Thursday, May 7, 2015

ARE COWS BECOMING TOO SACRED FOR TOO MANY OF TODAY'S TROUBLED NEWSPAPERS?

My friend Michael H. Price, who I worked with many years ago at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, posted this provocative early 20th Century cartoon, by socialist editorial cartoonist Art Young, depicting the newspapers of the time as brothels:


With the posting, Mike wrote: "The newspaper racket as a brothel. True enough at the start of the 20th Century, when Art Young published this cartoon, and truer in the Great Here & Now. Exceptions all along, of course, but fewer and fewer exceptions. Too much Bread & Circuses, and nowhere near enough provocative substance."

I really wish I could disagree with Mike, but, frankly, I think the sentiment expressed in this cartoon is just as accurate today -- with newspapers continuing to suffer financial hardships due to declining advertising revenues -- as it probably was then. Perhaps even more so.

I've touched on this topic before, in my Feb. 13, 2015, post "NEWSPAPER ETHICS: MAINTAINING (OR NOT) THE LINE BETWEEN DOLLARS AND SENSE," which you will find still available among my older blog posts.

Many of today's papers have seemingly accorded "scared cow" status to large local advertisers -- who seem to have no qualms about using the weight of their advertising dollars to bully publishers and editors -- and to prominent local people, business leader and particularly vocal groups in their communities who raise objections to certain kinds of content.

Once upon a time, back when newspapers were making higher profits than almost any other industry in the United States, most reputable newspapers took great pride in contending they had no sacred cows.

Prominent among those newspapers was afternoon Louisville Times -- where I took my first, post-college reporting job in 1970 -- and its morning sister publication, The Louisville Courier-Journal. But even then and even there, the "no sacred cows" contention wasn't exactly true as I learned when I wrote a story about Democrat Louisville Mayor Dr. Harvey I. Sloane not paying several years worth of a state tax (the exact title of which I can no longer recall) that applied only to those who, like Sloane, were extremely wealthy.

I knew Sloane was good friends with the also very wealthy Bingham family, owners of the papers at the time, who had thrown their full and the newspaper's full support behind his bid to become mayor.

By the time I turned in the story to the city desk the evening before it was to be published in the next afternoon's paper, I had all of my facts confirmed and double checked and even had the mayor acknowledging that he'd "overlooked" the payments due under the tax and his promise that he would immediately make good on what he owed.  My editors and I figured that with all of this nailed down, the cozy relationship between the Binghams and the mayor wouldn't matter when it came to publishing a story about him being significantly delinquent -- we're talking many tens of thousands for dollars delinquent (over the intervening 40 some years I can't recall the exact amount, but I think is was something like $72,000 and change) -- in the payment of any rightfully owed tax.

We were wrong.

When my story was published in the day's first edition, it appeared stripped six-columns across the top of the front page under a large headline that said something like "Mayor fails to pay $72,000 in taxes."

When copies of the first edition hit Publisher Barry Bingham Jr.'s desk, our managing editor, apparently got a call from Barry Jr. raising cain over the story.

As a result, in the day's second edition, the story was moved to the bottom of the page, with the same headline. But that apparently didn't salve Barry Jr.'s state of pisstivity. He didn't want the story on Page 1, period. In addition, Bingham contended that the story was minimalized by my high-up sentence explaining that the particular tax Sloane owed only applied to the very wealthy.

So, by the day's final edition, the story had been moved to a page deep inside the local section under the headline "Mayor fails to pay obscure tax."

As a reporter and then editor at other newspapers where I worked throughout most of the rest of my more than 44 year career, I encountered similar experiences, even though most of those papers also took great pride in saying they had no sacred cows.

Of course, I did enjoy and number of instances where advertisers or prominent individuals and/or business leaders were told that their dollars or their influence were not going to interfere with the publication of valid news stories.

One such instance occurred while I was assistant managing editor for news and projects at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in connection with the Bell Helicopter series that went on to win the 1985 Public Service Pulitzer Prize. The series dealt with a design flaw in some of the helicopters that Fort Worth-based Bell Helicopter built for the U.S. military. In the five-day series, Washington Bureau Reporter Mark Thompson revealed the design flaw -- which led to an in-flight phenomenon called "mast bumping" -- had caused the deaths of nearly 250 service men between 1973 and 1984 and that it had gone uncorrected even after Bell's chief attorney brought it to the attention of company executives in 1979 and recommended the problem be fixed immediately.

The series, which began its five-day run on Sunday, March 25, 1984. enraged Jack Horner, president of Bell, which was the city's single largest employer. On Monday morning the furious Horner called to speak to Publisher Phil Meek, who was out of town. So he settled for screaming over the phone at Executive Editor Jack Tinsley, demanding the series be immediately halted, that the people responsible for it be immediately fired and that a top-of-the-front-page apology to Bell Helicopter be published across six-columns of the Tuesday paper, or else.

Tinsley called me -- as the editor responsible for overseeing those who produced and did the primary editing on the series and for actually putting it in the paper -- into his office. Frankly, I fully expected to be fired.

However, Tinsley told me he had reached Phil Meek by phone and informed him of Horner's demands.

"I asked him what I should tell Horner and Phil told me to tell Horner to go fuck himself. So, that's pretty much what I did," Tinsley told me. Although, by that afternoon, all of our single-copy sales boxes on Bell property had been ripped up and tossed outside the plant gates and a group of Bell employees had begun picketing outside the newspaper, the series continued and my job, Thompson's job and job of State Editor Roland Lindsey, who directly oversaw Thompson, were safe. Here is a link to the stories that were part of the series, which I still think is one of the finest examples of quality American journalism: https://sites.google.com/site/mthompsondc/star-telegramseries.

Considering the financial condition of most newspapers, I wonder how many of today's publishers would come up with that sort of response to livid complaints from an important advertiser, business leader or heavy hitting employer.

I fear the answer is not very many.

Certainly, during the waning years before my retirement as editor of The Monitor in McAllen, Texas, and departure from the newspaper business, I experienced several incidents in which important local advertisers where allowed to directly browbeat me, call me unethical and irresponsible and even accuse me or one or more of my reporters of taking payoffs during meetings called to let them bitch about things published in the newspaper that they didn't like.

And, as I communicate with editor and reporter friends who still are employed at other newspapers around the country, I hear more and more tales of such incidents in which outside influencers are allowed to successfully interfere with what gets published in their papers. The main reason usually being cited is fear of lost advertising revenue. The consequence, valid and important news stories with, as my friend Mike Price put it, "provocative substance" -- and even online comments from readers on some stories that do get published -- are being thwarted.

The result: As more of these sorts of things happens, readers lose faith and trust in their newspaper, which loses relevance for them. And we all know what happens when people no longer feel their newspaper is relevant in their lives.

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