Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A Lamentation on the Media--Part I


"The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people,
the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it
left to me to decide whether we should have a government without
newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should
not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."
--Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington, 1787.

I regret to inform you all that Mr. J is probably spinning in his grave about now. All is not well.

Jefferson’s notion, of course, was that a free and open press is absolutely essential in a democracy. If the press was not free, the people could have no idea what the government was doing for them or to them. With a free press, the people would know and would be able to fix the flaws, correct the mistakes, and--one hopes--elect people to office who would do the right things. The people could protect themselves from the government--the whole purpose of the American Revolution.

Mr. J was right and--despite all its flaws and abuses and ethical challenges--the free press in America has generally served the people well. In the modern time, two reporters for the Washington Post were able to actually bring down a president, the only presidential resignation in history. It was a free press that published the Pentagon Papers, stood up to government attack and won its freedom in the Supreme Court. It was the free press that described the morass of the Vietnam War and is doing the same in Iraq. It was a free press in the last few years that has told us about American troops misbehaving at a prison in Iraq, of high government officials lying about the reasons for a war-- and the horror and tragedy of the greatest attack on America since Pearl Harbor and the assault on the Constitution that ensued. It was the fury of television reporters in New Orleans that first descried the total failure of government in the face of the worst natural disaster in American history. Corrupt members of Congress have gone to jail because of a free press--an attorney general was fired because of a free press--the government was caught eavesdropping on American citizens without a warrant--and we know of people arrested and kept in jail without charges because of a free press. Jefferson--who was, by the way, a constant target of unscrupulous editors in his time--should be pleased, yes? No.

The American press no longer is as free as it once was--not because some despot has sent police into newsrooms, not because stories have to go through censorship, or reporters and editors have to be licensed. None of that has happened. The press is less free because of rampant capitalism.

I would like to make the argument that it is difficult if not impossible for a publicly traded company to do first class journalism. It can be done, but it requires either publishers with astonishing courage or at least a corporate structure that protects them from the pressures of Wall Street. Those publishers are now a seriously endangered species.

It is no accident that as long as 10 years ago, the four best newspapers in America were family owned or controlled. The Los Angeles Times was controlled by the Chandler family--the Washington Post by the Grahams--the New York Times by the Sulzbergers--and the Wall Street Journal by the Bancrofts. Then the LA Times was sold to the Tribune Co., and most recently, the Journal went to the News Corp. In the same time, the Sulzburgers are having to fight off pressure from investors. They want to alter the corporate structure so regular stock holders could have more of a say in running America’s premier newspaper, God forbid. The Grahams know they could be next.

In the same time, one of the country's best newspaper chains, Knight Ridder, for whom I once worked, no longer exists, the result of capitulation by the family that controlled it to pressures from outside investors. CNN, founded by Ted Turner and once a premier world-wide news source, is now owned by Time-Warner and devotes weeks covering celebrity trials and trying to compete with Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News, a useless task. CBS, once the “Tiffany Network,” the home of the sainted Edward R. Murrow and the legendary “Murrow’s Boys," was owned by Viacom, and was spun off two years ago, but its once premier news operation is a ghost of itself. At one time it was thinking of outsourcing it’s Iraq coverage to CNN. It spent about $15 million a year to hire Katy Couric, who has failed to bring in the viewers. The idea of spending that money on news coverage--say a few more reporters and producers or a bureau or two--never occurred to management. NBC is owned by the same people who probably made the light bulbs in this room and the people at ABC may get their paychecks with Mickey Mouse’s picture on it. Literally.

In the weeks preceding 9/11, American television networks were covering the murder of a Congressional intern in Washington. While hundreds of thousands of people were being murdered in Rwanda, the networks were covering the O.J. Simpson trial.

The U.S. is now in a war it might not have been in if the media had done its job properly. Some of the faults in the months before the invasion of Iraq had nothing to do with media ownership, but the structure they operate under surely contributed.

Going private

Let me add here, that family or private ownership of a newspaper is hardly a guarantee of quality journalism. Indeed, many of the worst newspapers in America were--and some still are--family-owned or owned by individuals who had more interest in power than in democracy. Before Knight Newspapers took over the Philadelphia Inquirer it was owned by Walter Annenberg. The paper was so corrupt its main investigative reporter went to jail for extortion. And there was William Randolph Hearst. While the most prestigious prize in journalism is named for Joseph Pulitzer, his newspapers were a scandal when he ran them. He invented "yellow journalism." While the LA Times reached greatness under Otis Chandler, through most of the history of that family’s ownership, the newspaper was a disgrace. There is Richard Mellon Scaife, an arch conservative--pun intended--whose Pittsburgh newspaper constantly printed stories accusing Bill and Hillary Clinton of murdering Vincent Foster. Then there is William Dean Singleton,who once famously said: "If I had the choice between pleasing 1,000 journalists or one banker, I would choose the banker. No question.” He has, repeatedly.

Yet there were families who took Jefferson’s challenge--and it turns out it was a challenge--seriously. There were the Abels in Baltimore, the Knights in Akron, the early generations of the Bancrofts in New York, the Binghams in Louisville, the Taylors in Boston, the Belos in Dallas. I grew up reading the Newark Evening News in New Jersey, one of America’s great regional newspapers, owned by the Scudder family. Nothing happened in northern New Jersey that was not covered by a News staff reporter or stringer: not a town council meeting, board of education meeting or high school basketball game. You were not dead unless you were pronounced so on their obituary pages. It also was the first job for some of America's best-known journalists, including Richard Reeves. The Scudders now work for Singleton. Now we have newspapers that don't even staff their state capitols. Virtually no television station does.

The networks were also personally run for most of their history. David Sarnoff created and ran the National Broadcasting Co., at least in part to sell radio and televisions sets, but he ran it independently. William Paley created CBS, and it was under Paley that CBS News became the greatest source of broadcast journalism in American history. And later, Leonard Goldenson ran ABC after it spun off from NBC. It was the old ABC that created "Nightline;" it was the Disney version that tried to kill it.

All three men, who ran both the radio and television networks, saw news not as a profit center but as a source of enormous prestige. While Murrow and his reports on CBS sometimes drove Paley crazy --especially when Murrow took on Joseph McCarthy--the eminence Murrow brought to CBS was immeasurable and had to contribute mightily to the bottom line. It was Murrow's radio broadcasts from London during the Blitz--Murrow with a microphone on rooftops as the bombs fell--that prepared America for entry into the war. It was Murrow's "CBS Reports" on television that first made America aware of the plight of migrant workers.

The network heads had the idea--supported in law by federal legislation--that the airwaves were owned by the public and that by broadcasting on the public airwaves, they owed the public a service. Running first class news operations were how they repaid that service. How quaint that must appear now. Their news operations were well-funded, sometimes to ridiculous lengths. Being a foreign correspondent for CBS in the 70s and 80s must have been a glorious way to go through life. Criticism that these enterprises were full of waste was undoubtedly correct. They were the ladies and gentlemen of the press and lived accordingly.

They also were experts on the areas they covered, often knew the language, read the newspapers, watched local television, knew everyone they needed to know, followed trends and could anticipate events, all the things you want great journalists to do. And many of them were great journalists. It is not clear that any of those operations actually lost money.

They covered the world. The networks had foreign bureaus or stringers in virtually every major city and on every populated continent.

The world disappears

Then things changed. In the mid-90s, some correspondents in Europe and the Middle East began hearing about an organization called Al Quiada and a man named Ossama Ben Laden. Most had trouble getting anyone in the U.S. to run their stories. Tom Fenton of CBS in London tells of having set up what would have been the first interview with Ben Laden in the mid 1990s, and getting no support from his producers in New York. He gave up. It wasn't an exciting story and--since the end of the Cold War--Americans, he was told, didn't care about foreign news.

Newspapers too covered the world, an old tradition going back to the 18th century. Not just the metropolitan giants like the two Times’ and the Post. Many of the regional newspapers also had reporters overseas. Many had superb coverage, including the Baltimore Sun, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Boston Globe. The Sun even owned a home in London for its resident correspondent and sent some of America’s most distinguished journalists overseas. It was the second American newspaper, after the New York Times, to staff Moscow. Their best reporters were rotated as a perk for being good, so the coverage was excellent. They did it because it seemed like their responsibility and it leant marketable prestige. Quaint huh?

Sometimes they also did it to serve the local readership. The number of Irish-Americans in Boston seemed to mandate that the Globe have a reporter in Dublin so they did. The large Jewish populations in the Northeast encouraged papers in New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore to staff Jerusalem. They did. The San Jose Mercury News, in the heart of Silicon Valley, staffed Tokyo, Mexico City, and because of the large number of Vietnamese in the area, even Ho Chi Minh City. All sent back stories of special interest to their readership.

The Philadelphia Inquirer--when it was in its glory days in the 70s--had bureaus in London, Jerusalem, Bangkok, Tokyo, Moscow and Rome. The bureaus were staffed by the Inquirer’s best reporters and we won two Pulitzers for foreign coverage. It also had bureaus in Atlanta, New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Los Angeles. If anything important or interesting happened anywhere in the world, a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter was there within a day. Readers in what was then America's fourth largest city had a team of first rate journalists reporting and writing especially for them. Today the Inquirer scarcely covers the Philadelphia suburbs. Might I add the circulation back when it covered the world was 30% higher than it is now?

That was then. The only newspapers with foreign bureaus now are the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times. All except the Journal are cutting back. The Journal has the largest contingent by far. The Globe--which ironically is owned by the New York Times--has closed all its foreign bureaus, even Dublin. The Mercury News and the Inquirer have done the same. The Sun has folded its foreign service. (As a digression, I would point out that the Sun’s reporter in Johannesburg was one of the few American reporters in all of Africa,. The readers in one of America's great port cities are the poorer, deprived of news that may be important to them, and one of the country's largest minority populations is further cut off from its heritage. And the Sun's circulation keeps shrinking and management wonders why).

I should add that one of the last remaining independent newspaper chains, McClatchy, operates an excellent foreign service but they are the exception to the rule. And sometimes, really bad family-owned newspapers can be turned around. The Newhouse's New Orleans Times-Picayune and Portland Oregonian are two examples. The Times-Picayune's efforts during Hurricane Katrina are the stuff of legend.

What happened? At the risk of sounding like someone out of a Steinbeck novel, the answer is Wall Street--and, of course, technology. Come back in a few days and read on.

3 comments:

Ken said...

The dumbing down of media reflects an unfortunate truth: most of the population aren't really interested in understanding the world. They just want to read something that agrees with their prejudices (left- or right- wing, it doesn't make much difference) and then read the sport section. Notice any long-term plans from anyone to fix America's economic mess ? Creating an economy that almost nobody understands doesn't help.

Sam said...

I totally agree with you, Ken...

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Joel Shurkin said...

You may well be right but there actually are no reliable data on this. They do readership surveys that are notoriously inaccurate and that's what decisions are based on. See the next episode of this next week.

j