Markos Moulitsas, whose DailyKos helped shift the nation’s politics leftward, once noted that newspaper circulation began its steady decline in 1993, well before the rise of the Internet, and that “what the newspaper industry is trying to save right now isn’t ‘journalism’, it’s ‘shareholder value’.” Moulitsas created a site that regularly produces critical news “missed” by newspapers and the corporate media, often by design. And Daily Kos does this at a fraction of the budget of a major newspaper.
But he is an all too rare voice questioning the oft-repeated link between newspapers and the survival of democracy, and the profit-hungry media giants’ redefining themselves as agents of the public interest. The fact is that the rise of corporate media ownership weakened the quality of newspapers, and that while the Internet expedited the decline, an inferior product, not lack of money, is the top problem.
For example, the San Francisco Chronicle responded to a recent crisis by rerunning top stories of the past 144 years, and by profiling prominent people who once graduated from Bay Area schools. And then it blames the Internet for its failure to attract new readers.
As papers identify their fight for greater profits as a public interest struggle, one gets the impression that people’s concern with protecting current reporter jobs — an absolutely critical priority — is causing them to make a case for newspapers’ value unsupported by facts. Specifically, newspaper defenders so frequently tout their role in funding “investigative journalism” and providing local coverage that one can almost forget their failure to question the Bush Administration almost until the very end, and their consistent promotion of downtown developers and real estate interests in virtually every major city.
Profit-Driven Local Coverage
Since the newspaper industry’s failure to provide quality reporting at the national level has been often documented — and the often-cited example of the Washington Post’s Watergate series only confirms how far people must go back to show how newspaper investigative reporting made a difference — let’s focus on the emerging myth that newspapers provide a valuable service in covering local affairs.
In San Francisco, Chicago and New York City, such coverage has amounted to cheerleading downtown development and gentrification at every opportunity, while largely ignoring the plight of victims until they are powerless to object. Far from their current marketing drive to become identified as a public service, newspapers have likely done even more to further economic and social injustice locally than nationally.
San Francisco Bay Area residents know the Chronicle’s consistent promotion of landlords and real estate interests, its opposition to any laws protecting tenants, its promotion of every downtown development project, and its ignoring the victims of gentrification and greed until it runs its Season of Sharing campaign from Thanksgiving through New Year’s. Despite the appearance of positive stories, you will never convince me that, on balance, the greater public good is served by Chronicle coverage of local affairs.
But there is nothing unique about the Chronicle’s subservience to the local real estate community. Real estate ads are how newspapers used to make money, and, as we saw in San Francisco when realtors pulled ads from the San Francisco Progress to protest the paper’s support of pro-vacancy control mayoral candidate Art Agnos in 1987 — the real estate community can even kill a small newspaper.
Remember Sydney Schanberg
If you think its only traditionally Republican papers like the Chronicle or Chicago Tribune that slant local news coverage to favor Big Real Estate, consider the New York Times’ treatment of Sydney Schanberg.
After winning two George Polk awards and a Pulitzer Prize for his international reporting for the Times, Schanberg was removed as the paper’s metropolitan affairs columnist in 1985 for criticizing the Times’ role in promoting a controversial Manhattan highway project.
Here is how Schanberg describes it:
“In two of roughly 25 Westway columns I wrote over a four-year span, I sharply criticized the New York press as a whole for failing to provide serious, credible coverage of Westway. I didn’t mention The Times by name, though, in fairness, any Times reader would have known that I was including my own paper, not least because The Times’ editorial page was an enthusiastic Westway supporter.
“Also, Westway was hardly just a “highway project,” as Ms. Tifft described it, but more like a $4-billion-plus real estate boondoggle that was eventually blocked by a Federal judge who, among other findings, said the project’s backers had committed “perjury” in his courtroom.”
That the Times would reassign a journalist that had brought such luster to the paper — Schanberg’s book on Cambodia became the film The Killing Fields — shows the extent to which it would go to protect its relationships with developers, and its own profits. The Times consistently aligns with landlords on local tenant issues and land use fights, and its local coverage has encouraged the rapid gentrification of New York City.
Nobody should suggest that the Times’ local coverage is driven by public service, rather than private profits. And its no coincidence that Times columnists keep their distance from local land use fights, as there have been a number of Westway-like projects backed by the paper since Schanberg’s removal.
Newspapers had a monopoly on print journalism for so long that some seem incapable of connecting with the new generations of readers. Nowhere is this clearer than in our local San Francisco Chronicle.
Since its recent threat to shutdown absent new labor agreements, the Chronicle has aggressively moved … backward. The paper is now filled with stories about events that occurred in the past — not the recent past, but decades-old events.
The Chronicle chose this point in its history to devote pages and pages to Herb Caen, Art Hoppe, and the staple of longtime gone columnists who few under 35 years of age ever read. Unsolved murders from the past often dominate the front pages, as if this is catnip for the young readers the paper needs to attract.
The Chronicle has the look and feel of a paper whose leadership has given up. When it merges with the Media News Corp. or another conglomerate, there should be sadness for the reporters who went down with the ship, but excitement over the new opportunities for quality journalism that will emerge.
Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the author of the new book, Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century (University of California Press)
Republished with permission from Beyond Chron