James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Bad news for journalism -- and citizens

This is a sad week for American journalism and that minority of the public that still wants to see honest reporting, and lots of it, on the major happenings and issues of the day.

Wait. Let me take another stab at that.

This week has provided us with a notable landmark in the long, sad deterioration of American journalism and the concomitant deterioration of American democracy.

Many readers will know immediately that I'm talking about the purchase of Knight Ridder, Inc., by McClatchy Co.

Knight Ridder is publisher of the Miami Herald, Philadelphia Inquirer and 30 other daily newspapers around the country. Its holdings include the St. Paul Pioneer Press -- founded in 1849, and Minnesota's oldest newspaper-- and the Duluth News Tribune, the daily in northern Minnesota's landmark port city.

McClatchy, based in Sacramento, Calif., owns Minnesota's biggest newspaper, the Star Tribune, and 11 other dailies, plus 17 weeklies, mostly in the western part of the country. In terms of revenue and number of dailies, it is only about a third the size of the company it is buying -- “a dolphin swallowing a whale,” as one industry analyst put it.

The Scarmento company bought what we familiarly call the Strib in 1998. It's been chipping away at the paper's journalism standards and performance ever since, but has become particularly energetic at that task during the past year or two.

More of that a little later.

McClatchy intends, or hopes, to sell the Pioneer Press, News Tribune and 10 other Knight Ridder papers to someone else.

One of the sadder and most discouraging aspects of the deal is that it was forced on a reluctant Knight Ridder management by a handful of madly greedy super-rich guys led by one Bruce Sherman, who generally is identified as a money manager. He operates under the name Private Capital Management, through which he (primarily) and his investors hold 12.2 million Knight Ridder shares – about 18 percent of the company's stock, making him the largest shareholder.

Sherman's complaint, and the reason he demanded that the publishing company be sold is that it's profits dropped somewhat in it's most recent fiscal year and it returned ONLY 16 percent on investment.

That, for people who don't follow business and economic news, is a rate of return that executives in most companies in most industries would joyfully kill their grandmothers, parents and children to get. It is out of the reach of all but a handful of businesses. But, of course, some newspaper publishers get 20 percent.

In making his demand, which was widely reported, Sherman griped about limited growth potential in newspapers and “the difficulties the company has faced in realizing the fair value of the company for its shareholders.”

Fair value?

The episode is symbolic of what has become of the newspaper business and goes a considerable distance toward explaining why our newspapers get weaker and less responsible by the day.

Simply, a majority are owned by people who regard them as cash cows, people who don't give a damn for journalism – or democracy, or the U.S. Constitution or what we used to call “the American way of life,” for that matter. In fact, they tend to be among the enthusiastic supporters and financial backers of the right-wing politicians who are crusading to turn this country into a plutocracy.

Knight Ridder often has behaved in ways that enraged journalists who care deeply about their profession – chipping away at investment in news operations and squeezing employees financially, demanding more and more for less and less -- but its executives nevertheless have shown far more responsibility than parasites like Sherman, who now infest much of the business.

So perhaps the sale of Knight Ridder to McClatchy is a good thing for journalism and specifically for the newspapers involved?

Nope. Not, at least, for the papers McClatchy will keep.

It's impossible to say yet what will happen with the 12 that will be put on the block again. Some of them may be run into the ground by subsequent owners. There are strong rumors to the effect that a buyer or buyers already are lining up at the counter, and we can hope that stronger papers, such as the Pioneer Press with it's too-small but highly professional staff, will thrive under responsible owners, but it's far too early to see what may happen.

It's not so hard to predict what will happen to the newspapers McClatchy will keep.

A newly released report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, an organization tied to the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the funded by Pew Charitable Trusts, boils down to this: There is enormous repetition of stories in broadcast and print news; a handful of stories are covered in huge detail, with great repetition, at any given time. Fewer and fewer stories get covered, and of those that do, many are less significant than events that get little or no coverage. To look at all the various aspects of the study, go to http://stateofthenewsmedia.org/2005/

McClatchy is singled out only for the fact that its newspapers, notably the Star Tribune, showed increases in circulation while a majority of papers lost readers.

But the truth is that with the Star Tribune, the company took what was one of the country's best newspapers and is aggressively turning it into television in print. It could be the poster publication illustrating the trends cited by the Project for Excellence study.

The Strib editorial pages have for many decades taken a moderately liberal view of the world, which is very much the tone of Minneapolis and much of the rest of the state. Slowly at first, then very rapidly and aggressively over the past six to eight months, McClatchy has been transforming the opinion pages into a home for the least intelligent of right-wing idealogues – the real dimwits such as Mona Charen and others who usually are published only by papers with openly far-right agendas in both editorial and news operations. Meanwhile, powerful voices from the left, such as Paul Krugman, Molly Ivins and Maureen Dowd, have been all but banished from the paper, and their best and most solidly documented commentaries do not see print in the Strib.

There used to be a pretty fair balance between liberal and conservative-to-right op-ed columnists. Someone on the paper's staff passed me a count of op-ed columns between Feb. 1 March 12 of this year. The count: 19 pieces by liberal commentators, 33 by conservative to far-right columnists.

The paper's own editorial writers continue to be liberal-leaning, but given the pressures now obviously in play, it is reasonable to expect a change, and probably soon.

A while back, the paper's policy on letters to the editor was changed, so that only the briefest of reader comments get printed. On any given day, no more than two letters are likely to be longer than two or three paragraphs, and the longer ones usually are no more than five paragraphs. It's an effective way to keep well-informed readers from saying anything meaningful.

On its news pages, the Star Tribune now often exemplifies the old claim that nothing exceeds like excess.

Former baseball star Kirby Puckett died March 6. As a baseball fan, and a Minneapolis resident, I will gladly concede that Puckett was a larger-than-life personality in this part of the world. His death had to be covered and his career and post-career life reviewed.

But we have seen an orgy of Puckett coverage that has, finally, aroused the ire of every rational Minnesotan I know. It's still going on as I write this on March 14. Most of the stories about the man have been told six, seven or 10 times. The paper is pawing the man's entrails, searching for something to say. The deaths of Dwight Eisenhower and even Jack Kennedy got less ink.

The paper prints a special section every time there is a sports tournament in the area, and sometimes for second-level events that aren't within 1,000 miles. We get, literally, dozens of stories on a “pop culture” --meaning youth culture – phenomenon such as “American Idol” in the course of a couple of months. But significant news stories, especially those reflecting badly on the Bush crowd and other right-leaning political and business leaders, routinely are frozen out.

Almost off the top of my head, here are some stories reported elsewhere over the past few days but ignored or reduced to a well-hidden paragraph or two by the Strib:

*There is a new attempt this week to include oil drilling in the Arctic wildlife preserve in the federal budget bill. The Strib hasn't noticed.

*A right-wing state legislator is pushing a requirement for a (costly) picture ID for anyone who wants to vote in the state; given the makeup of the Legislature, the bill may have some chance. It would suppress votes among the elderly and the poor. Even the author of the bill admits there is virtually no voter fraud in Minnesota. No mention of his move in the Strib.

*The brutalizing of Cindy Sheehan and other antiwar activists by New York cops did not get a story in the Strib, which routinely ignores antiwar activities.

*Several recent reports on the huge profits made by American and British companies operating in Iraq failed to make the Strib's pages.

*There have been several new reports in other places on rueful Americans who were involved in torture in Iraq and elsewhere. At least one report laid the responsibility for orders to torture directly on the doorstep of the Pentagon. The Strib apparently didn't think that was worth notice.

*If you depend entirely on the Star Tribune for international news, you know next to nothing about the horrors taking place in Sudan and now Chad. You will be totally unaware of the constant state of chaos and mayhem in Haiti, and of the fact that the Bush administration is largely responsible for creating the situation and allowing it to continue -- even though there are a number of Twin Cities residents who know the situation well, have seen what's going on first hand and are in regular contact with Haitian residents.

Give me a few hours to pull up files, and I can extend the list by dozens of stories. Literally. No day passes without turning up two or three important stories the Strib ignores or buries. And no day passes that it doesn't fill half its available news space with useless drivel. And I do not count as drivel standard sports coverage or regular, often useful, features such as food columns, home and garden pieces, travel articles and the like.

There also is a major defect in the newspaper's staff-produced political coverage, notably an inclination to use what should be slant-free news articles to support the power structure and belittle liberals and anyone who objects to the status quo. Much of the damage is produced by one particularly smug reporter who regularly is allowed to insert commentary into what are presented as news stories – as when he recently advised a candidate for the U.S. Senate seat to be vacated by Democrat Mark Dayton to "find mainstream positions heading toward the general election, and maybe keep a little distance from liberals such as Dayton.”

The relatively bad Knight Ridder papers will stay bad, but probably look better under design-conscious McClatchy. The good newspapers undoubtedly will be dumbed down to a level that McClatchy executives find comfortable, and, inevitably, those that don't dwell well to the right on the political spectrum will be moved rapidly in that direction.