Editor & Publisher Blogger Joins the Fray

Plus: Brugmann told student journos back in 1979, "You people are about the scum of the earth"

By Andy Van De Voorde

The Bay Guardian's predatory pricing lawsuit against the SF Weekly is on hold today as the attorneys haggle over jury instructions with Superior Court Judge Marla J. Miller, a break which left your McAllister bureau chief time to continue his pastime of perusing what others have written about the case.

For the first time on Monday an outsider weighed in — though one wonders if Editor & Publisher correspondent Mark Fitzgerald can be called an impartial observer, given that his story openly admits he is a personal friend of Bruce Brugmann's and not long ago was seen hoisting shots with the Brute in a South American cantina.

In a short story posted today, Fitzgerald draws a broad outline of the case not by studying the evidence but by remarking upon the blogs that have been posted by the Snitch and his ponytailed counterpart, Guardian executive editor Tim Redmond.

Those writings, said Fitzgerald, "recall the great newspaper feuds of yesteryear."

The Snitch doesn't know whether to be flattered or depressed, especially given that Fitzgerald somehow came away with the notion that the puffy jacket Redmond wore onto the witness stand (but has since left at home) was in any way "fashionable."

Your humble correspondent wonders, too, whether the print titans of the past ever were so dainty that they had to ask courts to do to their competitors what couldn't be done in the marketplace.

The Snitch also wonders whether the newspaper publishers of old tried to bully young female journalists and well-meaning journalism professors.

But more on that in a minute.

It seems worth noting first that most of the "feuding" that's been done by the Guardian over the years has indeed been with other journalists, unlike Weekly parent company New Times (now Village Voice Media), which sets its sights on corrupt public officials who have the gall to put its owners in jail and threaten the First Amendment rights of its readers.

Brugmann, for instance, has never wanted to pay journalists a living wage, but was quite content to join other disgruntled types who sued the San Francisco dailies back in 1970 for allegedly trying to "monopolize" the local market. He took a $500,000 payoff to drop his part of the claim — lucky for him, because the court ultimately found in favor of the Chronicle and the Examiner.

Brugmann then proceeded to wage war with unions who hoped to get a piece of the pie.

The Guardian boss has also feuded with modern-day press titan Dean Singleton (while not revealing that he owes the Denver-based owner of various Bay Area dailies hundreds of thousands of dollars in overdue printing debt); railed against alleged conspiracies at the East Bay Press Club (all because it didn't give the Guardian a suitable number of awards one year); and even back in 1979 lashed out at student journalists at San Francisco State University who had the audacity to print an article quoting former Guardian employees as saying the paper lied about its circulation and readership numbers.

In that case, the 6-foot-5 Brugmann teed off on the two young women, Penny Parker and Caroline Young, who had written the article for feed/back, an SFSU-produced magazine that essentially served as California's official journalism review at the time.

In a sidebar printed alongside their multisourced story, which also quoted former Guardian workers as saying their checks sometimes bounced, the student journalists detailed the fury with which Brugmann met their inquiries.

Wrote Young and Parker, "Interviewing Brugmann can be a lesson in verbal warfare. And he approaches the battlefield well armed with personal and professional insults. In three conversations, his comments included:

'You people are about the scum of the earth.'

'You girls are really dense.'

'You've used every goddamn little jerky trick in the book to depreciate the Guardian.'"

The story also quoted a letter to the editor from Brugmann in which the enraged publisher "demanded that feed/back stop asking past and present Guardian employees about 'bounced checks' and other business matters."

Yes, there's nothing like demanding that journalists be prohibited from asking questions to qualify as an "institution in the industry," as Redmond glowingly said of Brugmann during his testimony.

Additionally, Parker and Young noted the following:

"Brugmann said feed/back had 'impugned the Guardian's financial capability and its business integrity,' and that this magazine was acting, 'in the feed/back tradition of helping the Ex/Chron/ITU/Guild prosecute the nine-month [1976-77] strike and ongoing 39-month boycott at the Guardian.'"

The Snitch is shocked.

Does this mean the great Iowa populist and defender of the working class has a history of feuding not only with journalists but with union organizers?

And that, as far back as 1979, fully 16 years before New Times even bought the Weekly, Brugmann was claiming that yet another publication — in addition to the dailies, that is — had "impugned his financial capability" and should be punished for it?

Absolutely.

"He wanted our heads," recalls Penny Parker, who now works as a columnist for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and was happy to speak with the Snitch.

"During the interview, we were terrified," she recalls. "He was a big guy, very imposing. Every time we asked him something, he'd sort of spit it back in our faces."

According to Young and Parker’s article, Brugmann asked them a series of questions intended to illustrate his belief that their own questions were inappropriate. Among Brugmann’s queries:

“Do you sleep with your teachers from San Francisco State?”

“Are you a Communist?”

“Do you hold orgies at your house?”

“Do you hate your parents?”

Parker remembers that she and Young had trouble getting their tape recorder to work, something Brugmann later cited as an example of their alleged incompetence.

And Brugmann didn't stop at the student journalists, says Parker. He also went ballistic with Len Sellers, the journalism professor who had okayed the piece.

"Bruce did his typical emotional sort of response," recalls Sellers, who retired from SFSU in 2002 to start his own tech company. Sellers adds that before homing in on him, Brugmann had "yelled and screamed" at Parker and Young, even calling the young women at home to vent.

Unlike Parker and Young, the teacher was prepared for the onslaught.

Sellers says he had already clashed with Brugmann over Sellers' belief that the Guardian was a "weak" publication: "We'd get in arguments over his reporting, and the fact that he didn't let the facts get in the way of a good story," he notes.

But there was nothing wrong with Young and Parker's piece, adds Sellers. Despite Brugmann's protestations, the university never had to run a correction or retraction.

However, says Sellers, Brugmann wouldn't let the matter drop, and retaliated with a lengthy story in the Guardian attacking Sellers and claiming that feed/back was pilfering state money.

"He literally accused us of stealing state funds," says Sellers.

So, says Sellers, he sued Brugmann for libel. The unexpected action infuriated Brugmann even further: "He said, 'How could a journalism professor sue someone for libel?'"

But Sellers said he had grown weary of the "double standard" by which the Guardian could wrongly question the integrity of student reporters but not put its own house in order.

After Brugmann's libel insurance ran out, recalls Sellers, the publisher had to spend another $10,000 of his own money to defend the case, at which point the professor dropped the suit.

"I did it deliberately to run his shaggy butt around the block," he says.

To this day, adds Sellers, he has little regard for the Guardian or its journalism.

And of course, the Snitch doesn't need to tell you who Brugmann has trained his sights on now: The Weekly, which finds itself targeted by a lawsuit that asks a state court not only to force the paper to pay Brugmann millions for allegedly pricing its ads below cost in an effort to "injure" him, but also to issue an injunction that would effectively establish government monitoring of the Weekly to ensure it doesn't ever sell an ad below cost again.

The requested injunction is a pernicious aspect of the Guardian's suit that only the Snitch has seen fit to remark upon (sadly, Fitzgerald didn't touch on it). But its inclusion as a fundamental part of the claim seems to sum up the inherently anticompetitive nature of Brugmann's action.

After all, "antitrust" claims are normally filed in an effort to protect consumers, which in the context of the newspaper industry would be local businesses who seek to buy advertising. But Brugmann's suit is the rare creature that seeks to line the pockets of a seller, not a buyer, in effect asking a jury to provide a hermetically sealed economic environment in which he can raise his rates without having to worry about competition from the Weekly.

Speaking of competition, the Snitch was sorry to see that Fitzgerald's generally balanced post uncritically quoted one of the Guardian's wackier claims: the notion that Weekly parent New Times flounders in markets where it faces "direct competition" from another alternative weekly.

This is a common refrain from the Guardian.

During the trial, the newspaper has repeatedly invoked the name of the trade group known as AAN (the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies) as part of an argument that only a licensed and sanctioned AAN paper can really compete against another AAN paper. The idea is to suggest that The Onion, the dailies, a multitude of Web sites, radio, cable-TV, direct mail, and dozens of other places a local business can choose to advertise simply aren't part of the "alt-Weekly market" and therefore couldn't possibly provide competition to a paper like the Guardian.

Therefore, only the Weekly should be held accountable for the Guardian's financial troubles.

Not surprisingly, the allegation was repeated by Redmond in a blog post late last week. In that article, Puffy asserted that, with the exception of Cleveland, there is "no other city in which a VVM paper faces direct competition from another alt-weekly."

Ahem.

In New York, the Village Voice competes against the New York Press, the New York Observer, and the New York Sun, not to mention dozens of other publications, both print and electronic.

In Los Angeles, VVM competes against LA City Beat, which (heaven forefend) happens to be part of another chain, and until recently also competed against the LA Alternative Press.

In the Long Beach area, both VVM's LA Weekly and its OC Weekly compete against a weekly started by the former publisher of OC Weekly.

In Seattle, VVM competes against The Stranger.

In Fort Lauderdale, VVM competes against an alt-weekly published by the daily Sun-Sentinel called City Link.

In Miami, VVM used to compete against an alt-weekly published by the Miami Herald. The Herald pulled the plug a couple of years ago.

In Phoenix, VVM competes against alts (sometimes called "faux weeklies," though not by the Snitch) that are published by the city's daily papers.

As with the papers in Ft. Lauderdale, Miami, and (coming soon!) Kansas City, they are a blatant attempt to swipe business from VVM.

VVM, it might be noted, has not run to court over the matter.

It also hasn't suggested that the government or any trade association be granted the authority to determine who qualifies as a "real" alternative weekly.

Instead, it continues to compete, even if that means sometimes losing money, as it has in San Francisco.

Of course, by the Guardian's logic, if you're losing money, that means you're "selling below cost," which is just another way of saying you're making it harder for Brugmann to jack the price up on local merchants.

Could it be the Weekly is "impugning the Guardian's financial capability"?

Or is the Snitch just "really dense"?


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