What Else Is News?

Except for politics, no business is scrutinized more exhaustively than journalism. This scrutiny produces an endless stream of books, academic studies, magazine articles, newspaper columns, and phone calls to talk-radio stations from ordinary citizens with opinions to air. Journalism talk is part of the nonstop background noise of American life.

Here are five of the more recent books on the subject. It would be easy to find five more almost as recent, and ten or fifteen more are probably being composed as we speak. These five are fairly typical. Four are by career journalists—mostly newspaper editors and reporters, but only one a television reporter. The fifth is by an academic and freelance journalist, whose specialty is scrutinizing and trying to make sense of what he sees.

Glumness is the prevailing spirit here, and for good reason. This is journalism’s age of melancholy. Newspaper people, once celebrated as founts of ribald humor and uncouth fun, have of late lost all their gaiety, and small wonder. They have discovered that their prime duty is no longer to maintain the republic in well-informed condition—or to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, as the old gospel has it—but to serve the stock market with a good earnings report every three months or, in plainer English, to comfort the comfortable.

It is fitting that yesteryear’s swashbuckling newspaper reporter has turned into today’s solemn young sobersides nursing a glass of watered white wine after a day of toiling over computer databases in a smoke-free, noise-free newsroom.

The Last Editor, Jim Bellows’s reminiscence of days when the going was still devil-may-care, is the one entirely gloom-free book among these five. It is one of those seasoned-old-newsman memoirs about the old days and the good times when reporters treated celebrities and politicians with the contempt they deserved and sometimes did brave things. Hildy Johnson still lives in books like these, and Clark Gable still puts rich society dames like Claudette Colbert in touch with the masses by showing them how to dunk a doughnut. It’s light as a June cloud and just as pleasant.

Bellows was a superb editor with a zest for mischief and hell-raising. At the Herald Tribune he unleashed the so-called “new journalists” like Jimmy Breslin and Tom Wolfe to do an unorthodox, highly personalized kind of reporting that shocked traditionalists while attracting publicity and readers. Wolfe’s satirical attack on The New Yorker and its revered editor William Shawn was typical of the uproar he wanted journalism to create. As editor of The Washington Star he encouraged his gossip columnist, for the pure competitive sport of it, to report regularly on the romantic life of The Washington Post’s executive editor.

Bellows’s affection for his trade is touching these days when so many papers are turning into cash machines. The work “shouldn’t be something ancillary to your life, but something that nourishes your soul and is a lot of fun,” he writes. His book recalls a sassy age when nobody called newspeople “journalists” and “Media” was just the name of a town in Pennsylvania. How pleasant to meet Mr. Bellows.

Books by investigative reporters do not traffic in such pleasures. Investigative reporters are more like private detectives than reporters. Their nature is secretive, unjoyous, and antisocial. Suspicion is their instinct. They wrestle with incomprehensibly complicated skeins of evidence that may or may not contain essential clues to incredibly complex and nasty goings-on.

Their fictional counterpart is Raymond Chandler’s private eye, Philip Marlowe, a lone upright man working for justice, taking those terrible beatings for a measly twenty-five dollars a day and expenses because when corruption is afoot a man is supposed to do something about it. Marlowe’s human embodiment is Seymour Hersh, the man who took investigative journalism out of the movies and made it serious work when he single-handedly broke the story of the My Lai massacre.

Into the Buzzsaw is a collection of eighteen pieces by investigative journalists who would probably be cross about suggestions that they are gullible enough to believe in heroes—even Marlowe, even Hersh. They are just trying to do their jobs, Ma’am. All these pieces are interesting, and a couple are fascinating. Are you aware, for instance, that when a publisher wants to kill a book he is committed to publish, he “privishes” it? That is, Gerard Colby writes, he publishes it so that it will sink “without a trace.” And why would he want to “privish” your book? Well, there are terrifying powers out there—governmental, institutional, corporate, even family powers—powers who have ways to make a publisher “privish,” or stage a magic act in which books are printed and never seen or heard of again. Orders for them somehow never get filled. Some of this material is alarming, with subtitles such as “CIA Drug Smuggling—The Venezuelan National Guard Case,” but investigative reporters almost invariably have trouble writing with the precision required to make their stories seem totally persuasive.

The most troubling of these books is The News About the News, by Leonard Downie Jr. and Robert Kaiser of The Washington Post. Like so much else nowadays, it is a tale of big money and greed. The history of journalism is quite clear about what makes the difference between great and mediocre papers: it is the quality of their ownership. Reporters and editors may disagree, but no matter how splendid the quality of an editorial staff, a publisher too timid, too indifferent, or too chintzy to support it will produce a timid, indifferent, and, at best, second-rate paper.

The Washington Post produced great journalism during the Watergate affair because in Katharine Graham it had an astonishingly courageous publisher. She risked losing her paper and possibly her entire media company by trusting an editor and two young reporters with a news source who could not even be publicly identified. It was an amazing display of faith in her staff. Nothing so breathtaking has happened in journalism during the thirty years that have since elapsed.

In the same era Arthur Ochs Sulz-berger, publisher of The New York Times, risked federal prosecution by ordering his editors to continue publishing the Pentagon Papers in defiance of government moves to suppress them. In this he was acting against the counsel of the Times’s distinguished New York law firm, which then ended its relationship with the paper. That was more than thirty years ago.

The message of The News About the News might be crudely summed up as “They don’t make real publishers anymore, nowadays they just make bean counters.” This would be unfair, though, to several who are still operating, including Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., who has succeeded his father at the Times. After the September 11 catastrophe young Sulzberger devoted an entire ad-free section of the paper to the story every day for over three months. What this cost the Times in lost ad revenue is not publicly known. Surely a nice piece of change. That’s what real publishers do.

Leonard Downie Jr. and Robert Kaiser have written a pessimistic book about the trend in publishers. They report that much of American journalism is now being degraded by pressure from the top to squeeze unrealistically high profits out of newspapers and TV news operations. They say news coverage is now being cut to the demands of bottom-line zealots, and this, they contend, is bad news for the public weal. And who will disagree?

Downie and Kaiser are not campus alarmists, but serious men who do not kid around. Both have worked in journalism as reporters, foreign correspondents, and editors for nearly forty years. Downie has been executive editor of The Washington Post since 1991, having succeeded Ben Bradlee, one of modern journalism’s most celebrated heroes. Kaiser is now an associate editor and senior correspondent for the Post.

Their book is a thorough piece of reporting in the upright plain-but-honest tradition. They even interview the network news anchors, “media” society’s godlike celebrities who are paid as lavishly as all-star baseball players. Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, and Dan Rather all allow that hard news doesn’t receive the attention it used to. Dan Rather even seems uneasy about it.

By 2000, “delivering the profit” had become the daily “driving force” at CBS, Rather told them. When profit is more important than product, he says, “it’s inevitable that a lot is going to go out of your organization…and a lot is going to go out of yourself. And that’s what has happened to television journalism as a whole…. Once we begin to see ourselves as more of a business and less a public service, the decline in quality is accelerated.”

Downie and Kaiser include a comic and telling account of a day in the life of a local TV news operation at Washington’s Channel Four. A producer makes desperation calls to a hopelessly skimpy reporting staff to find and film dead fish said to be floating in Rock Creek. Then—hold the presses!—a school bus has collided with a small truck: driver dead, three children injured. Hour after hour the quest for telegenic death and blood goes on. “If it bleeds it leads” is the ancient first rule of local TV news.

Downie and Kaiser find that the profit to be had from this daily pursuit of the trivial is almost off the radar. Local news shows are turning dead fish and body bags into gold. The news director at WRC, Bob Long, spoke to them candidly of “huge profits” his programs earned from ad sales. Long’s future, they write,

depends on his ability to preserve or improve those profits…. News directors aren’t fired for putting on lousy news programs, they’re fired for getting lower ratings than their competitors—and in the television business, they are fired regularly.

In 2001 the average director had held the job less than two years.

Profit margins are astonishing in local TV news—“far and away the most important source of…advertising revenue.” Most American corporations, the authors say, would be “thrilled” with 10 percent. Forty percent is the average payoff expected of local TV news, according to one study. Long thinks not. “I guarantee you that 60 to 70 percent is not uncommon in major markets,” he said during a panel discussion among TV journalists in 1999. “We make a ton of money. You can’t make the kind of money we make legally in any other way.” The junkiness of local TV news is an ancient tale, but the decline that Downie and Kaiser detect in newspaper quality is not so widely acknowledged. Approaching the subject, the tone of their book becomes sober, even a mite dull, perhaps because Downie and Kaiser know they are flirting with a heresy offensive to our age’s belief in the gospel of free-market capitalism, and think it discreet to avoid the impudent manner.

Heresy is blatant in their implicit suggestion that free-market capitalism is not always as good for you as it’s cracked up to be—that when applied to journalism, for example, it is bad for the nation and for the business itself. As an example of market-obsessed management degrading journalism they cite the case of the San Jose Mercury News, a superior paper in the Knight Ridder group until its budget was shrunk to accommodate the stock market.

The Knight Ridder home office, confronting a cyclical decline in advertising in 2001, wanted to maintain its San Jose profit margin at a figure in “the upper twenties,” the authors report. Jay T. Harris, the publisher who had run the paper with great success for Knight Ridder, protested that meeting the company’s profit specifications would damage the paper terribly, and resigned when the chain’s CEO, Anthony Ridder, refused to yield.

With Harris’s departure the paper was subjected to a 10 percent cut in the size of its news staff and a 10 percent reduction in the amount of space devoted to news. The newsroom operating budget was cut 25 percent below the previous year’s budget. The Sunday magazine and a weekly feature section were killed, and the book section was shrunk. Similar assaults on quality have afflicted most of the once respected Knight Ridder papers for the past few years, and the same decline is going on, for the same reasons, throughout the vast Gannett chain.

Though Downie and Kaiser give higher grades to the papers of the Newhouse and McClatchy chains—thirty-seven in all, many of which “seem to be improving”—the broader picture is cheerless: “The drive for ever-increasing profits is pulling quality down.” What Knight Ridder did in San Jose, they say,

is precisely the opposite of what newspaper companies will have to do to preserve their place in a crowded media environment. Newspapers must get better, not worse, to retain the loyalty of readers, and thus the dollars of advertisers. If they fail to get better, newspapers will continue to shrink—in size, in quality, in importance. This would be tragic, because no other news medium can fill the role that good newspapers play in informing the country.

And so we come to one of the overwhelming questions of the new age of unchallenged American superpowerdom: Is there anything more important than money? Since Soviet communism went bankrupt and disap-peared while trying to keep up with American capitalism, belief in the virtue of maximized profits has acquired something like sanctity in American life. Downie and Kaiser provide a sad illustration into what this means for journalism when Jack Fuller, head of the Chicago Tribune Company, explains why the fully maximized profit is more important than the best possible news coverage. Bear with them:

In the year 2000 The Chicago Tribune’s profit margin exceeded 25 percent, but its editor, Howard Tyner, feels the paper is “lean.” He tells Downie and Kaiser, “There’s always a price for being lean.” The Tribune with a news staff of just under seven hundred doesn’t have the depth of, say, The Washington Post, with its nine hundred. “I have top people who are terrific, and here and there I have deputies who are good. But it thins out real fast. And you can see that in the paper. We make more mistakes than we did before…. [The Tribune] would be edited …much better if we had more people…. It’s a box I can’t get out of.”

With the Tribune Company having reported a 29 percent profit margin for 1999, Downie and Kaiser ask Fuller if it isn’t a good time to hire and give the paper more quality and depth. “Now would be an odd time to do it,” Fuller explains. The previous year’s profits are simply not relevant. The company has just acquired the Times Mirror Company, owner of the Los Angeles Times and Baltimore Sun among other papers, for $8 billion. This “focuses the attention of the investing world skeptically on our ability to perform financially,” Fuller explains. By making an enormous acqui- sition the Tribune Company has “created certain expectations” among investors—that it will deliver more benefits to stockholders. If it failed to deliver on those expectations, “the consequences would be a fairly significant drop in the stock price, which would put enormous pressure on everyone.” And Tyner would be under pressure to cut back more.

So the Tribune, which does brilliant work sporadically and remains one of the country’s better newspapers, probably won’t be getting many new resources anytime soon,” the authors write. “That means it is unlikely to become more important to the people of greater Chicago, or more compelling to people who might become regular readers. Its circulation, which drifted downward from 793,000 daily in 1978 to about 612,000 in 2001, could continue on that path.”

The old press lords may have been plutocratic, eccentric, and tyrannical, but they were statesmen compared to today’s market-whipped managers. The old-timers cared about their newspapers and the public’s opinion of them. They were usually people who loved newspapers and relished the power over public life that ownership conferred. Hearst and Pulitzer, the Sulzbergers and Grahams could afford to forget the balance sheet when there were great stories to be covered. Sulzbergers and Grahams still can, and do, but they are now rare exceptions.

The new managerial class—no lords in this crowd—are balance-sheet CEOs in the conventional business-school style—eyes always peeled for a merger or acquisition, attention always focused on the stock market’s quarterly report card. It is not even necessary that they know anything about journalism.

As a “classic example,” Downie and Kaiser cite the Los Angeles Times Mirror Company’s hiring in 1995 of Mark H. Willes (Columbia Business School, Wharton School), whose previous employment had been with General Mills, producer of breakfast cereals. One of Willes’s first decisions was to kill the company’s New York City paper, New York Newsday. Everybody laughed when newsroom wits dubbed him “the cereal killer,” but the stock market loved him. Times Mirror stock rose immediately—applause for an aggressive cost-cutter—then gradually drifted back to its old levels.

Downie and Kaiser think the quick profit cost both company and public dearly. The company had struggled for ten years and invested $100 million to establish a paper in New York City, had come close to the break-even point, and had developed a talented staff that often beat the older New York papers on significant stories.

To Willes though, New York Newsday was “just a drag on profits.” Newsday executives thought the investment was about to pay off in a profitable paper that would outlast the floundering Post and Daily News and become the last surviving competitor of the Times on its home turf. Long-term investment did not appeal to Willes. The stock market counts the score every ninety days. Willes killed the paper, and many investors must have wondered why it took him so long.

Todd Gitlin is the nonjournalist in this group. He is a professor of sociological studies at New York University, which makes him a professional scrutinizer. He also writes freelance journalism about politics and the press. Gitlin thinks news is one element in a vast mishmash he calls “media,” which he thinks is ruining us. The dust jacket of Media Unlimited sums up his argument with remarkably accurate simplicity: “How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives.” Gitlin has a vision of daily American life that looks alarmingly like the brink of madness. Or at least the brink of utter pointlessness, which is madness’s first cousin.

We are brought to this abyss, he says, by an incessant assault in which a never-ending stream of sounds and images—“media,” of course—becomes an inescapable environment. Locked in this mind-deadening media torrent, we become slavishly dependent on it. And take pleasure in it, too, Gitlin says, for he believes we are quite helpless to resist the satisfactions which media bring us. In short, we are being pounded silly by a brain-softening force, and we like it that way.

Newspaper people may be vexed to find their trade included as part of Gitlin’s dreary “media.” The best of them believe they have a calling to provide society with the information required to keep the public mind alert. Being told they are just another part of the mind-softening onslaught may persuade some to chuck it all, switch to investment banking, and make some real money at last. Yet it is hard to argue the point.

In a country where most people say they get most of their news from television, the distinction between journalism and “media” would seem to be the difference between a tittle and a jot. This is a world in which Bill Clinton, campaigning for the presidency, plays the saxophone on Arsenio Hall’s bedtime comedy show for a network TV audience.

Gitlin sees news coverage today as “a nonstop jamboree,” with the media producing “a Cubist hodgepodge of recognizable characters and spotlit scenes, logo-festooned and orchestrated to theme music.” (NBC used to introduce the Huntley/Brinkley show with music from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.) The news becomes “wall-to-wall soap opera”:

Along with coronations, state funerals, and natural disasters are events of overt political import: President John F. Kennedy is assassinated, Congress investigates Watergate, the Iranians seize American hostages…. In an era of all-news channels with hours to fill, we are treated to ever more frequent rounds of 24/7 saturation: the month of the Nintendo Gulf War, the year of O.J. Simpson, the month of the death and transfiguration of Princess Diana, the year of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, the week of John F. Kennedy Jr.’s death, the months of the Elian Gonzalez standoff… not to mention the hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, wars, school shootings, air crashes, hijackings, hostage takings, rescues, the many minor crimes and scandals that erupt in the interim, each good for at least a day or two before melting away into nourishment for talking heads staving off withdrawal pangs.

Much of “the everyday noise of media is the buzz of the inconsequential,” he writes. But the news buzz is only a fraction of what Gitlin means by “media,” and Gitlin himself sometimes seems baffled by what it means.

Being an academic, of course he feels compelled to define “media,” and the more he defines the more indefinite he becomes. We linger over gracefully composed abstractions that make us ponder and ponder and ponder, but never quite see. Thus:

In the presence of media, we may be attentive or inattentive, aroused or deadened, but it is in symbi-otic relation to them, their pictures, texts, and sounds, in the time we spend with them, the trouble we take to obtain, absorb, repel, and discuss them, that much of the world happens for us. Media are occasions for experiences—experiences that are themselves the main products, the main transactions, the main “effects” of media.

Gitlin is almost always interesting and provocative, but in trying to define “media” he is like a wrestler trying to clamp a full nelson on an electric eel. The difficulties were first explored in the writings of Marshall McLuhan, who gave this old advertising word new life back in the 1960s. Until McLuhan came along, advertising people had used “media” to refer to devices they could use to make a sales pitch. Billboards, matchbook covers, posters, radio broadcasts, magazines, newspapers, bumper stickers, lapel buttons, a hobo wearing a sandwich board—all were “media.”

McLuhan lifted the word out of mercantile dimness and gave it glamour. He made it the base of a new philosophy, or perhaps a new sociology, or maybe a whole new system of thought, or—well, let’s not plead ignorance yet….

In the 1960s McLuhan’s books, especially Understanding Media and The Gutenberg Galaxy, became essential reading for all who yearned to be on the front wave of fashion. It was like carrying heavy luggage through quicksand, for McLuhan was a master of murky prose. Maybe this is why “media” became such a hot new word. Those who had struggled through Understanding Media knew that McLuhan was nearly incomprehensible and that “media” therefore offered them an intellectual’s picnic. It gave them freedom to make it mean pretty much whatever they could persuade anybody else it meant.

With Media Unlimited Gitlin is trying to do the job that defeated McLuhan, and at the same time scare us. Lives overwhelmed by a torrent of images and sounds. That’s a scary idea, but the reader who sets out wanting to savor the horror of mind-deadening media attack is apt to be disappointed. Entertaining though his speculations often are, this reader finished with the feeling that Gitlin had been fooling around, exploring his own ideas to test how well they stand up.

Some of the explorations are fascinating, some are just baffling, as Gitlin himself remarks here and there. Emerging from another unsuccessful attempt to make everything perfectly clear, he ends by saying, “Whatever the diversity of texts, the media largely share a texture, even if it is maddeningly difficult to describe.”

Except for network anchors whose celebrity guarantees them huge book sales, television reporters do not publish with the frequency of newspaper reporters. Is it because the oral tradition of television makes writing an unnatural labor, or because television’s generous pay makes it easier for them to live well without moonlighting? It is a rare print journalist who isn’t thinking of writing a book—one of these days.

The one TV reporter’s book here is Bernard Goldberg’s Bias. Goldberg is a retired veteran of the CBS News staff, and he was inspired to write after an angry falling out with his bosses. Anger can sometimes do more than the literary impulse to make a reporter start pounding the word processor, and this seems to have been the case with Goldberg.

He is angry with CBS for treating him coldly after he protested that their evening news show had an unprofessional liberal bias. He thought of himself as a “whistle-blower,” a species much admired by TV news people when the whistle is blown in some government warren, he notes. He was chagrined to find his bosses didn’t cotton to having a whistle-blower in their own shop.

His thesis holds that the CBS, ABC, and NBC networks all present the news with a liberal bias. It is not a new accusation. CBS News has been under attack in illiberal quarters ever since its main man, Edward R. Murrow, presented a damaging half-hour show in 1953 about the career of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, the era’s most celebrated Red hunter. A generation later Senator Jesse Helms was said to be looking for a few good rich men who would save America from liberal news taint by buying CBS and firing Dan Rather. Murrow is long dead, Walter Cronkite is retired, Rather is a septuagenarian, CBS News has long since declined below the level of its glory days, and the network itself has been absorbed in the huge Viacom conglomerate, but suspicion lives on.

Goldberg makes a case good enough at least to put to a jury; yet even if one thinks Goldberg is right there is something absurd about making the case at all. What if network news indeed does have a liberal slant? Can it possibly matter that the skimpy, pathetically starved scarecrow that is the typical network news show might be marinated in ideological bias?

What about its oppressive bias in favor of the pharmaceutical industry? Night after night network news shows browbeat viewers with ads suggesting they nag their doctors into prescribing expensive prescription drugs.

Bias began life as an Op-Ed article in The Wall Street Journal. Beefing it up to book size forces Goldberg to do a good bit of hyperventilating: “The News Mafia was all over me, and no one with any brains was taking bets that I would survive,” begins Chap-ter Eight. Dan Rather becomes “The Dan,” as in, “So I wasn’t simply a ‘political activist’ as far as The Dan was concerned. I was a ‘political activist’ with a ‘political agenda.’” Opposition to Malcolm Forbes’s flat-tax proposal in 1996 “was visceral, from the same dark region that produces envy and the seemingly unquenchable liberal need to wage class warfare.”

Loss of cool at the word processor hurts a political argument. This kind of conflict is best waged by wielding a stiletto, not by waving a bladder. But Goldberg is not writing for fussbudgets. He is preaching to those who already believe in the existence of that dark region and that unquenchable liberal need. They must be abundant; the jacket on my copy of Bias says “#1 New York Times Bestseller.”