As a general rule, the Nose avoids the internal politics of the alternative newspaper biz like an STD. But when John Ashcroft decided he wanted to play publisher, as the Department of Justice announced last weekend, even the Nose perked up.

While many members of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies are run by in-town owners, increasingly they are joining chains. (Even the Nose's employer is technically part of a chain, as WW also owns a paper in Santa Fe.) This development has caused many late-night, tequila-fueled debates among those who toil for weekly tabloids. Does the loss of local control muzzle independent voices? Or does multiple ownership bring needed expertise and savings?

The Nose, frankly, never gave it too much thought. As long as his paycheck doesn't bounce, he doesn't concern himself with the industry that supports him.

Last fall, however, the two largest chains of "alt-weeklies," Village Voice Media and New Times Media, did
something that didn't quite pass the sniff test.

In October, New Times agreed to sell its Los Angeles paper to Village Voice, which owns the competing L.A. Weekly. The Voice immediately shut down its former competitor. Village Voice, in turn, sold its paper in Cleveland to New Times, which owns the competing Cleveland Scene. Suddenly, there was only one weekly paper in Cleveland.

Quicker than you can say "Section One of the Sherman Act," the U.S. Justice Department launched an investigation, saying the two companies had violated antitrust laws aimed at preventing media monopolies. According to the feds, "The Defendants' intense competition in these two markets yielded significant consumer benefits. In particular, the advertising competition in both cities brought advertisers lower advertising rates, more
promotional opportunities, and better service. The editorial competition between the Defendants' rival newsweeklies brought readers improved and varied coverage of important local events affecting
social, political, and cultural issues."

Early this week, the two chains caved and agreed to pay fines, open up their books and help to establish new competitors in Los Angeles and Cleveland. As New Times Executive Editor Michael Lacey put it, "The G-men wanted to nail a skin to the wall."

Now, the Nose isn't about to play lawyer and argue that Village Voice and New Times did or did not engage in classic collusion.

But even he is awake enough to realize that the Department of Justice's actions in this matter are highly out of character for
the characters in the current administration.

President George W. Bush, after all, is even more Reagan than Reagan when it comes to his affection for free markets and weak regulators.

His Department of Justice, for example, has been far less troubled by Microsoft's monopolistic hold on the market than Bill Clinton's G-men were.

Bush's Securities and Exchange Commission still thinks government has little or no role in regulating publicly held companies.

And, most notably, his Federal Communications Commission is widely expected to change the law so that newspapers can buy radio stations in the towns where they publish, which seems an odd way to promote "improved and varied coverage of important local events."

The Nose is the furthest thing from a conspiracy theorist, but he can't help but wonder if the case against New Times and Village Voice Media has to do with the fact that these publishers--particularly in The Village Voice-- are among the nation's biggest critics of the notoriously thin-skinned Bush administration. As The New York Times noted on Sunday, "The White House is, to be sure, protective, intolerant of public dissent." It's worth noting that last week's agreement gives Ashcroft veto power over who can buy the new Cleveland and L.A. papers.

Which makes the Nose kinda wonder: Is John Ashcroft really protecting the marketplace of ideas? Or just spanking those who get under his boss's skin?