Monday, January 03, 2005

No Freedom without a Free Press

The broad-daylight theft and repression of votes in the 2004 election goes largely unreported for reasons that are easy to understand if you simply imagine Columbus' Free Press news journal--nearly the sole open eye on the problems in Ohio--being purchased by a major corporate media chain. The first reporters to go, or to be assigned to write movie reviews, would be Harvey Wasserman, Steve Rosenfeld and Bob Fitrakis. (See their reports at

Locally owned news organizations are as vital to our democracy as our Constitution itself. Very few of today's political problems would be with us if the major newspapers and broadcast news organizations were run by the crusty editors of even a generation ago. That is a depressing fact, but it is also encouraging to know that, if we can fix this one problem, we fix many other problems with it.

The fact is, many of the stories being missed are good stories that would sell newspapers and boost broadcast audiences. "Bush linked to bin Laden family; arranges kin's speedy exit," would have been a headline guaranteed to make the newspaper vending machines slam and jingle. We could think of dozens of such opportunities during the last four years. Newsrooms, however, have become career battlegrounds where journalistic zeal has taken a back seat to creative lurking. The easiest way to deflect a story that could put you even one inch out on the limb is to label it a conspiracy theory.

The profit motive is the second problem. Newspapers used to be happy to return a 5% profit to their mostly local investors. Major newspapers now must produce 20% to 40% operating profits to keep the far-away CEO happy. How do you do that? It is cheaper to plant a reporter and a truck at the Scott Peterson trial for two months than to chase a dozen hard stories--especially stories that may require days or even weeks of work before an iffy payoff.

The third problem is that media conglomerates are run by the brand of CEO forged in the Reagan Administration's reign of corporate-raiding terror. Those highly-paid princes justified their pay by turning around companies soaked in debt from hostile takeovers or from self-inflicted overborrowing to stave off takeover. Those CEOs thrived on layoffs and outsourcing, factory closures and union-busting. The bigger the jerk, the more money commanded. They tended, in short, toward the Republican side of life. They are now in charge of much of our dwindling economy, and they write memos to editors who let leftie articles find their way into print or broadcast. They are not into benign neglect, because, if for no other reason, they hate it when Karl Rove calls about a story.

Forms of corporate torture, most notably the performance review, wherein the detainee it invited to list his or her own crimes and shortcomings, have taken over what used to be a mentored brotherhood and sisterhood of the news. Unpaid or low-paid interns now compete with young reporters, keeping entry wages low and making each promotion or performance review a critical emergency for the family budget.

I know people at major broadcast networks who have to clear all their stories with the top brass, and they are often asked to rewrite them from a more conservative point of view. It is soul-deadening to work for such organizations.

We have to save these folks--these dedicated reporters and editors who dearly wish they could be journalists again.

That will be one of our missions in the next few years. It must be, if we're to have a democracy.

Please see for this week's unreported big story: Ohio.



At 12:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a reporter with a Fox TV affiliate. You hit the nail on the head.

At 7:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Greetings. maybe it's high time that talented, dedicated and disgruntled editors,jounalists and independent-minded reporters forge an alliance with Democracy Now, FSTV, and the other dynamic activist groups that converged on Washington, D.C. Sepr. 24th demanding truth and justice and open up an indepedent newspaper in one of the major cities like New York, Chicago, or L.A. With someone with the integrity of Bill Moyers at the helm, I believe this could be the best thing to happen to America since sliced-bread. Thanks. Jim Pandaru

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