Michael Aron: ‘New Jersey never lets you down’

NEW BRUNSWICK – To the deadline set, there is not a more recognizable presence in Trenton than that of NJN News Acting Director Michael Aron, the dean of New Jersey media, who since Gov. Chris Christie’s budget address in March hasn’t been able to walk through the Statehouse without drawing sympathetic looks and associative murmurs over the condition of a public network the governor described just two weeks ago as broken.

“We’ve had a couple of guillotine moments,” Aron acknowledged of a veteran newsroom that now feels a little like waiting under a blade, which keeps getting stuck on its way down but still looms ominously.

First came Christie’s budget pronouncement that the state would have to bail on the television business, then Christie’s July 1st deadline for the network to go dark, and then the distribution of pink slips to staff last month demarcating a new, Dec. 31st network’s end as entities like Stockton College, Montclair University and others explore their respective capacities to absorb some version of network operations.

While he recognizes that NJN‘s fate now hinges on the largess of big donors and the combined will of the governor and the legislature, the veteran of New Jersey public television is hopeful, both of the network he loves and of his own work.

“I’ve been a journalist for more than 40 years,” Aron told PolitickerNJ.com on a break from work at Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute for Politics. “I fell into it accidentally after grad school and took to it. I enjoyed it. I came to New Jersey in 1978 to work at NJ Monthly Magazine. I had gotten fired from Rolling Stone. If the offer had come from Connecticut Monthly, I might not have taken it. Too white bread. But New Jersey appealed to me. And it’s proved true. New Jersey never lets you down. If you’re a journalist, the politics are for real, a microcosm of everything going on in America, and it’s been a privilege and an honor to work for the state’s television for 28 years.  

“I want NJN to survive in some robust fashion and that’s my total focus at the moment,” added the network’s news director. “I haven’t started looking for work. I don’t expect to get laid off and I don’t expect to retire. Pro forma steps have taken on me, but I’m not job hunting. I have faith it will survive because people like it. Not hundreds of thousands – but tens of thousands. It’s been a difficult year, my pink slip is in my briefcase, but it will survive and transition acceptably to me and everyone else who cares about it.”

The governor’s position bluntly is that state government should not be in the business of television.

“I think what’s envisioned for us is something similar to Channel 13 in New York or WHYY in Philadelphia; that is, television controlled by independent non-profit entities,” Aron said. “I don’t think the powers that be want the coverage to go away.”

The newsman said he doesn’t necessarily see a structural change as negative, but fears the consequences of the state casting the network off in this economy without requisite backup.

“I do believe that if the funding is there, wherever it comes from, and whatever it is to maintain a staff, the new overseers will want the same kind of independent coverage we offer now,” he said. “Journalistically, it makes sense to be independent of the governor and the legislature. We’ve lived for 40 years with the perception that we lived too close to the people who fund us and therefore we take it easy on them. To not have that connection might give us the structural independence.

“What I worry about is the state needs to continue to fund it, as is the case with 95% of states, because this particular moment in time is not ideal. What I’d like to see is an attempt to tap the private sector with the understanding that if that effort falls short, government will step in and provide balance. It’s all in the hands of the governor’s office and legislative leadership and the legislature.”

There is nothing right now that suggests to him a safety net will be part of a deal to preserve some version of NJN.

“I think there’s been a tremendous outpouring of face-to-face support,” he said. “I can’t walk through the Statehouse without people saying ‘good luck, don’t go away.’ Of course, sometimes I feel like I’m newly crippled. People seem to be taking pity on me. I appreciate their sympathy, but everybody is just waiting on the Governor, Senate President and the Assembly Speaker.”

Amplifying his case against the present NJN network structure, Christie made a comment in the press about the fact that there was no coverage on Thanksgiving Day. There were events that day, and no camera crews or nightly news.

“To which I say, there used to be,” Aron said. “We had coverage on state holidays until our funding was cut so much that we couldn’t afford to be open. …We have to adapt and change, but we’ve been adapting and changing with fewer and fewer resources for years.”

Of course, Aron remembers when then-Gov. Christie Todd Whitman compared to NJN to Pravda and threatened to shut down the network, a plan of action that failed then.

But now it’s arguably different terrain. A $10 billion deficit doesn’t help, and neither does a governor who recognizes the inherent conflict in a journalistic enterprise run by the state, which simultaneously covers the state, not to mention a predilection for independent journalism instead of state-sponsored journalism. And,” Aron added, “Some think NJN is liberal and pro-Democrat and should be muzzled. A combination of these factors has brought us to this point.”

What about that last charge?  
“I  say bullshit,” he said. “We’re professional journalists. We are right down the middle. We are very careful to not take sides. The ultimate accolade is ‘you’re fair,’ and we get told that all the time. I think that’s what we have been on balance. We are balanced. We respect the process unlike some news organizations that are prominent news organizations in the state, we cover the state government with an appreciation of what various actors and players are trying to do. That can sometimes look like softness or kissing up but it’s just a respect for the process.”

But while the bias factor dogs neither the career of the universally respected Aron nor others on the NJN team, a handful of older Republicans still grumble about the aftermath of the 1993 gubernatorial election.   

“When Jim Florio lost to Christie Whitman, I was approached by George Norcross and John Lynch, who were then the new powers in the Democratic Party,” Aron recalled. “They asked if I wanted to be executive director of the Democratic State Committee, and they offered 30-40% more money than what I was earning. They made it seem attractive. I told my news director I had this offer and he told me ‘I have to take you off the air, I don’t want you covering politics while you’re thinking about what you want to do.’ They wanted to make Tom Byrne chair and me the executive director.

“So it was the week of the chamber train trip when I took a week off to consider this. Every chamber trip features the governor as an honorary member of Reporter’s Roundtable. And (another NJN newsman), bless his heart, during the show said, ‘Michael Aron’s not doing the show, how do you feel about him covering politics? And to Governor Whitman’s credit, she said, ‘I don’t know if that’s true, but they could do a lot worse.’ I was dying at home as I watched that. Two days later, I decided not to take the job. It didn’t feel right to give up journalism. But it took a year or two for Republicans to stop talking about it. By 1996, I thought I had outlived that tag, that mantle, that aroma.”

No public plan for a sustainable network exists, as of right now. Key Democrats defend the state-run model disparaged by Christie. “I think we should be funding them,” said state Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono (D-Metuchen). “In a state that is sandwiched between New York and Philadelphia with amorphous identity, I believe having our own public TV station serves the public interest by informing and educating on Jerseycentric issues.”

Republicans express optimism for the future.

“I think NJN will survive,” said former Gov. Tom Kean, whose stewardship strengthened the network in the 1980s. He wouldn’t expound on how, but he thinks it will.

Whichever model prevails, Aron wants to keep going. He wants to be there – and his younger colleagues want him there.

“When I am reporting, I want to do a good job just thinking about him and his integrity,” a reporter told PolitickerNJ.com; and another remarked, “When I see him treat the same material I’ve been treating I really see the difference in quality; the difference between substantive issues-coverage and facile coverage.” 

Aron remembers the day he started nearly 30 years ago, going live on the set with the late Speaker of the Assembly Alan Karcher. A day later, he interviewed then-U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley. The people who wield power and influence have been his focus, the rising and falling and falling.
“I don’t have any grand ambition I haven’t already tackled,” he said. “My proudest accomplishment is helping get an innocent man out of prison: Quincy Spruell. In 1995, I did a half hour documentary. Jon Corzine commuted the sentence. It was a 14-year undertaking. Having done something like that, I seek the luxury to do some in-depth reporting instead of the pissing match of the day. I love it all. But I’ve done thousands of them now. The pissing matches. It would be good to work at a news organization where I had time to do some serious reporting. I’m doing less reporting now than ever, as I work as acting news director and political correspondent, captain and first mate at the same time. It’s rather demanding.

“There are a shrinking number of reporters covering state affairs,” Aron added. “To lose the one broadcast operation that has been slavishly covering state government would be another blow to the information flow from reporters to citizens. A vigorous media is something everyone wants. It’s questionable whether we’ve been going in the right direction over the course of the last ten years. The Ledger is not what it was ten or 15 years ago. There is not as much coverage as there used to be.
“I’m worried about the loss of institutional knowledge. I’m worried about losing more of that at NJN News. The uncertainty has become so great, we just lost a reporter to a healthcare company. He was excellent, and there are rumblings in the ranks at the moment of other possible departures. People who know the territory, who have that institutional knowledge. It helps create level headedness in news coverage when people have seen it come around a dozen times before. It gives context to their reporting that isn’t there otherwise. My worry is people’s vision of what should replace NJN News vision is a vision of young people with flip cameras and laptops making $30,000 or $40,000 instead of $70,000 or $80,000. You get what you pay for in journalism. 
“I don’t mean to hold us out as some kind of shining example of quality. I wish we were better. I wish we could take more time to do journalism. We are about as thin as we have ever been. We’re talking about us as if we’re quality, but it’s not easy maintaining a level of quality without additional resources or when resources are declining and people are looking at you like you’re a dead duck. Since it was announced that the governor wants to change our status, people have wanted to stop doing business with us. Donations, contributions are harder come by. It’s harder to convince an underwriter to support a program that might be going off the air in two or three months time.”

Targeted for less and less astride a chopping block with no less gravelly and weather beaten gravitas than usual, he wants, simply, more journalism, he insists, as, in between events – a conversation at Eagleton between former governors Kean and New York’s Mario Cuomo, and a speech by Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno in Woodbridge, he reached for his cellphone and painstakingly – word by word from scribbled notes – filed another story on deadline. Michael Aron: ‘New Jersey never lets you down’