James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

A brief hiatus

I will be on a hiatus of as yet undetermined length to take care of a health problem. It may be a couple of weeks, possibly a little longer. Check in now and then, please, to see whether I’m back and writing. Thanks for your attention.
—James Clay Fuller

What our newspapers don't tell us

Not long ago, I received a note from an old friend and former colleague who still works for the badly weakened, once excellent newspaper to which I devoted the last 30 years of my full-time career in print journalism. He suggested that I’ve been too hard in this space on the “working stiffs” who continue to try to put out a good newspaper.

In truth, though I understand his point of view, I’ve been nowhere near strong enough in my criticism of today’s newspapers and the people who make them.

(As usual, I won’t waste time on broadcast news. Radio and television have almost entirely abandoned attempts at honest journalism and should not be taken seriously.)

My friend is a good man, and he works hard. He does his best to add quality to those portions of the newspaper he touches. However, he suffers from an excess of loyalty to people who have not earned it – part of the old fashioned work ethic -- and his job gives him no voice in what is covered, or how, and it is in those things that my old newspaper and most of the newspapers in this country have given way to the ideologues of the right and the “only profits matter” crowd.

The greatest failures of journalism these days, and they are very big failures, lie in what newspapers don’t report, often don’t even mention in passing. Some subjects are avoided because to report on them will upset the local power structure, or bring out the rabid right – always unpleasant to deal with. To report on others would require staff time that can be used more efficiently to churn out stories on accidents, robberies and the ever-popular sex-and-murder pieces. Feel-good stories about spelling bee winners and hockey-playing nuns and such also are easy to do and draw large numbers of readers. The fact that such pieces generally have no significance whatever in the large scheme of things doesn’t matter.

Given that most news staffs have been cut to maintenance-only levels, the editors don’t want most reporters working on anything that takes time. They may have one or a small group of reporters assigned to “investigative” articles, usually about public employees or small, no-power businesses screwing the public, just to maintain the appearance of devotion to the job.

People, we’re in a down and dirty, fill the space and don’t rock the boat era of journalism.

Twice in the past couple of weeks, I have heard from newspaper people that “regional” newspapers – just about any other than the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and the often politically driven Chicago Tribune – “are not as interested in international news and big issues as they once were.” That means, “Don’t bother us with real news, we don’t want to upset anybody, we want only to get richer.”

If you are a regular and thorough reader of a large daily, I’m willing to bet that at least once a week you learn something from an opinion piece that startles you, because you don’t remember ever seeing the underlying issue mentioned in the news pages.

To demonstrate, and get you thinking about what you are or may be missing – what your newspaper should be telling you but won’t -- below is a small sampling of the very many issues you probably haven’t seen much, if anything, about in the news sections of your local rag. And I won’t even mention the huge gaps in the fawning obituary coverage of Ronald Reagan.

(Well, maybe one little comment: Did you know that Dick Cheney, chosen to speak for the present administration on the wonders of Reagan, was a bitter and often nasty foe of Reagan in Congress? He regularly denigrated the man he now praises.)

Here we go, with no particular order to the subjects:

* American corporations are well into a major assault on the benefits of retirees. Dozens of corporations, helped by a Republican Congress and president, have reneged on promised benefits. People have lost and are losing promised health-care coverage and portions of their pensions. Newspapers all over the country have been informed and provided with tons of facts, but they continue to ignore the subject. One editor to whom I sent some information said that, yup, it is a subject worth looking at, all right, but “we’d have to find a hook for the story.” He runs a newspaper in a state that is home to about 8,000 retirees of just one company that is actively trying to cut off promised benefits.

* You saw truncated articles on the fact that Jean-Bertrand Aristide was removed from the presidency of Haiti and shipped out of the country, but you almost certainly saw little or nothing on how deeply involved the United States was in his removal. You’ve almost certainly seen nothing on the convincing accusations of brutality by U.S. troops in Haiti since then, nor of how much more badly off the citizens of that sad island nation are since Aristide was ousted. Do you know anything of the criminals and murderers the U.S. has backed as officials and power brokers?

* You’ve probably seen some stories about the fact that certain senior citizen groups are critical of the Bush-driven drug discount cards being sold to Medicare recipients, but do you know the details behind that criticism? Once a person purchases a card, the buyer is stuck with it for at least a year, but the seller can change the amount of “discounts” at any time, and drop medications from the covered list at will. And there’s much more.

* Newspapers have covered George W. Bush making speeches about how his administration is laboring to protect and improve public education. Newspapers by and large have failed to tell how, in fact, the Bush administration has done serious damage to public education through funding cuts (let alone the cockamamie “No Child Left Behind” scheme).

* Newspapers in general have declared hands off the whole issue of environmental degradation under Bush. Did you see stories about the fact that a report from the Pentagon, of all outfits, has declared global warming as possibly the single most dangerous situation on the planet today (speaking in terms of how environmental problems can lead to bloodshed on a massive scale)?

* In late May, the nominal president did one of his photo-op stops at a children’s hospital (before attending a big-buck fund raiser, so the travel could be charged to us). He praised the work of children’s hospitals. His budget for this year calls for a freeze on federal grants for such hospitals, a cut for public programs that provide grants for care in such hospitals and the elimination of another grant program. It’s a good bet your newspaper didn’t tell you those things, though it probably ran a photo of his appearance.

*It’s a 90-to-1 wager that your newspaper has run several pieces under gushing headlines, about the wonderful “economic recovery” now underway. The odds are almost as great that it has carried little or nothing about the realities of this so-called recovery: There are breathless stories about new jobs; those stories never point out that the new jobs pay, on average, less than half what the millions of jobs lost in the previous three years paid. Neither do the newspapers usually report the fact that wages for the average worker have dropped, but they did report Bush’s claim that paychecks are increasing. – a blatant lie. Almost all papers also failed to connect the job and pay stories with the 62 percent growth in corporate profits – a necessary connection if one is doing an honest job of reporting. Oh, yes, so is the 27 percent one-year growth in the pay of corporate chief executive officers.

I could go on, easily doubling the length of the list, but I lack time, and presumably so do you.
Perhaps another time.

Please go on to read the piece below this one.

Make reporters do their jobs

The recent belated, softly worded mea culpas from a handful of newspapers, in which they sort of, kinda, a little bit admit they’ve given Bush and his extreme right backers a free ride in the news pages for several years don’t amount to much.

They do at least signal that a few of today’s “journalists” --I am reluctant to honor many of them with the title, sans quotation marks – recognize either that they’ve bungled their jobs or, worse in the minds of some high-ranking editors, an important segment of the public knows they have fallen down on the job.

Most don’t and won’t recognize any of their own failings, by the way, but a few do and are ashamed, though perhaps not enough ashamed.

Please forgive a bit of preaching, but the partial admissions of failure remind me that there are two things that can be done by people who care about getting the truth to that portion of the public that waits for enlightment to fall into their laps.

One is to keep those letters, emails and telephone calls flowing. Letters to the editor pointing out weak, incomplete and/or biased reporting are important. At least equally effective, and often more effective, are emails, letters and calls to specific editors and writers.

If some reporter has, as so many do, taken the claim of some official, candidate or executive at face value and failed to point out a known truth to the contrary or to give the opposition a chance to rebut, write to the reporter and to her/his boss and tell them you are aware of that failing and find it unacceptable. Be firm, but not abusive. It would be satisfying sometimes to call the writer a mewling toady of the right, but that allows a mewling toady to dismiss you as a crank.

It’s pretty much the rule these days that people calling themselves reporters take official explanations and boiler-plate answers at face value. Their attitude is that if the governor or a state department head or a member of the federal cabinet says a thing ain’t so, then it ain’t so.

The reporters do that because they were raised as nice upper middle class kids whose own parents and the friends of parents are part of the power structure and, of course, are “good people.” They also do it because they’ve been inadequately trained and lack the kind of intelligence and skepticism that looks for flaws, hidden meanings and curtained truths.

They do it, too, because they know their profit-minded bosses don’t want them to “waste time” digging at a story, and because they consciously or semi-consciously censor themselves when dealing with a story that might make the bosses’ friends and the boss unhappy. And, equally as shameful, many a story is half done or not done because “I have to work with those people” – an excuse used by cowardly reporters since “news” first was put to paper and distributed to the public.

Each time you see such a thing, or have reason to believe a story is not complete, it is necessary that you write or call someone to let them know you find their performance unacceptable.

The second thing citizens can do to push the corporate media toward doing the job it now only half does is to use the Internet more effectively. And to me that doesn’t mean liberals talking to liberals, sending each other comments or forwarding reports from the various excellent online information sources.

You know the line “preaching to the choir?”

For a long time I was as timid as most liberals about sending material highly critical of the Bush crowd to “conservative” friends and family members. Like most of you, I didn’t want to offend, or to cause rifts in familial and social circles. Then, about three months ago, I decided that those people needed the information about the lies, missteps and outright antiAmerican actions of the Bushies -- information they were not getting through broadcast outlets nor even from daily newspapers.

However, after some errors in judgement about what to forward, I started sending my conservative friends and family members relatively short pieces (usually) rooted in well-documented facts. They included Daily Mislead reports such as those showing beyond doubt that while the Bush crowd talk about “honoring” our soldiers and veterans, they actually are doing them great harm by seeking to lower combat pay, severely cut veteran benefits and health care and more – all with eight or nine incontrovertible citations.

Any number of online newsletters provide such information. Use it. Send the most highly-documented reports to your conservative, right wing or waffling acquaintances but don’t send pieces that are too heavily colored by distaste or hatred for the Bushies, even if you agree entirely with the sentiments.

Over the past two to three months, I have received hints from three genuine conservatives I know and to whom I have been sending selected pieces, that they are aware of and disapprove of at least some of the evils of the present administration. There is some indication that one or two may, with eyes averted, pull the lever for Kerry, and one or two lifelong, long active Republicans may have decided to forgo their votes for president. Even the latter decision is a good thing for the United States this year.

Folks, talking to other liberals, blowing off steam and trading “ain’t it awfuls” is not enough this year. This is, I am quite sure, the first time I’ve ever used this old and often false claim, but: If you aren’t part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.

Further, the more you disseminate the facts, and the more people who know them, the more pressure is put on print journalists to do their jobs properly. Even they become embarrassed when it is clear that a broad slice of the population knows about their failures.