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Burkle's battle to seal records ignored

This morning, two major articles (in the LA Times and Mercury News) came out scrutinizing Billy Dean Singleton, whose Media News company is expected to bid for Knight Ridder’s newspapers in the Bay Area. However, with the deadline to submit bids for the paper six days away, little attention has been paid to Ron Burkle (pictured), the billionaire supermarket magnate who is financing a union bid to buy the papers.

The only major story on Burkle was by the Chronicle last week, a generally positive piece by Carolyn Said that carried the headline “Newspapers may have an angel.” No mention was made of Burkle’s attempt to seal records in California divorce cases. He spent more than $100,000 in legal fees to fight the release of records in his own divorce and then he backed a bill (SB 1015) in the California Legislature that would seal similar records statewide, according to the San Diego Union Tribune. Late Tuesday, the bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Kevin Murray, D-Culver City, withdrew the legislation.

This morning, the Merc had a story about how interest among its employees is growing in a union buyout of the paper, and it contains one sentence about Burkle’s attempts to seal public records: “In addition, Burkle has had a contentious relationship with the media, particularly in recent years over his attempts to keep his divorce records secret.” No other information about his attempts to seal records was given. The article, by Chris O’Brien, did say that Burkle refused to be interviewed for the article, which might give readers an idea of what Burkle thinks about news gathering.

However, a web site for lawyers, law.com, has a story this morning about the Burkle bill. Terry Francke, general counsel of the open-records advocacy group Californians Aware, has also written a stinging letter that says, “SB 1015 in its February 16 amended version is needless because, after more than a century and a half of experience, no one but Mr. Ron Burkle has called for the secrecy proposed by this bill.” As the Press Club reported March 15, the California Newspaper Publishers Association issued a “Legislative Alert” to its member newspapers, asking them to write editorials opposing the Burkle bill.

The San Diego Union Tribune story also says: “Last year, [Burkle] had his employees buy stacks of copies of the Los Angeles Business Journal to keep people from reading an article about his divorce in the newspaper. His spokesman said he was trying to protect his child.”

The Newspaper Guild, in a March 17 FAQ about its bid for the KR papers, doesn’t mention Burkle’s attempt to seal divorce records. But the FAQ gives an answer to whether Burkle would attempt to influence news coverage by his newspapers: “[Chris] Mackin, the Guild’s consultant, replied that he has seen no evidence of Burkle’s interest in a playing a political role with newspapers. All discussions that have taken place with Burkle and Yucaipa have focused on newspapers as an investment opportunity. Yucaipa’s track record to date also would suggest its respect for allowing management — in this case publishers and editors — to do their jobs without interference.”

In a sense, most of the dailies in the Bay Area have a conflict of interest in reporting about Burkle. The Knight Ridder papers (Contra Costa Times, Merc, Palo Alto Daily News Group, Monterey Herald) may soon be owned by him. The ANG newspapers (Oakland Tribune, Marin Independent Journal, San Mateo County Times and others) are owned by Singleton, who is also bidding for the KR papers. And the Chronicle will have to compete with whomever wins the KR papers.

One paper without a conflict is the Bay Guardian, which has in today’s issue a six-sentence item about Burkle’s attempt to seal his divorce records, and the incident in which Burkle’s employees bought up copies of the LA Business Journal, but doesn’t mention SB 1015.

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