October 19th, 2011 12:14 EST
The Myth of a Free Press is Worth Its Weight in Gold to Corporate America
A hard look at a routine story
On page three of today`s business section The New York Times reports that the publisher of the European edition of The Wall Street Journal has followed the honorable course " by stepping down because of a breach in the supposed wall between newsroom and business office.
An internal investigation had revealed an agreement between the newspaper`s circulation department and a Dutch company that received favorable attention in two articles.
In stepping down, publisher Andrew Langhoff said, Because the agreement coud leave the impression that news coverage can be influenced by commercial relationships, as publisher with executive oversight, I believe that my resignation is now the most honorable course. "
The Times story by Amy Chozick goes on to explain the dealings between the Dutch company, Executive Learning Partnership, and the Journal, which is a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch`s scandal-ridden and scandal-mongering News Corporation.
Ms. Chozick`s story is thorough and pointed, but at the end of the day and through no fault of hers it is also disingenuous in the same way that Mr. Langhoff`s resignation is misleading. It`s disingenuous because news operations are influenced every day by their advertisers and by their owners` predilections. Mr. Langhoff`s resignation is misleading, not because he is being disingenuous, but because he is falling on his sword where many other news executives treat such instances as routine business. The situation just happens to be hyper-sensitive at this moment in News Corporation`s history because it has been accused of phone-hacking in the United Kingdom.
This particular story deserves page three of the Times business section, but the larger story of the press`s compromises with advertisers, banks and other members of the financial sector deserves page one of any newspaper anywhere. The American press is not a free press, it is a press shaped by and beholden to the financial interests upon which it depends. But the myth of a free press is worth its weight in gold, and that is why the Times story makes no mention of the much larger phenomenon while painstakingly picking apart the details of this particular gesture.
It`s not a question of dishonesty at the top. Mr. Langhoff is responding to a specific set of circumstances, but every day, every hour news executives anticipate and second-guess their owners in order to hold on to their jobs and advance their careers, because it`s an unspoken truth in their culture that you can go only so far with a story that threatens advertisers, lenders and investors. In other words, the one-percent is watching you in the newsroom and you better find a way to look like a free press without entirely being one.
And that`s the ingredient missing from Ms. Chozick`s story and from all such stories "this song and dance about the appearance of a free and unbeholden press. That`s all it is, a song and dance, and Mr. Langhoff and Mr. Murdoch, like every every single one of their employees, know it. The wall between newsroom and business office has always been soft and porous. When you have idealistic owners the wall hardens. When you have greedy bastards for owners the wall is more like cotton candy. The press, when it was largely held by local families, strove on both sides of the wall to keep it honorable, but as news operations were sold to conglomerates the wall became a useful myth.
You can step on some toes some of the time, but there are other toes you had better not step on and you had better not look like the sort of person who is going to step on toes. Excellence will get you half way to the top in a newsroom, but deftness in relating to business interests is required for the distance. It would be hard to get a working journalist to agree with this assessment of the culture in which he or she works, because it`s a paycheck issue, but most journalists know it`s true.
The Watergate scandals and the courage and integrity of the Washington Post publisher, editors and reporters involved emboldened a generation of news people to think, to hope that scandals would always be exposed and bad guys would always get their due, if not at the hands of the authorities, then at the hands of the press, the people`s advocate. But in the years since Watergate the newspaper business has faltered, and there is far less wherewithal and far less editorial gumption than there once was. The entire business is scared and has little idea where technology is leading it. In such an environment the power of big money to influence the news is greater than it has ever been, just as the power of Corporate America to buy elections and government is at its zenith.
The Times story today has all the traditional trappings of a solid news story, a reliable performance of writer and editor. But it remains more notable for what it fails to say than what it says. The influences that keep news out of public view, just as the influences that bend, slant and spin it, are subtle and nuanced. They permeate the newsroom. Every day the careers of reporters and editors are aborted or curtailed because they stepped over an invisible line and got into trouble with big money, and every day careers are made because someone deftly anticipated big money`s responses and catered to them. This is the untold story, and if we are to be a fairer society it must somehow become understood.
Tomorrow Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City, a news mogul himself, intends to oust protesters of Occupy Wall Street from Zuccotti Park. If he gave a damn about their rights he would find an alternative cockpit for them to occupy and make themselves heard. But he is not interested in letting them be heard. When he strikes a blow tomorrow against freedom of expression remember that he is a media poobah and ask yourself who is toadying up to him in the newsroom and who is crossing the line at the risk of his or her career. The latter is an unsung hero, the former the usual careerist. One would hope for leaders of Mayor Bloomberg`s stature to respect the unsung heroes, as our founding father George Washington so famously did, but that would not seem to be the mayor`s style. He is a man who, having made a fortune because of the First Amendment, is now prepared to abrogate it, exhibiting thereby the very greed that has brought Americans into the streets.
Djelloul Marbrook`s first book, Far from Algiers (Kent State University Press, 2008) won the 2007 Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize and the 2010 International Book Award in poetry. Artists` Hill, an excerpt from his unpublished novel, Crowds of One, won the 2008 Literal LattÃ© first prize in fiction. Artemisia`s Wolf, a novella, was published by Prakash Books of India early in 2011. Alice Miller`s Room, a novella, was published in 1999 by OnlineOriginals.com (UK) as an e-book, and Bliss Plot Press of Woodstock, NY, recently published his novella, Saraceno, as an e-book. Orbis (UK), Smashwords.com, Potomac Review (Maryland) and Prima Materia (New York). His second book of poems is Brushstrokes and Glances (Deerbrook Editions, 2010). Recent poems were published by American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, Oberon, Meadowland Review, The Same, Reed, The Ledge, Poemeleon, Poets Against War, Fledgling Rag, Daylight Burglary, Le Zaporogue, Atticus, Long Island Quarterly, ReDactions, Istanbul Literary Review, Arabesques Literary and Cultural Review, Damazine, Perpetuum Mobile, Attic, and Chronogram. A retired newspaper editor and Navy veteran, he lives in Germantown, NY, with his wife Marilyn, and has lifelong ties to Woodstock.
Del`s book, Far From Algiers: http://upress.kent.edu/books/Marbrook_D.htm
New review of Far from Algiers: http://www.rattle.com/blog/2009/05/far-from-algiers-by-djelloul-marbrook/
Artists Hill, Literal LattÃ©`s fiction first prize: http://www.literal-latte.com/author/djelloulmarbrook/
His blog: http://www.djelloulmarbrook.com
His mother`s art: http://www.juanitaguccione.com
His aunt`s art: http://www.irenericepereira.com