Monday, January 27, 2003

The politics of media antitrust enforcement. The Justice Department's decision to end its antitrust probe of the alt-weekly chains Village Voice Media and New Times Media -- and to settle on the cheap -- raises some troubling questions.

On the one hand, the deal that the two chains reached last fall would appear to be classic collusion. Each agreed to shut down a weekly paper rather than continue to compete. New Times closed New Times LA, a market long dominated by the Voice-owned LA Weekly. In Cleveland, Voice Media stopped publishing its Cleveland Free Times, ceding the market to New Times's Cleveland Scene. Moreover, Voice Media paid New Times a reported $8 million for its LA disappearing act; New Times, in return, paid a much smaller sum to Voice Media for the Cleveland deal.

On the other hand, you've got to wonder what the motivation was for John Ashcroft's Justice Department to get involved. As Richard Karpel, executive director of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, told the NY Times' David Carr, it is indeed "odd that the government decided it must prevent two small newspapers from closing after it stood on the sidelines for years as the AOL Time Warners of the world swallowed entire industries."

I'm not about to start criticizing any effort by regulators to do something, at long last, about media consolidation. But as Tim Rutten reported in Saturday's Los Angeles Times, there are reasons to believe that Justice's unprecedented quick action had as much to do with politics as it did with the economics of antitrust law. The LA Weekly's respected political analyst, Harold Meyerson, reports the details in a column this week.

The key passage in Meyerson's piece is his assertion that "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." This is, as Meyerson observes, a breathtakingly broad view of antitrust law." Both the late New Times LA and the LA Weekly are free papers; the law is intended not to protect political viewpoints but, rather, advertisers, who would presumably be hurt by the monopolization of the alt-weekly market in a given community.

If that sounds crass, consider the absurdity of requiring publishers to keep putting out free papers, against their will, in order to protect a certain political viewpoint. Yet the Justice Department may have come perilously close to doing just that, particularly in LA, one of the nation's leading media capitals. Surely it's no coincidence that New Times took a neoconservative stance, and that the LA Weekly is a left-leaning paper. And surely it's no coincidence that -- as Carr reports -- Voice Media, as a result of the settlement with Justice, had to agree to help former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan launch a new conservative weekly in Los Angeles later this year.

By the way, what's the deal with Meyerson? It's 5:45 a.m. on the West Coast as I write this, so I'm not going to call him up. But has his incredibly shrinking job with the American Prospect shrunk still further? Meyerson was hired away from LA in June 2001 in order to become the executive editor of the Prospect. Rutten's LA Times piece describes him as the "executive editor" of the LA Weekly, the job he held before moving to Washington. But the Weekly's online masthead describes Meyerson as the paper's "political editor," a position he could presumably hold while continuing to work at the Prospect. And the Prospect's Meyerson bio calls him the magazine's "editor-at-large," the position he assumed last year because (a) it was just an incredibly wonderful opportunity or (b) he had clashed one too many times with co-editor Robert Kuttner.

Inquiring minds want to know: did Rutten make a mistake, or has Meyerson packed up his bags and moved back to LA?

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