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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.

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