News & Views from 465 California Street

The Free Press

Clint Reilly

The Free Press is an institution which democracy cannot do without — much to the chagrin of just about anyone who comes into consistent contact with reporters and television cameras. The theology that reporters capture photo-realistic snapshots is a quaint notion taught in Journalism 101. Existentialism preaches that the same object viewed by many people will spark myriad descriptions — often contradictory. Applying the Ten Commandments is easier said than done. Ethicists acknowledge that the line between morality, amorality, and immorality is often hard to find. Democracy is an adversarial process where opposing sides present their version of the facts to a jury of their peers — and the jury decides. Truth necessitates a competition of ideas and points of view. Hence, the indispensability of those underpaid, overworked, biased, disheveled folks known as journalists and the necessary role played by the greedy, corrupt media conglomerates which transmit information. The Great American Free Speech Machine is plugged in.

The trend toward media consolidation is eliminating newspapers, journalists, and competing news organizations at an alarming rate. The Internet as a news delivery system and advertising medium has posed Darwinian challenges that have rocked media firms. A decline in circulation and revenues has led to widespread lay offs of reporters, cutbacks in news coverage, and closing of papers. A series of one newspaper towns and one chain regions now blanket California and whole areas of the nation.

A. J. Liebling covered journalism for The New Yorker for twenty-eight years. His observations appeared in articles, essays, and books. In his book, THE PRESS, published in 1961, Liebling wrote, “What you have in a one newspaper town is a privately owned public utility that is constitutionally exempt from public regulation …. As to freedom of the individual journalist in such a town, it corresponds exactly to what the publisher will allow him. He can’t go over to the opposition because there isn’t any……”

In San Francisco, a single beleaguered paid circulation newspaper chronicles daily events. The San Francisco Chronicle has fired three publishers since 2000 when the Hearst Corporation purchased the Chronicle and attempted to precipitously close the San Francisco Examiner — the founding newspaper of the Hearst Empire. Hearst has invested $1.2 billion dollars in the Chronicle, including annual losses as high as $75 million dollars. Mysteriously, a single executive editor has controlled the editorial product for all of these seven years of financial carnage — a clear message to staff and readers that the newspaper itself has nothing to do with the success or failure of a newspaper. With boots firmly planted on the desk, the executive editor has ordered more battlefield strategies than Commander in Chief George Bush. The executive editor’s latest battle cry — “Action Journalism” – was fathered by William Randolph Hearst himself. The phrase supposedly connotes public interest advocacy. In a one newspaper town it can easily mean selective fawning and biased crusading. Examples are the Chronicle’s sycophantic genuflections to social and business elites, misinformed and misdirected investigative stories on the San Francisco Police Department (which missed the mark on the real scandal of management incompetence in fighting crime compared to police strategies pursued by nearly every Big City department in the nation), a persistent pro-Gavin Newsom bias, and wildly contradictory and exploitative coverage of the homeless crisis. At various times under the executive editor’s leadership, the Chronicle was targeted to become a “world class regional newspaper” and “a hyper local San Francisco daily.” Unfortunately, it often appears to the reader as a grotesque centaur — trying to be both and becoming neither. Only twenty percent of San Franciscans subscribe.

A. J. Liebling coined this pointed aphorism…. “A city with one newspaper is like a man with one eye, and often the eye is glass.” In the 1500′s Erasmus observed, “In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king.”

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