James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Times, and reporters, have changed

In the late 1960s and into the early 1970s, reporters, copy editors, photographers and some lower-level line editors – assistant city editors, assistant news editors and others -- at the Minneapolis Tribune raised a lot of hell with their employers.

There were at least two byline strikes – reporters exercising their right under the Newspaper Guild (union) contract with the publisher to withhold their names from stories they wrote because of what we regarded as ethical lapses by our bosses.

Once, the news staff chipped in to buy a full-page ad in our own newspaper to berate the publisher for allowing an advertiser to run an ad falsely accusing a reporter of factual errors in an article that had the potential to harm the advertiser's business.

Another time, staff members wore black armbands for a couple of weeks to protest the refusal of the newspaper's editor in chief to publish a series of well-documented stories that, again, had strong potential to damage some advertisers' businesses. The businesses were blatantly cheating customers through bait and switch and other tactics, and using full-page, full-color ads in the Tribune to do it.

I was the reporter/author of the series. Molly Ivins wrote about the incident, and some others, when she left the Tribune. The businesses in question have long since been shut down by local and state governments.

The staff, incidentally, won about two-thirds of those battles. In the case of the advertiser who slandered the reporter, the Tribune's publisher and editor apologized in print.

At the time, the Tribune was consistently rated as one of the top 20, sometimes best 10, newspapers in the country.

For a while, some of the news staff met weekly on their own time in homes or the back rooms of bars to talk about journalism, particularly as practiced at our newspaper. Attendance at the meetings varied from about 12 or 15 to as many as 40 or 45.

Organizers of the discussions included to-be-famous Ivins, a talented photographer called Skip Heine (now long out of newspapers), a hardnosed, Mike Wallace sort of reporter by the name of Bernie Shellum who later went to the Detroit Free Press, and one Jim Fuller, a rather dour young man who had a reputation for making complex topics understandable and for pursuing the kind of crook who wore hand-tailored suits and belonged to the most exclusive clubs.

Bear with me. This has a purpose other than nostalgia.

After the first three or four unofficial staff meetings, some of the newspaper's senior editors asked permission to attend. They had heard about the discussions and wanted to participate, or at least listen. Permission was readily granted, with the understanding that their positions at the paper gave them no privileges at our meetings.

We were quite successful in avoiding the kind of day-to-day bitching that filled countless hours at the Little Wagon, a bar just down the street from the Tribune's (and Minneapolis Star's) offices and plant.

Topics included some inside baseball, such as use of photographs to help tell a story rather than merely decorate it, the construction of headlines and English usage standards. But the majority of discussion was on issues of broad significance.

One session I recall led to consensus on a subject that had long been skirted. The large majority of the staff, somewhat in opposition to the position of the newspaper's editor, held that mere title – be it president of the United States or board chairman of a corporation – did not automatically carry with it the right to exposure on the front page of the newspaper, or, indeed, anywhere in it.

More specifically, we were strongly against giving prominent display to statements or claims repeated for a third, fourth or fifth time. If it ain't news, it ain't news, in other words. We weren't in the business of flacking for politicians or other big shots.

Although there wasn't one of us who didn't love to be first with a story, we came down hard for giving accuracy powerful precedence over quick coverage. If the facts weren't certain, we should hold until they had been verified, even if the story already was on the air. (That hurt, but we meant it.)

We also required of ourselves and our bosses that statements by the powerful be as thoroughly checked as those by lesser beings. A mere statement of something as fact didn't mean it was fact until it was checked and contrary interpretations were solicited and evaluated.

There was quite a lot more along those lines.

We sometimes slipped, of course, and some of the people we worked for, solicitous of the powerful and their own positions, occasionally slipped something in on us. But for the most part those discussions helped keep us honest and working hard to achieve real balance, fairness and honesty in our reporting. The battles with our bosses helped keep them at least mostly honest. And the truth is, they mostly wanted to be honest and to foster excellent journalism.

And the point of talking about this now?

There is no chance whatever – absolutely none – that such activity involving the staff of a large American newspaper will be seen again, and there is no chance that such concerted striving for unattainable levels of performance in news reporting will return.

The often arrogant and mostly intellectually timid members of today's news staffs would scoff at such activities. Too idealistic, too high school.

Newspapers and broadcast outlets of 2007 are owned and supervised by people whose essential goals have almost nothing to do with the quality of journalism. They are about making money, and almost nothing else.

The staffs of today's newspapers are almost entirely made up of people of upper middle class (or economically higher) background who live in affluent suburban neighborhoods and have little or no acquaintance with anyone different from themselves. And, yes, that includes most of those of racial or other ethnic minorities. They were raised to believe, and do believe, that this country is pretty much run by those who should be running it. They tend to believe that although the Bush crowd is too far to the right, it's biggest crime is mere incompetence.

They are people who reject many ideas and potential truths without examination as being “too far out” and, perhaps, born of “conspiracy theories” -- a favorite way of dismissing ideas and possible facts that may prove uncomfortable or difficult to deal with.

Most certainly, those who inhabit today's news rooms would never consider banding together to butt heads with the people who run things. It just isn't done, doncha know.

Anyway, they much more resemble a basketball squad of would-be individual stars than, say, a baseball team on which everyone strives for the good of the team, standing ready to lay down a sacrifice bunt when useful although a double would look better in the individual stats.

We need some way to get facts, including facts that run contrary to the stances of those who rule, to the people of this country. We're not going to get much help from today's corporately owned newsrooms. We must recognize that and look elsewhere, perhaps establish our own journalism outlets -- blogs don't cut it -- or invent new approaches. Maybe we need to go back to the days of the American Revolution and the pamphleteers and start over.

And we'd damned well better get going.


Plan now to watch a new Bill Moyers special on Public Television April 25. Time is 9 p.m. Eastern, I believe.

The advertised topic is the lies the Bush administration told to sell the public on the invasion of Iraq -- including some which haven't been widely exposed for what they were -- but the real focus is on the active support and help the liars received from news outlets, particularly television.

One critic who has previewed the show suggests that "you'll never watch television news again -- not even on PBS, which comes in for its share of criticism."

If that's true, it probably will be a very good thing.