By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
ACCORDING TO A RECENT ENTRY in Tim Rutten’s ongoing Los Angeles Times coverage of the government’s apparently looming antitrust action against Village Voice Media (VVM) and New Times, the case is moving beyond economic questions and into areas that can only be called political. At issue is the deal that the two companies struck in October, in which New Times agreed to close down its money-losing L.A. paper in return for $8 million from VVM, and VVM agreed to close its Cleveland Free Times. The deal left the New Times’ Cleveland Sceneas the one remaining alternative weekly in that city, and VVM’s L.A. Weekly as the dominant alternative paper in Los Angeles.
Attorneys from the U.S. Department of Justice, the attorneys-general offices of California and Ohio, and D.A. Steve Cooley’s shop here in L.A. have been investigating the effect of the deal on the rates that the surviving papers charge their advertisers. But according to people close to the case to whom I’ve spoken, the government is concerned that the assisted suicide of New Times in Los Angeles reflects a narrowing of political perspectives in the city, and that it is the government’s responsibility to create more ideological space. Rutten quotes one unidentified witness who answered questions at last week’s depositions saying that the governments’ lawyers “seemed to be driven by their belief that unlike a mainstream daily newspaper, an alternative weekly is suffused throughout with a particular point of view.” (Now, there’s a contestable premise. Have the attorneys ever looked at The New York Post? The Washington Times? Or L.A.’s own Daily News? A hunt for ideologically driven or monomaniacal newspapers in America will turn up more dailies than weeklies.)
Nonetheless, buttressing their case with citations from Learned Hand and other judicial titans on the importance of the battle of ideas, the antitrusters apparently believe that weeklies are inherently slanted, and that the government’s mission is to create other slants by compelling the chains to help fund the start-up of another paper. “They seem to believe that losing an alternative paper is a greater hardship to the community in that [ideological] way than losing a mainstream daily,” says Rutten’s unidentified witness. “New Times had what I guess you’d call a neoconservative or populist viewpoint, and that’s just gone from the scene.”
Now, I’m not commenting here on the economic arguments that I understand to be central to the government’s case. Nor am I endorsing the wisdom and propriety of the October deal. The closing of a newspaper, no matter how crummy, is almost always a blow to its host city, to the breadth and richness of that city’s discourse, and by extension to the quality of its democratic process. It is not something that publishers should be abetting in a swap for greater market share.
But does the government really want to argue that it has the right and duty to declare the ideological spectrum covered by a city’s alternative weekly newspapers to be insufficiently broad, and to mandate its expansion? If so, welcome to the land of double standards and slippery slopes.
Problem is, in matters of political speech, it’s hard to view the government — any government — as a disinterested actor. If, with the goal of fostering democratic discourse, the government takes steps to ensure a vibrant ideological contest, the one thing it can’t do is to make that case selectively. And simply by focusing on alternative weeklies — and no other segment of American media — that’s exactly what it’s doing.
Some of you may have noticed, for instance, just a soupĂ§on of ideological tilt in the talk-radio market and its TV counterpart, the Fox News Channel. The airwaves over which the collected thoughts of Rush, O’Reilly and kindred fat-head thugs are beamed belong by law to the public, but the government has long since abolished its fairness doctrine and any other policies promoting a diversity of viewpoints on the air. Some of you may also have picked up on the government’s abolition or waiver of strictures against a media conglomerate’s dominating a local market. The Tribune Company can own the Times and a local TV station; Rupert Murdoch can own papers, a broadcast network, a cable network, and sundry individual stations (not that Murdoch properties are in the least bit political).
So when the government singles out alternative papers as the one inherently political medium on the American scene, suspicions are raised. I know that different laws govern the conduct of networks and newspapers. I also know that alternative newspapers are still in some sense a largely left-wing medium, in contradistinction to just about every other existing medium. By arguing that the weeklies are fundamentally political, and declining to make that argument about any other medium, the government attorneys, Ă¤ whether they mean to or not, are making a fundamentally political — specifically, anti-left — case.
Isn’t it possible, then, that one reason the New Times never made money in Los Angeles is that it was out of sync with L.A.’s politics — or, at least, the politics of the people who pick up alternative weeklies in this city? In the best tradition of the alternative press, New Timeswas an inveterate establishment basher, but its view of who was the establishment and who the outsider was classically neocon. In the world according to New Times, a beleaguered, largely white middle class was set upon by a slew of false messiahs claiming to represent the city’s nonwhite, downtrodden poor. Not that this doesn’t happen in L.A., but the majority of the city truly is nonwhite and poor, and some of the New Times’ purported demagogues were actually the people most responsible for helping that new majority, fighting for things like L.A.’s groundbreaking living-wage ordinance. (Jackie Goldberg, take a bow.)