friday, april 18, 2008

Stop the Presses

Between 2004 and 2006, approximately 200 journalists working at The Dallas Morning News lost their jobs. Some were laid off, others opted for a voluntary buyout and good old attrition snagged a few as well. By the time it was all said and done approximately 30 percent of the newsroom staff was eliminated.

Manny Mendoza was one of the staffers who took the buyout. Instead of heading off to Vegas for a year's worth of poker playing as the former arts and entertainment critic previously vowed, he decided to join forces with Dallas filmmaker Mark Birnbaum and document what had happened.

He wanted to examine the unholy combination of forces that made the cuts necessary and look at the impact on the reporters and editors who were affected.

Turns out, two other former staffers at the paper, Craig Flournoy and Tracy Everbach, beat him to the punch. The pair, who now teach journalism at SMU and the University of North Texas, respectively, published an incisive examination of the on the aftermath of the situation in the Colombia Journalism Review last Fall.

>By that point, Mendoza and Birnbaum had a bigger fish to fry. Their film, Stop the Presses: The American Newspaper in Peril, has grown to become an examination of the overall crisis of the industry and its possible long term affects. Because the situation at The Dallas Morning News isn’t an aberration – it has become the norm.

"Many American newspapers have seen advertising revenues plummet, printing costs rise, readership decline and shareholders increasingly unsatisfied with their financial returns," Mendoza writes. "Newspaper management reacted with cuts: involuntary layoffs and voluntary buyouts."

It's not hyperbole. According to the American Society of Newspaper Editors annual census, U.S. daily newspapers shrank their newsrooms by 2,400 journalists in 2007. That brings the total number of full-time journalists working in the country to 52,600 – the smallest amount in almost a quarter century.

In and of itself this isn’t particularly gripping stuff. It’s a story that’s been beaten to death in op-ed columns, J-school lectures and media websites for at least a decade. It’s a pretty good bet that newspapers as a medium may be as doomed as the dodo and I’m certainly not going to shed a hell of a lot of tears over it at this point.

What is a concern is what, if anything, will take their place. And this is the real meat to the story Mendoza is attempting to tell. Stop the Presses isn’t simply a romantic ode to an industry slowly sliding into obsolescence; it’s a clarion call to a very real threat to the democracy itself.

“What’s at stake is the role of the journalism in a free society,” Mendoza writes. “Are we on the verge of losing merely a tradition of words on newsprint, or journalism itself, the only profession mentioned in the Constitution?”

The usual argument offered at this point is that the print medium is being replaced by the electronic one. The internet will step up to fill the gap. Perhaps. But I'm not yet convinced on that score.

The internet has proven to be an unparalled information aggregator. Just about any single fact you are looking for is floating out there if you take the time to look for it. That’s a phenomenal accomplishment and should be recognized as such. But, that said, it's tends to be woeful in terms of providing context, which is critical for analyzing the data into useable information.

As humorist P.J. O’Rourke put it, there’s a substantial gap that exists between information and knowledge; “It's the difference between Christy Turlington's phone number and Christy Turlington.” The internet might provide you tons of pictures of the model and all the biographical info you want, but you still won't be any closer to knowing what color her, um... socks are.

More importantly, there is an anarchy to information on the internet as well. There is often very little context or sense of a source's authority to help in evaluating the information. This, despite all their shortcomings, is the one thing newspapers have in spades.

When a story appears in a newspaper like, say, The Los Angeles Times it carries the full weight of that publication behind it. And when a publication of that stature falls short in their responsibility to do that, it's a serious breach of trust and treated as such.

The internet, on the other hand, has a disturbing inclination to eschew these commitments in exchange for snark. The internet provides a perfect medium for bon mots dripping in a fresh coat of schadenfrued to accompany any given snippet of news. Nothing is sacred and cynicism rules the roost.

Gawker media has built an online empire out of this credo although, in truth, they simply are following a trail blazed by Spy magazine two decades ago (interestingly, Stop the Presses features former Spy editor Kurt Anderson).

Which is all well and good but, eventually, this atmosphere of distain proves insufficient for regular consumption and downright dangerous in the long run. Despite it's comforting aspects, cynicism, as British musician Robyn Hitchcock once noted, carries a devastating downside as well; “it gives you the excuse to become what you despise.”

It also gives the despicable a fantastic playground of opportunity. The founding fathers clearly understood that a working democracy requires the fourth estate for two very important reasons – to keep the public informed about the workings of the government that represents them and as a watchdog against excess in that same government.

This is why those in power – courtesy the practical manifestation of Acton’s famed axiom – will forever be in conflict to the workings of the industry.

Ask yourself what the history of this country would have been like if Nixon succeeded in his legal battle against the New York Times and The Washington Post for publishing "The Pentagon Papers." Most immediately, the Watergate burglary would never have been investigated to the degree it was but, more importantly, the way government would have been carried out would have changed dramatically.

This line of reasoning is often dismissed as a slippery slope except for the fact there are many vivid recent examples of how government malfeasance prospers out of the view of a vigilant press in our own country. As for a peek at how bad things can possibly get, I suggest taking a look at Peru.

In 1990, Alberto Fujimori was elected president of the South American country. He took over a government on the verge of complete collapse; the economy was in shambles, a Maoist insurgency was threatening to overwhelm the country and the populace were desperate for a leader with answers.

Within two years he was able to get the economy running again and bring the insurgency under control. Those successes gave him unprecedented public popularity which he parlayed into political leverage. His consolidation of power became absolute with the 1992 autogolpe when he dissolved the country’s legislature and took control himself.

A good deal of his ability to exert control was due to his spy chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, a man for whom the appellation Rasputin-esque is fantastically fitting. By the end of Fujimori’s first term in office there was no single person with more power in Peru than this one man. His influence extended across the whole of the country’s intelligence services, judiciary, armed forces and police.

Michael Smith, an American journalist working in Peru during that era described the man thusly:

    “What distinguishes Montesinos is that he had unlimited power in Peru, with no checks and balances. He had the army under his thumb. As a former officer (drummed out of the service in the 1970s for spying for the CIA), he promoted his classmates and cronies into command positions. When anyone needed a solution in Peru, the most efficient choice was to turn to Montesinos. He could cut through red tape and across bureaucratic barriers. He was also able to call on technological resources that no other government institution could obtain. He also had tremendous economic power.”

What Fujimori and Montesinos understood was that to take complete control would require destroying the democracy – hollowing it out so they could rule with the pretense of it to bolster their standing publicly. And they both acutely understood that the key to accomplishing that was to eliminate the free press.

Montesinos spent considerable resources perverting the media to his ends. Newspapers and magazines that tried to tell the truth were either attacked or simply shut down. Reporters who penned critical articles were charged with crimes against the state and threatened with exorbitant fines. A range of tabloid papers emerged financed covertly by the government that would print whatever stories Montesinos wanted. Factual reporting wasn’t necessary, the more sensational the lie, the better.

He spent millions bribing the owners of various media outlets to either kill stories critical of the government or to attack its opponents. By 1999 Montesinos was able to brag that that what was in the papers and on the television came directly out of his office.

"We're together, all lined up,'' he said.”Every day I have a meeting at 12:30 with them [the heads of the Peruvian television stations]. At 12:30, we plan what will be on the news that night."

Of course, while the sight of Montesinos stacking thousands of dollars on a table to buy out the head of a media organization might seem, well… tacky to us is it really any different than having a paper gut itself in the name of shareholder profitability? The end result is the same. The public stays in the dark, the folks running things get paid and malfeasance is allowed to prosper in abundance.

Today both Fujimori and Montesinos are on trial for the corruption and human rights abuses that took place during their ten-year hold on power in Peru. They are incarcerated in a specially built prison outside of the capital of Lima – a prison Montesinos had specially built to hold his political enemies.

It isn’t too hard to look at the recent history of the United States and wonder exactly how easily such a situation could come to pass without someone constantly on guard and informing us all of what is going on in the hallways of government.

The question, Mendoza asks, is if newspapers aren’t around to do that, who or what will?

more:  Journalism | Movies 

posted by kleph @ 3:00 am |

comment posted by: rrs on april 18, 2008 @ 11:53 pm
great piece, keep up the good work!
comment posted by: leo on april 19, 2008 @ 11:49 am
well said, specially the analogy with Peru
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