James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Monday, August 09, 2004

Failures of judgment

People keep asking me what is wrong with our newspapers. Why do they fail, or refuse, to print important facts about the Bush administration, the miseries of Haiti, the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, the failures of our government to properly equip the troops in Iraq, and on and on?

More often than not, the questions involve specific situations about which my questioner has considerable knowledge that he or she believes, usually correctly, should be put before the general public.

The information almost always is available, but in places relatively few Americans know exist and even fewer bother to check – small-circulation but reputable magazines, newsletters from knowledgeable folks, reliable Web sites. Sometimes it’s even available from well-known sources; the New York Times frequently prints important stories that are ignored by all or almost all of the other general-circulation newspapers across the country.

A reasonably complete explanation of the ever more egregious failures of the American press would require a weighty book.

Breathe easy; I’m not going to write it.

However, I will continue to drop an occasional hint as to reasons the typical American newspaper is little more than an ad-heavy profit machine fluffed out mainly with feel-good blather -- waste paper suitable principally for lining the cages of television anchors.
Today’s texts come from my alma mudder, the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, but similar examples can be found any day in almost every daily newspaper in the country. (I look at a disgusting number of them on an occasional basis.)

Over the past weekend, Aug. 6-8, neighboring St. Paul was the site of a big wahoo of a revival meeting run by the Argentinian-raised preacher Luis Palau. The revival was on the grounds of the Minnesota State Capitol – an appalling misuse of public property I won’t deal with here.

To keep to the basics: Palau strongly targets young people. He uses rock music, "extreme" sports and the like to pull them in. Unlike his more traditional counterparts, he also goes heavily, and very successfully, after corporate sponsors so that he doesn’t have to rely on contributions from his audiences to keep him richly afloat. Like his colleagues (or is it competitors?), however, he routinely berates the usual list of the presumably unclean and ungodly – notably gays, pro-choice folks and others with liberal ideas in their heads.

It would be a gross understatement, therefore, to say that every retired journalist I know and a substantial number of the honest and well-trained journalists still on staff at the Strib were unhappy with the fact that the newspaper signed up as a sponsor of the revival, to the tune of $50,000. So were a great many of the Star Tribune’s readers. Doug Grow, a columnist with the paper, expressed the anger and frustration of some of the staff in his column.

It doesn’t help in the slightest that as part of the deal Palau agreed to spend $20,000 for advertising in the Star Tribune.

It gets worse.

Pam Henson, the newspaper’s senior vice president of sales and marketing (advertising), helped raise the almost $2 million cost of the revival – which was advertised, incidentally, as a "festival," with much emphasis on the sports, rock and rap.

The newspaper gave over an incredible amount of news space to covering the event, even publishing a six-page special section touting the revival and Palau on the Friday the thing started.

When many readers expressed their anger and dismay at the Strib’s participation in an event conducted by a right-leaning evangelical Christian organization, the paper’s executives made greater fools of themselves through their efforts to defend what they had done. They got all tangled up in a Bush-like attempt to differentiate between "sponsorship" and "endorsement," and tried to slide off the hook by noting that the newspaper sponsors many events.

What they didn’t say about those other events – but what the readers know – is that almost without exception they are the kinds of non-controversial activities that are supported by 99.999 percent of the public, events to raise money for cancer research, to fund camps for handicapped kids and the like.

The newspaper ran several critical letters one day, and on Sunday, the temporary "readers’ representative" said that some readers objected to the sponsorship but that others approved. And that was it for a couple of days. Then, on the Wednesday after the event, more letters berating the paper for its participation appeared. The pause and then the reappearance suggests to me, as someone who spent four decades in the newspaper game, that the paper was flooded, virtually swamped with angry letters. The editorial page folks would have felt they had to give more voice to the reader-critics only if there were an awful lot of them.

One more salient point: A number of news staffers, including the excellent reporter who is the primary writer on religion, argued long and hard against the paper’s participation in Palau’s revival, but they were brushed off.

The Strib’s top executives are clinging to their claim that they were right in doing what they did, and they obviously do not grasp why staffers and readers are deeply critical. They don’t seem to understand that many people are offended that the newspaper chose to align itself with a particular religion and, more, a particular sect of that religion which offends even many other Christians. And those executives are the people whose judgement, or lack thereof, determines what Minnesota’s major newspaper contains.

My other little tale of the past week involves an article I emailed to a number of people on my list of correspondents. It was a substantial article on the more than 12,000 American military personnel who have been seriously wounded in Iraq, with considerable unpleasant but necessary information on the extent and nature of the injuries. It also involves a lengthy staff-written package of articles in the Star Tribune about a soldier, a Minnesota woman, who is back in the state trying to recover from terrible head and body wounds suffered in Iraq.

One of my correspondents, a low-level editor at the newspaper, referred to the article I had emailed and suggested that the Strib had done right on the subject by running the articles on the injured Minnesota soldier.

Wrong, I’m afraid.

The Star Tribune pieces were, indeed, excellent. They did a superb job of detailing the horrors suffered by one soldier and in so doing brought some of that horror to the Minnesota public.

However, what my friend at the paper, and the editors, obviously didn’t grasp is that the Strib stories ran without context. Readers could not help but feel great sympathy for the wounded soldier, a once-lovely woman who, among other terrible wounds, now has a great indentation in her head where a large hunk of her skull was removed.

But the newspaper has provided its readers with almost no information on the number of seriously wounded American soldiers, nor has it said a single word that I can find about the types and extent of their wounds. (There is a pattern.) The typical reader will feel great sympathy for their fellow Minnesotan and never grasp that her story is just one of 12,000-plus such stories and that the number is climbing at a great and accelerating rate.

It is something the public needs to know, and our newspapers are hiding the facts.