Chain Gangs

The Seattle Times says the alt-media merger will hurt democracy, but what about the damage it's done?

I suppose I should take it as a compliment that The Seattle Times has come to Seattle Weekly's defense in an Oct. 28 editorial that decried as "bad for democracy" the merger between the New Times chain and our owner, Village Voice Media. The new entity hasn't even published a paper yet, but the republic totters because the "feisty underdog" status of the alternative press is being jeopardized by success and profits.

That democracy's fate hinges on Seattle Weekly is a flattering thought, but the Times editorial is self-serving and hypocritical.

Seattle Times Publisher Frank Blethen has used his paper to promote causes that benefit his business. Repealing the so-called "death tax," otherwise known as the inheritance tax, is one crusade. Another is making the country safe for local newspaper ownership. Blethen has touted local ownership as some kind of democratic panacea—his family's gift to America—all the while fighting to kill off the Hearst-owned Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He has become virulently anti-chain. Yet 49.5 percent of his newspaper is owned by one of the nation's largest news chains, Knight Ridder, so his moral superiority hangs by a tiny thread indeed. Then there's the fact that the Seattle Times Co. itself is a chain. It owns two other daily newspapers in Washington and three in Maine, plus three weeklies.

We are also being lectured by a paper that fought hard to take over the local market by entering into a government-sanctioned monopoly with Hearst's Seattle Post-Intelligencer more than 20 years ago. The joint operating agreement (JOA) that Blethen is now so anxious to renegotiate or terminate allows newspapers to get around antitrust laws and work together to control and dominate their cities—in the name of preserving editorial diversity.

And Frank Blethen the monopolist has been a rapacious competitor. The JOA put Blethen and his Times in the driver's seat, controlling the business operations of both Seattle dailies. In the glory years of the 1980s and '90s, the Times was thuggish to competitors—meaning everyone other than the Times who printed words on paper in the greater Seattle market. They launched regional editions to try to kill off suburban papers, and in some cases (as in Issaquah) bought them. They jacked ad rates high; they sold hard against papers like the comparatively small Seattle Weekly. Every ad dollar in Seattle was presumed to be Blethen's, and the rest of us had to fight for the remaining pennies. So much for embracing editorial diversity.

The benevolence of friendly, family- oriented Frank Blethen is a legend in his own mind. There was never any evidence of it on the newspaper playing field. Remember his missive to Peter Horvitz, owner-publisher of the King County Journal, who dared to print the Times and P-I employee-run strike paper, the Seattle Union Record? "Fuck you to death," Blethen wished him kindly. The Times has been wishing for and working toward the Journal's demise for years. Horvitz's locally owned small chain, by the way, also prints Seattle Weekly.

Not only has Blethen been a two-fisted monopolist, he has also been a failed one. What does it say that with all the advantages of the JOA, with the side deals he made with the P-I's Hearst, with all the leverage, with all the hundreds of millions of dollars he extracted from the market, he's maneuvered his paper into, by his own account, a failing position? He is losing money year after year; circulation has long been flat and now is sliding (see Buzz, p. 11). If the JOA is a beast with two heads, Blethen's solution is to cut off his partner's. He wants out of the JOA deal, thus dooming the P-I. If he could, Frank Blethen would own the Seattle market at the cost of euthanizing the P-I newsroom.

And P-I employees have watched helplessly as it's happened. They were long prevented under terms of the JOA from having a Web presence. That and a bigger share of profits are what Hearst got in return for letting the Times switch from afternoon to morning publication in 2000. The P-I has seen its circulation plummet under the benevolent business management of a local partner.

There are many things that can keep a citizen awake at night.

The CIA is apparently running a gulag of secret prison facilities.

The FBI is gathering private records on American citizens and dumping them into government databases on a scale that few imagined.

A Bush crony has attempted to take over public broadcasting, and the administration has been caught creating false news reports for propaganda purposes.

The lines between church and state are being blurred, and the president is advocating the teaching of "intelligent design" in schools, equating a religious concept with science.

Our Legislature continues to try to thwart public disclosure of public documents.

Special-purpose, public-private partnerships are proliferating, replacing real governments with unaccountable designer governments.

Voters still are not assured that our votes will be completely and accurately counted in every election.

Billionaires continue to get favorable treatment, whether they are demanding streetcar lines (Paul Allen) or control of sports arenas (Howard Schultz) or getting sweetheart land deals at Seattle Center (Bill Gates).

And then there's the continuing threat of terrorism that has loomed since 9/11.

So who is the menace to democracy?

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