The article was, as they said in Grandpa’s day, a corker. The headline and the story below it on the front page of The New York Times on Aug. 8 was enough to make the reader blink, not only on account of the contents–or, rather, the absence of contents–but also for its artless misdirection of the reader.
“Outcry Grows Over Police Use of Force in Genoa” the headline said, thus helping to convey the idea that, more than two weeks after the bloody attack of July 21 on the non-obstreperous people inside the Armando Diaz school in Genoa, the news of it was just beginning to seize the Italian pubic. In actuality, during and immediately after the G-8 meeting in that city, European newspapers–though not American ones–were full of denunciations and descriptions of the Italian police SWAT team beating the shit out of the young demonstrators. After breaking into the school, the officers, their faces concealed, lay about them with clubs, invoking the name of Benito Mussolini (who, may I say for the benefit of younger readers, was the World War II Fascist dictator of Italy and close collaborator of Adolf Hitler–whose name, I trust, is familiar to even the densest members of generations X, Y, Z and beyond).
The culmination of the carabiniere ‘s festivities was the hospitalization of about 60 people and the jailing of many others, during which some of the more attractive young women prisoners were forced to remove their clothes to facilitate the guards’ appreciation of the miraculous, even divine beauty of the unclothed human body. The scandal over the treatment of nonviolent demonstrators at this most recent meeting of the Eight Masters of the Universe caused protests and inquiries by various European governments before it reached the pages of The New York Times –where, under the headline quoted above, the following article, with its limp lead, appeared under the byline of Melinda Henneberger:
“More than two weeks ago, Susan Hager received a telephone call in Portland, Ore., about her daughter, a student who had stopped off in Genoa to join protesters at the Group of 8 summit meeting on her way to a junior year abroad program in Siena.
“‘Her friend had found her bloody belongings at the Armando Diaz school complex in Genoa where protesters had been staying, Mrs. Hager said. There, in the early hours of July 22, 92 young people were dragged from their beds by squads of Italian anti-riot police officers who beat and jailed them.”
Few of the disturbing particulars were to be found in the Henneberger piece, in which none of the reputed recipients of the Italian gendarmerie’s hospitality was interviewed. However, you could have read about one of the blood-smeared rooms in the school and the human teeth scattered here and there on the floor in The Wall Street Journal on Aug. 6. The Journal story, compiled by several reporters who did manage to interview the beatees, gave a long and detailed account of what happened to scores of the people whom we have come to know vaguely through our media as “anti-globalists.”
The Times ‘ piece, which came two days after The Journal scooped it on news that was already a fortnight old, reads as though it had been thrown together in an ill-concealed and amateurish effort at catch-up. Well, so be it, but then perhaps we should cease thinking of The Times as a news- paper and acknowledge it as an old paper; they got the news to America from Europe faster before Cyrus Field laid the Atlantic telegraph cable in 1856. Printing a story of national and international importance two to three weeks late was made even worse by beginning it with one of those abominable, cutesy-pie leads that have become the hallmark of second-rate newspaper writing.
We can only guess how the paper came to screw up on a major event in the ongoing, worldwide battle between unfettered, international capitalism and those who believe the summum bonum of human life may not be found in global free trade. Even though the events in Genoa have aroused fears of 19th-century anarchism, I doubt that it was the paper’s politics or a self-serving bias which caused it to miss this story. In all likelihood, the story was left uncovered by sloppiness, slough and the sleepy incompetence of an institution that has no competition and faces no consequences when it fails to do its job. I remember, when The Times was late with another story, being told by a Times man: “It doesn’t matter, because it didn’t happen until we put it in our newspaper.” Such arrogance plays a part in the faltering performance of a newspaper whose prominence and influence far outstrips the quality of its contents.
Times readers can be thankful that there’s enough respect for the standards of journalism left on 43rd Street for the paper to at least try to catch up with The Journal by going through the motions. Nonetheless, The Journal isn’t The Times’ natural predator. The two really don’t compete; thus, The Times is showing all the signs of an institution sunk in the comfort and safety that comes from having spent years untested and unchallenged. The fault, in the end, doesn’t lie with The Times. The truth is the finest thoroughbred won’t run its best in a one-horse race.
In radio news, much the same obtains. Commercial radio broadcasting no longer tries to be a medium of information, much less a news service, and has thereby abandoned the field to National Public Radio, a once-superlative news service that has morphed into a self-indulgent, insiders-only circle jerk, a humorous object, as per this piece in the Los Angeles Times by D.H. Hamlin, who wrote: “Stories you won’t see in these pages any time soon: . . . WASHINGTON–In a move designed to ‘enhance the coverage of news,’ executives for National Public Radio will fine reporters who open any news story airing on the noncommercial network with a ‘soft lead.’
“‘The practice of launching each and every news story with ambient sound and a personalized lead, a practice that both obscures and trivializes the news, is henceforth banned from NPR,’ said Waldo Whimpston, an editor.
“‘The next NPR reporter who leads a story about a major foreign policy initiative with a word portrait of a small child walking down an unpaved street over the sounds of local residents making wooden baskets is going to pay a $2,432 fine.’”
It may be asking too much for institutions which are, if not always fat and sassy, secure and untroubled to maintain an edge–to strive, to push, to take chances or even maintain a certain level of proficiency. Quantifying quality in journalism is not as cut-and-dried as ascertaining shoddy automobile production, but attempts have been made to do it, and one such is the Project on the State of American Newspapers. The editors of the recently published Leaving the Readers Behind (Gene Roberts, editor in chief; University of Arkansas Press, 2001) write that, “In a survey of ten metro newspapers the Project found that the percentage of newshole devoted to international events dropped from 5 percent in the mid-’60s to just 3 percent in the late nineties …. The survey of full-time reporters at all fifty state capitals found a total of only 513. To put that in perspective, more than three thousand media credentials are issued each year for the Super Bowl. And more than fifty thousand lobbyists are registered with state governments.” So who’s to know if The Times misses an important story such as the Genoa beatings? It was a fluke, the fact that The Journal –primarily a business paper–published the news that The Times did not. A few stories (usually the scandalous sexual yarns) are swarmed over by media thugs, but generally, important events are undercovered or not covered– vide the Armando Diaz school incident–and thus we learn of the news late, distorted and incomplete.
Increasingly, we are dependent on a single reporter working for a single content provider, to use the revealing vocabulary of the contemporary info corps. We are accustomed to statistics attesting to the disappearance of the independently owned daily newspaper. There are but 280 of them left in the United States, and it is certainly true that the chains have been merciless in sloughing off staff to maintain a return on operating revenues of an astonishing 20 percent on average. What has escaped the notice it deserves is the geographic clustering of newspapers under single ownership. The aim of management is to capture all the newspapers– dailies, weeklies and shoppers–in a given region so that printing costs can be cut by using one plant; comprehensive advertising deals can then be cut with merchandisers like Walmart, who also are organized in regional clusters; and payroll can be saved by having one reporter cover a story for all the news outlets in the region.
Writing in the book cited above, Jack Bass tells us that geographic concentration has matured to the point that, in 22 states, “one company already controls 20 percent or more of the daily newspapers …. Media General owns one third of all the dailies in Virginia. Lee Enterprises owns nearly half of Montana’s papers …. More than half of Oklahoma’s dailies belong to a single company …. Journal Register owns five of Connecticut’s eighteen daily newspapers; they cooperate in both news gathering and business operations.”
In effect, the newspaper industry has copied the automobile industry, which long since learned it could fool the buying public by selling the same car under the hood by giving it a different brand name and radiator design. In the newspaper game, the logo on top of the front page may be different, but what’s below it is the same, except for the high-school football scores.
Newsless newspapers have been around for a long, long time–say about 200 years. We’ve always had bad papers, but we’ve also had some good ones. The difference is now the good ones are gone.