Mass Media, Black and White and Troubled All Over
“Philadelphia Inquirer top editor forced to resign after publishing piece with ‘Buildings Matter’ headline. Was with paper 20 years; led team to Pulitzer; doubled minority staff. Apologized for ‘Buildings Matter, Too’ headline. ‘Deeply offensive.'” — Byron York, June 7, 2020
by Craig Ladwig
My foundation addressed the need for journalism reform at its beginning, and its argument has been consistent for these last three decades: Ownership matters, especially so in the context of American journalism.
“Corporate managers who cannot match the accountability of a hometown publisher will not hold reader trust,” we argued in a 1990 guest column for the Wall Street Journal.
Last week’s myopic riot coverage begs an update. Corporate media is experiencing a sharp decline in public trust. The big-time editors and reporters like to tell themselves that their jobs exist to serve readers, but readers and viewers are, increasingly, rejecting the service.
An analysis of why this is so can begin with a New Yorker magazine cartoon tacked on the bulletin board of my now defunct hometown paper, the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel. It showed an editor standing on a busy street corner hawking papers. “My issues,” the man is shouting. “Read all about them.”
The point is that mass media, regardless of the strong opinions of its editors, are not immune to the rules of markets and economics. Corporate managers, busy harvesting the fruits of monopoly, left newsrooms on a default setting, specifically that “my issues” setting depicted in the cartoon.
This was a mistake, not only for the community discussion but for the corporations themselves. They have been learning that their stock value and their advertising rates are justified — or not — by public trust. Mass layoffs and closings are a predictable result of misjudging that connection.
A Wall Street asset manager, Jack Liebau, had this advice for investors trying to make sense of corporate media’s fall: “In an age of media scandal, ‘fair and balanced’ must become more than a slogan. Ultimately, stock prices will follow business results. Fairness, credibility and a commitment to the community are vital to a sustainable and growing franchise.”
Newspapers began consolidating under publicly traded ownership in the late 1960s. Unseen in that consolidation was a historic demotion of a fabled grouping of curmudgeons known as the “bull pen.” These were the senior editors of the copy desk, layers of them, who guarded readers from the hubris of reporters and the manipulation of anonymous sources.
By the 1980s, power had left the newsroom entirely, migrating to advertising, which brought in cash, and to production and circulation, which secured efficiencies. One by one, the old bulls walked off. These senior editors, made wise by lifetimes at the center of events, knew to the second when their contributions had become inconsequential.
We who would sit in their chairs were slower to understand. Callow but self-important (the unfortunate Dan Rather was our model), we misinterpreted management’s indifference to content as recognition of the bang-up job we were doing in the service of the First Amendment.
But we produced little for which the Founding Fathers would have written so much as a line, let alone fought and died. We were a soft-headed bunch. Our talents were in giggle and rhyme, not in gathering hard facts that prepared a reader for the coming day.
So we spent our careers behind impressive title plates waiting for news to come to us as chyron on a teleprompter. If we were moved to action at all it was to harry those dealing with the world as it was rather than as we wrote it should be. We insisted on disparaging the real-life choices that our readers were making every day, writing columns making fun of housewives who attached Bible versus to their refrigerators with magnets.
These were choices in housing (sprawling), transportation (gas-guzzling), energy (pollution-spewing) home schooling (racist) and nuclear families (to be discouraged). Never mind the failures of traditional American institutions — failures never seriously addressed on behalf of our readers.
Our status in the newsroom was not determined by scoops, investigative genius or a Rolodex. It was determined by allegiance to prescribed views on how the world should be saved, now most prominently how we feel about race division being used as a lever for political power.
Economically ignorant, we accepted whatever data fit our halcyon vision. At our best, we never rose above boosterism. In sum, we brought to the news business the folderol of a late-night session in the freshman dormitory.
If American journalism is to survive in a recognizable form, reporters will have to get tough again (see Jack Webb as Sam Gatlin in the 1950s film “30”). Tomorrow’s journalists, be they in newsrooms, on blogs or the next sparkling communication platform must base their careers on something more than zeal for their own ideas. They must remaster the basics of the craft — sorting, sifting, verifying — with readers and viewers in mind, not mere advocacy.
Craig Ladwig, editor of The Indiana Policy Review, was formerly a senior editor in the Capital Cities and Knight Ridder news organizations. A newsroom veteran of 50 years, he has written on the topic of journalism reform for the Wall Street Journal, Editor & Publisher and the Kansas City Star. A version of this article first appeared in the spring 2009 issue of the Indiana Policy Review.
The Death of Mass Media: A Reading List
Robert Bartley. “Journalism Objectivity Is Dead.” The Wall Street Journal, July 2003.
Sig Gissler. “What Happens When Gannett Takes Over.” Columbia Journalism Review, December 1997.
Craig Ladwig. “Pulitzer Pointer: Papers Need Old Style Owners.” The Wall Street Journal, April 18, 1990.
Ladwig. “Gannett and the Indianapolis Star: Three Years Later.” The Indiana Policy Review, Fall 2003.
F. Jack Liebau, Jr. “No Substitute for Excellence.” The Wall Street Journal, October 2003.
John Lott. Is Newspaper Coverage of Economic Events Politically Biased? The American Enterprise Institute, September 2004.
Douglas McCollam. “A Way Out?” The Columbia Journalism Review, February 2006.
William McGowan. Coloring the News: How Crusading for Diversity Has Corrupted American Journalism. Encounter Books, 2003.
Marvin Olasky. Central Ideas in the Development of American Journalism: A Narrative History Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1991.
Scott Sloan. “Inside the Potential Sale of Knight Ridder.” The Lexington Herald-Leader, February 2006.
Gay Talese. The Kingdom and the Power. World Publishing Co., 1968.