SF Weekly: Bay Guardian Lawsuit Could Endanger Kids

by Randy Shaw on March 31, 2008

In case anyone wondered how the SF Weekly really felt about losing a $15.6 million judgment to the San Francisco Bay Guardian, check out Matt Smith’s current column. Titled, “Let the Sun Shine, You Hypocrites,” Smith argues that an alliance between Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi and a “left-wing political pamphlet” known as the Bay Guardian is attacking “public access to information” and nothing less than journalism itself. Smith even describes conservative Colorado billionaire and SF Examiner owner Philip Anschutz as a “civic hero,” whose simple plan to do good deeds has been put at risk by the Guardian-Mirkarimi cabal. Smith’s conclusion, in which he suggests the Guardian’s lawsuit could prevent the type of investigative journalism that has saved Alameda County children from brain damage, shows that the jury’s verdict against the SF Weekly has instilled a deep sense of grievance and self-righteousness among its staff.

Attracted to the current SF Weekly by a cover story on AIMCO’s questionable labor practices in Bayview-Hunters Point, I came across Matt Smith’s remarkable piece. Rarely can one find the longtime editorial philosophy of Village Voice Media (owner of the SF Weekly) embodied by a single column, but Smith has accomplished this.

Smith’s villains, those attacking the public’s right to know and investigative journalism itself, are a progressive elected official and a progressive alternative weekly. The heroes fighting for the public interest are a right-wing conservative billionaire and a corporate-owned chain of weekly newspapers.

In case you are wondering, Smith believes that it is the Republican billionaire that has “elevated San Francisco public life,” while the greatest sin of the San Francisco Weekly is spending too much money on investigative journalism.

Smith is angry at Mirkarimi because of legislation recently introduced that Smith believes is designed to “harm the business prospects” of one of the Bay Guardian’s competitors, the San Francisco Examiner. Mirkarimi’s legislation targeted free newspapers left on people’s doorsteps that become a source of litter, which Smith sees as a nefarious plot “aimed squarely at the business plan of the Examiner.”

Some may wonder where Smith got the idea that the Examiner and Bay Guardian are competing for ads. But that factual problem did not deter the intrepid columnist, who argues that the Bay Guardian, which he describes as “Mirkarimi’s longtime patron,” will presumably benefit from the anti-litter measure.

It appears that Mirkarimi was dragged into Smith’s anti-Guardian diatribe so that it would appear that the forces attacking a free press were aimed not simply at the SF Weekly, but also at the Examiner. But Smith gives away his true agenda when he states that the Bay Guardian’s jury verdict and injunction request against the SF Weekly “could have the intended effect of forcing SF Weekly to fire reporters like me.”

But here’s the worst, and something that Bruce Brugmann, Tim Redmond, Steve Jones and the rest of the Guardian crowd should really be concerned about. According to Smith, the business practices the Guardian’s lawsuit seeks to terminate resulted in critical investigative stories that benefited the public health. Among these was a story on inappropriate dumping by the San Francisco Giants of toxic waste at the Altamont landfill.

Smith concludes that “if, two decades from now, Alameda County children are not brain-damaged by lead exposure, nobody will wonder why. If there are no unusual clusters of cancer of the skin, lungs, urinary tract, bladder, and kidneys of the types typically caused by arsenic, it’s doubtful anyone will pause to reflect on the stadium’s worth of toxic dirt that filled a convoy bound for a safer repository in 1999.”

In other words, by filing a lawsuit that will prevent the SF Weekly from funding investigative journalism, the Bay Guardian has put children’s’ health at risk. By what Smith describes as the Guardian’s “perverse ideas of social justice,” the Bay Area will be deprived of a wide range of investigative pieces that have “elevated” its public life.

The bitterness in the Village Voice media camp is palpable. And while many thought that a defeat would put the Guardian out of business while the SF Weekly was protected by the deep pockets of its corporate parent, Smith’s article implies that the court’s issuance of an injunction against his company’s ad sale practices could cause a real shakeup in his shop.

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