Another Fourth Estate Funeral
Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, April 27, 2006
One more nail in quality journalism’s coffin: MediaNews, a Thomson-like chain of newspapers for profits’ sake (not to be confused with Jim Romenesko’s excellent Media News blog), is buying four Knight Ridder newspapers for $1 billion, including the venerable San Jose Mercury News. “Whether that is ultimately good or bad for journalistic competition in the region is being debated by everyone from readers and reporters to advertisers and competitors,” the Mercury-News hedgingly writes today. What journalistic competition? Other than the San Francisco Chronicle, one company owns the Bay Area’s media now. Maybe you can’t blame the Mercury-News for lathering the flattery on Dean Singleton, its new CEO and Jonathan Winters look-alike. “Paper’s buyer believes in local control,” the Mercury-News’ headline reads with just enough of a hint of irony behind the flattery (a paper buyer isn’t exactly something to hang your dividends on). The Times is less kind: “Mr. Singleton has cut a wide swath through the newspaper industry, becoming known more for his managerial zeal in cutting costs than his promotion of journalism. The Denver Post, his flagship, is in the midst of a reduction of 25 positions.” Then again, the New York Times Company is fresh out of its latest job-cutting jamboree too, so it’s not one to speak. It was left up to San Jose Newspaper Guild leaders to panic a little more honestly and call the deal “bad news for newspaper workers, readers, advertisers, and for our communities,” or to Steve Gossett to wonder whether Singleton is in one of his pacifying or napalming moods.
None of this was a secret. As far back as last Nov. 21, Business Week was reporting that “a reasonable scenario can be conjured wherein Knight Ridder’s 32 daily papers are split among several parties, including privately held newspaper operator MediaNews Group and publicly traded Gannett (GCI ) -- these two teamed up to take the Detroit Free Press off Knight Ridder’s hands in August -- and McClatchy (MNI ), with some spillover going to private equity.” The piece, by Jon Fine, also moaned that “despite recent ax-wielding, Knight Ridder hasn’t matched industry peers in cost-slashing,” but that the chain had lost quality and opportunities to diversify. Exactly the sort of Wall Street indictment that sees no further than bottom lines and shareholder rapacity. That’s the irony of Fine-like assessments. They recognize the quality and call it doom’s invitation all in one breath.
Nothing quite new there. Here’s the late James Reston—New York Times columnist for a few centuries, and briefly the paper’s executive editor—speaking to Wall Street analysts in the 1970s, after some cost-cutting at the Times: “I don’t know anything about maximizing profits, and I frankly don’t think about your problem in this regard,” he told the analysts (as quoted in The Trust, p. 471). “I think the time we begin thinking about the news in terms of how you look at it, that’s the day … we begin to go down the drain…. I must say to you quite candidly, since we have gone public, we on the news side find ourselves in a wholly new world.”
And here’s James Squires, former Chicago Tribune Washington bureau chief and ex-editor of the Orlando Sentinel, writing thirteen years ago in Read All About It: The Corporate Takeover of America’s Newspapers: “[W]hen and if a Knight-Ridder for the baby-boom generation emerges, it will look a lot like Gannett’s USA Today. Likewise, Gannett has decided that its best hope is to make all its papers more like its national flagship by the year 2000. If this trend holds, the newspapers that survive corporatization […] will be consumer driven and relatively free from information that is unpleasant, complex, unattractive or dull. According to the maxims of the new journalism, if it does not attract readers or advertisers, it cannot possibly be ‘quality editorial’ and therefore a proper use of company resources.”
Case in point: two years ago Dave Gilson in Mother Jones noted how, following the lead of cable news, “even the nation’s major newspapers are regularly guilty of puffing up scandals du jour, and letting truly important news slip off the front page.” The cited examples: By then, USA Today had devoted eight front-page stories to the disappearance of Chandra Levy, that congressional intern with the frizzy hair, and just one story to the disappearance of George W. Bush’s military records. The New York Times devoted twenty-four front-page stories to the spying charges against scientist Wen Ho Lee, charges that proved entirely bogus and contributed to the Times’ run of scandals), and just seven front-page stories to the false Iraq intelligence peddled by Ahmad Chalabi via Judith Miller et. al. The Times devoted fourteen front-page stories to Martha Stewart getting busted for lying about stock trades, and just four stories to Halliburton getting caught for overcharging taxpayers in Iraq. The Washington Post devoted twenty-five front-page stories to Bill Clinton’s Lincoln bedroom sleep-overs, and just twelve to Dick Cheney’s secret meetings with polluters. The San Francisco Chronicle: Thirty-three front-page stories on a controversy over a local woman mauled to death by a dog, and just ten front-page stories about dog-handling U.S. guards terrorizing prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq. And so on.
All told, Knight-Ridder’s demise is a small ripple, relatively speaking, in a much larger pond of scummy devolution for journalism. Meanwhile (if you want to know precisely what’s being lost) Knight-Ridder reporters continue to provide some of the very best reporting out of Iraq. It was Knight-Ridder that first broke stories about Iraq’s Mafia-like Sadr militia—as far back as 2004, and mostly thanks to Tom Lasseter—and their little basement torture chambers, or stories about American massacres of Iraqi civilians, and it is Knight-Ridder that’s keeping the focus on continued torture by American forces, and deaths of prisoners in American detention. This from today’s piece by Drew Brown: “Three human rights groups said Wednesday that they had found credible evidence that U.S. troops and government civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had abused, tortured or killed at least 460 detainees. The researchers said they had found 330 cases of abuse and that only about half of them had been fully investigated, and one-third never were investigated or remained unresolved. The findings are in a report by New York University's Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, Human Rights First and Human Rights Watch. At least 600 U.S. service members or civilians have been implicated in the cases of abuse. About 400 of them have been investigated, and only one-third of those who have been investigated have faced punishment of any kind, researchers said.” A few bad apples are now a few rotten orchards. (Leave it to the Washington Post to keep focusing on Iraqi torturers. What, Iraqis torturing Iraqis under American eyes? Quick, call Captain Renault!)
How happy the Bush administration must be that Knight-Ridder is now the hunted, and soon to be the tamed.
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