• U.S.

The Press: Raising Hell on the Bay

4 minute read

“It is a newspaper’s duty to print the news and raise hell,” said Wilbur F. Storey regarding the aims of the Chicago Times in 1861. Storey was talking in a day when newspapermen would not hesitate a minute to lambast the Establishment. Today’s large-circulation papers tend to be part of the Establishment. San Francisco’s Examiner and Chronicle, for instance, are so comfortably settled that the Bay City has become one of the worst-newspapered cities in America.

Which was one of the attractions for a Storey-style journalist named Bruce Brugmann, who arrived in California from Milwaukee in 1964. He worked for one small paper for a couple of years, then left, scraped together $35,000 and founded the San Francisco Bay Guardian.

As his motto, Brugmann adopted “We print the news and raise hell.” The result is subjective journalism, thoroughly checked for accuracy. “I have no patience with ‘objective’ reporting,” says Brugmann. “I aim my derringer at every reporter and tell him, ‘By God, I don’t want to see any objective pieces.’ This is point-of-view journalism. We don’t run a story until we feel we can prove it and make it stick.”

Chinese Weekly. One of the stories they went after concerned the municipal government itself. The Guardian charged that the city is losing some $30 million a year after having invested hundreds of millions in hydroelectric power in the Sierras, bringing it to within 35 miles of San Francisco, where it is turned over to the Pacific Gas and Electric Co. for distribution mostly outside the city. If the city distributed its own electricity, said the Guardian, the San Francisco users would benefit. PG&E complained that the problem was not that simple, since the city’s power is tied in with an entire gridwork of PG&E’s installations in northern California. Now a feasibility study on buying out PG&E’s San Francisco power system has been initiated, creating for Brugmann a generous amount of ill will from PG&E.

Brugmann’s next assault was aimed at “SuperChron”—the Examiner and Chronicle, which have merged their printing, circulation, business and advertising departments. When syndicated Washington Columnist Nicholas von Hoffman cited the merger as an example of monopoly, “SuperChron” refused to run his column. Brugmann tried to buy advertising space in both papers to run the Von Hoffman piece, but was refused. When he accused the Examiner and Chronicle of playing monopoly, an ad salesman retorted, “We’re not a monopoly. There are lots of places you can go to advertise. Why, you can go right across the street here and put it in the Shopping News. Or you can put it in the Chinese Weekly.” The Von Hoffman column ran in the Guardian.

Brugmann is now testing the Newspaper Preservation Act by suing the Examiner and Chronicle under the First Amendment for abridging freedom of the press.

Cracked Code. Gasping along on a low budget, the Guardian­officially a monthly­has made it to press only six times this year. It has fired away at such giant targets as U.S. Steel, the Ford Foundation, the Chase Manhattan Bank, and the San Francisco mayor­all accused of attempting to destroy the beauty of the city with high-rises. Despite its effrontery, the paper has never been sued for libel.

The Guardian’s policy of heavy muckraking does tend to make it predictable. But it does get results, as well as praise and rewards. Gratifying to the insolvent Guardian was a story cracking the codes used by supermarkets to indicate the freshness of food. That issue had hundreds of housewives writing in for extra copies. An expose on unrepresentative grand juries won the “Pulitzer of the West” from the San Francisco Press Club, as did a piece on the economics of hip culture. Another prize winner was an expose on the scramble for bodies from Viet Nam among San Francisco undertakers. Recently, though, the club reworked the entry rules for the “Pulitzer of the West” competition, effectively excluding the Guardian from entry. Brugmann claimed that the committee had too many Guardian victims on its board.

Brugmann became accustomed to opposition at the University of Nebraska, where he edited the college paper during the McCarthy era and was threatened with expulsion several times. After an M.S. in journalism at Columbia University, he joined the Army and was bureau chief for the Stars and Stripes in Korea. An apprenticeship at the Milwaukee Journal followed, then the eventual move to San Francisco, which he chose “because the newspapers were so bad.”

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