor was Redmond interested in being specific about the language Brugmann used with the young reporters when he asked them what Redmond politely termed “rhetorical ‘do-you-still-beat-your-wife?’ questions.”

But Brugmann didn’t ask the female students if they still beat their wives.

He asked them whether they slept with their teachers at SFSU or held orgies at their houses.

Young and Parker were up front from the beginning about the fact that Brugmann’s salty language was a rhetorical device, intended to demonstrate that their questions about his business dealings were the journalistic equivalent of a smear campaign.

Still: Sex with teachers?


The Snitch still hasn’t gotten his mind around that one.

But he does find it borderline remarkable that, even when attempting to blast a lowly blogger and a pair of (then) college kids, Redmond managed to bring the discussion back around to the Guardian’s familiar litany of well-worn conspiracy theories.

It’s true that, after Young and Parker’s story, the Guardian wrote articles suggesting improprieties at feed/back, Redmond acknowledged.

But the magazine at SFSU was not targeted because it was critical of the Guardian.

It was attacked instead, Puffy said, because of the fact that it was staffed by former and current employees of the city’s daily papers, who allegedly were doing the Chronicle’s and the Examiner’s bidding.

Not only that, wrote Redmond in a lengthy “six-month investigation” published in the early 1980s, but those same journalists were “boring white men.”

And there’s nothing the Guardian detests more than boring white men—which raises the question of whether Brugmann and Redmond have looked in the mirror recently.

There was also this from Redmond’s 1983 investigation: Chevron and PG&E had donated funds to a non-profit foundation set up to help fund the college journalism review.

Yes, that PG&E.

Now the dots begin to connect themselves.

It wasn’t just that feed/back had the gall to ask hard questions about the Guardian.

It was that feed/back was in on one of the many multi-level conspiracies the Guardian has railed against for years.

And not only the daily newspapers and PG&E were involved this time.

The unions had a piece of the action as well.

In fact, Brugmann alleged in a letter to the editor back in 1979 that the Young and Parker’s story was “acting in the feed/back tradition of helping the Ex/Chron/ITU/Guild.”

The reference was to a nine-month strike against the Guardian that took place in 1976 and 1977 after Brugmann had resisted union organizing efforts.

The dailies. PG&E. Chevron. Unionized journalists.

All out to get the Guardian.

Either way, in his recent blog post, Redmond was aghast that The Snitch had written that Len Sellers, a journalism professor who retired from SFSU in 2002, wound up suing the Guardian for libel as a result of the articles Puffy wrote back in the 1980s.

Seller had told your McAllister Street bureau chief that he got some small pleasure from running Brugmann’s “shaggy butt around the block.”

Is a desire to run someone’s butt around the block reason enough to file a lawsuit? Redmond demanded to know.

Given everything that has happened down at Superior Court over the past six weeks—such as the fact that the Guardian produced no direct evidence of an illegal pricing scheme, but spent days plying the jury with generic anti-big-media rhetoric--The Snitch pauses here to let the irony sink in.

Sellers also enraged Puffy by telling your correspondent that he sued because the Guardian had literally accused the magazine of stealing state money.

Redmond went to great length to deny that.

The Snitch does not intend to insert himself into the dispute, which at this point is a quarter-century old.

But he would refer his readers to a snippet from Redmond’s 1983 article:

“Although feed/back is published from the offices of a public institution supported by California taxpayers, it functions in effect as an outlet serving the interests of one private corporation—the San Francisco Newspaper Agency.”

Might reasonable people disagree about whether such a statement could be perceived as damaging the reputation of a well-respected journalist?

Either way, Redmond’s state of high dudgeon at seeing the Guardian’s moral purity called into question is nothing new for the publication.

The Guardian has a long history of sliming its opponents and then expressing shock and disbelief if they dare to fight back.

This is why Brugmann can conduct a nationwide spam email campaign against your faithful courthouse correspondent while at the same time lecturing him about journalistic ethics.

That certainly was the position The Brute took last week when he encountered The Snitch in the courthouse hallway and, like Redmond, bleated about the fact he had not been asked to comment on the SFSU story.

It’s not the first time Brugmann has cried foul against New Times.

In fact, excerpts from his deposition testimony provide a veritable primer on his decades-long dislike of the company.

When The Brute was deposed, he was asked by Weekly attorneys about his long habit of sending unwanted emails (and before that, mailing unwanted packages) to New Times employees around the country.

This from a man who has claimed in court that the Weekly is obsessed with him, not the other way around.

“Is part of your motivation in sending these emails and letters to irritate people at New Times?” asked Weekly attorney Ivo Labar.

“No, I’d just like to find a conscientious person there,” Brugmann replied.

(The Brute’s comment about his rival’s lack of conscience is reminiscent of Puffy’s trial testimony that the Weekly has no “soul” because it is owned by a chain.)

“You don’t think there are any conscientious people at the New Times?” Labar continued.

“No. I’m always looking for one.”

“Have you found one yet?”

“It’s hard when they attack you as they have through the years and they refuse to run your replies.”

“And that annoys you?”


“And you want to get revenge on them, right?”

“No, no, I just want to be able to get our side of the story out as appropriate.”

Even today, it would appear, Brugmann is just trying to “get his side of the story out.”

It wouldn’t appear a difficult task for a man who owns his own newspaper.

But The Brute’s search for “one conscientious person” within New Times isn’t the only excerpt from his testimony that sheds light on the “ethical” journalist’s longtime animosity for the company.

Take, for instance, his acknowledgement that the Guardian once distributed bumper-stickers that said, “Corporate Weeklies Suck.”

Now there’s some journalistic standards for you!

The Brute also had this to say to Labar:

“[New Times] operates in many ways very unethically and they operate in a way that shows they’re out of towners from Phoenix, not community minded in San Francisco, etcetera, etcetera.”

Those “etceteras,” by the way, were not added by The Snitch, but came from Brugmann himself.

Might they be an indication that even The Brute realizes his constant anti-New Times tongue-wagging grows tiresome?

The many charitable causes the Weekly has embraced over the past thirteen years—not to mention the hundreds of San Franciscans it has employed and provided with health benefits--apparently didn’t register on Brugmann’s radar screen.

But its lack of a predictable political slant sure did.

“The thrust of the paper is quite conservative or neoconish,” Brugmann claimed under oath. “They don’t do editorials, they don’t do endorsements, they don’t fit the normal way that San Francisco publications operate.”

Putting aside the ridiculous “neocon” slur, it would appear Brugmann’s real beef is that the Weekly isn’t a “normal” publication.

To that, The Snitch assures you, the Weekly pleads guilty, especially if “normal” is going to be defined by a journalistic jock-sniffer like Brugmann who has always had a strange fascination with daily reporters despite his constant carping about them.

Even during this trial, for instance, The Brute took time to engage The Snitch in a brief conversation about his own daily background (Brugmann worked briefly at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, a paper he fondly remembers as a talent factory that would put The New York Times to shame).

“Andy, have you ever worked at a daily?” inquired Brugmann.

This was back when the 6-foot-5 bully was in probing mode, trying to decide whether he could co-opt your correspondent with kindness. Puffy, too, was oddly ingratiating in the early days of the trial, inquiring about The Snitch’s travel habits and general welfare.

No, he had not worked at a daily, replied the Snitch.

Well, if you work at a daily, advised Brugmann, covering trials isn’t easy.

You have to file your stories on tight deadlines.

And there might even be more than one trial going on in the courthouse, which means a beat reporter is always under pressure.


“What’s your point?” asked The Snitch, who wondered if Brugmann was trying to put a hex on him before he filed his daily blog post.

“My point is that it’s not easy,” grumbled The Brute, who then turned away, perhaps chagrined that he had not been asked to share tales of his own daily exploits back during the Kennedy administration.

Yes, it’s not easy being a paragon of journalistic virtue. Among other indignities, smart-alecky bloggers you could crush with one swipe of your brawny paw don’t give you the respect you deserve. And after The Snitch’s recent blog posts, he assumes it’s only a matter of time before The Brute and Puffy have another question for him:

“Is The Snitch now, or has he ever been, a member of the Chronicle/Union/feed/back/Chevron/PG&E conspiracy?”

The Snitch respectfully declines to answer.

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