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 Scene as 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 soupçon 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, ä 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 Times was 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.)

Is a paper that has it in for liberals in one of America’s most liberal cities doomed to fail? Not if it finds its niche. The Daily News, with a political orientation certainly closer to that of New Times than to the Weekly or that Tribune property downtown, seems to be muddling along reasonably well, but its readership is confined to the Valley and its politics are calibrated to aging, white Valley homeowners. As an alternative paper, however, New Times felt the need to be snarky and hip at the same time it tried to advance viewpoints that often originated with such center-right figures as GOP consultant Arnie Steinberg and Dick Riordan. It sought to bridge that gap with a massive dose — or a lethal overdose — of attitude.

So here comes Hizzoner Dick Riordan, who has now decided that the easiest way to get his viewpoints into a paper is to own one. Riordan’s forthcoming L.A. Examiner is going to attempt to meet the neocon weekly challenge by marketing itself only to L.A.’s wealthiest. It’s hard to see in what sense Riordan’s venture even qualifies as an alternative. It could be a forum for such voices as that of Riordan’s neighbor, Brentwood resident Debra Krishel, who recently told the L.A. City Council that Chief Bratton’s proposal not to respond to burglar alarms could expose countless women and children to the threat of rape and murder “in the luxury of their own homes.”

Is this what the government has in mind when it ponders the need for another alternative? But why does the government even want to enter the business of selective political diversity? Once the government assigns itself the duty of maintaining an ideological balance in one medium, which happens to have an established political identity, but in no others, it’s inviting all kinds of trouble for itself. It is very likely that this case originates with shamefully underutilized government antitrust attorneys looking at issues of dividing up markets, but their selective invocation of a public interest in ideological matters makes their investigation look far more political than they doubtless intend. By playing the battle-of-ideas card against a historically left-wing medium, they confirm the fears of those who think this is just one more instance of John Ashcroft’s and the administration’s ceaseless right-wing bias.

That’s not where the state attorney general’s and the district attorney’s offices are coming from, I know, but hell — the Weekly did endorse Lynn Schenk over A.G. Bill Lockyer in the ’98 Democratic primary, and we’ve given more good press to State Treasurer Phil Angelides than to Lockyer over the past couple of years (though we did enthusiastically endorse Lockyer for re-election last year). We endorsed Steve Cooley for D.A., too, but we’ve criticized him for his handling of Rampart and other matters.

Sounds silly, right? But making a case on selectively applied ideological criteria necessarily calls into question the political motivations of the elected officials to whom the attorneys working this case must answer. If, in their spare time, those attorneys can persuade the Federal Communications Commission to restore the fairness doctrine for TV and radio, and the Justice Department to curtail the number of media outlets a Murdoch can control in a single city, then their intervention on behalf of greater diversity among weekly newspapers could serve a healthy purpose. But if you can’t pull that off, guys, I’d stick to the dollars-and-cents part of the case. You’re making me and Thomas Jefferson nervous.

LA Weekly