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April 18, 2008
A Little Hate Is Good For Fourth Estate
There must be some
nostalgia at CBS News for the good old days, when the network was
roundly hated and people at the political extremes longed to see it
fail. Now that it is failing (it is a laggard in the ratings), nobody
seems to care. Gone are the conservatives, who wanted to buy the network
to sanitize it and rout out alleged liberal journalists. Also gone are
the political lefties, who believed that CBS was the captive of its
In media, to be hated
is an affirmation that you are succeeding.
At The Radio &
Television Correspondents’ Association annual dinner this week, the
happiest people were at the Fox News tables. Roger Ailes, the principal
architect of Fox’s huge success as a news network, and his star host,
Bill O’Reilly, were beaming – well aware that most people in the room
believe that the Fox News Channel has degraded broadcast news.
It is not just CBS that
is hurting, but also other traditional media as well – most especially
newspapers. Marylanders used to hate The Baltimore Sun. Now they
worry that their venerable newspaper is on the ropes, and may be sold to
quite the wrong kind of person.
They used to say in
newsrooms, “If you aren’t hated, you’re not doing this job right.”
Unfortunately, the quality of hatred that most news organizations face
is sadly watered down. Generalized attacks on the “liberal media” and
the “mainstream media” just don’t pack much of a wallop. They tell us
more about the attacker than the attacked.
Happily, two newspapers
– maybe two of the three best newspapers in the country – can still
agitate those who believe in media conspiracies. These are The New
York Times and The Washington Post. The third is The Wall
Street Journal, which has never raised the same kind of intense
feeling as the other two. Its editorial page is so predictable that even
liberals can’t get mad at it. And its news coverage is pretty faultless.
The two big East Coast
newspapers can really get the critics going. The New York Times,
through a series of terrible blunders, has opened itself up to
particularly virulent criticism. The Washington Post, which sells
five times as many newspapers as its nearest competitor, The
Washington Times, unerringly gets the brickbats. Civil rights groups
accuse it of racial insensitivity. And radio talk show hosts like to
refer to it as “The Washington Compost.” Even so, the paper has just
bagged six Pulitzer Prizes. Particularly it showed the whole world last
year that it could still deliver great journalism by revealing the
scandalous treatment of veterans at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Both The New York
Times and The Washington Post have the resources to do the
job right. Although The Times is in a slump, and appears to be in
desperate need of an editor who has a vision and a publisher who is
competent, it still triumphs on solid, day-to-day coverage of big
continuing stories. Its coverage of the subprime mortgage crisis and its
on-the-ground reporting out of Iraq are excellent.
Michael Wolff, the
media critic of Vanity Fair, is in full pursuit of The New
York Times in his May column. Wolff catalogs the humiliations the
newspaper has suffered in recent times – including the Jayson Blair
fictions, Judith Miller’s partisanship and the insinuation that John
McCain was having an affair with a lobbyist – and speculates on the
possibility that the special voting stock, which gives the Sulzberger
family control of the paper, may be under attack.
It may be very
difficult to change the bylaws of the company, but Wolff thinks that
angry shareholders could force the sale issue – or that the Sulzberger
family, like the Bancroft family that used to own The Wall Street
Journal, can simply be bought off. One way or the other, Wolff sees
dissident shareholders changing the corporate structure of the paper.
At the same time, with
a similar stock arrangement, the Graham family (greatly assisted by
Warren Buffet) is firmly in control of the Post.
Yet neither the
Sulzbergers nor the Grahams have had huge financial successes with the
properties they inherited. Both have had considerable editorial
successes by lavishing resources on the papers. But as publishing
ventures, the families have been timid and sometimes foolish. They
profited from near monopolies, but mostly failed in diversification.
Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, the father of the present publisher of The
New York Times, confounded the publishing industry when he bought
The Boston Globe. Analysts warned that two newspapers in the same
advertising market would hurt more than a different kind of
diversification. But the man who got it right in launching a national
edition of The New York Times got it very wrong in Boston. The
Globe is losing money and is a drain on The New York Times
Katherine Graham, the
late publisher of The Washington Post, who is revered in
newspaper circles, did some pretty odd things herself. She clung to
Newsweek, when it could have been sold profitably; invested in
newspapers in New Jersey and Washington state; and nibbled at small
publishing ventures in Washington D.C. It can be argued that it wasn’t
until Warren Buffet came onto the scene with his steadying hand – he is
a large shareholder and director of the company – that The Post
started hedging the risk of newspaper publishing. In particular, it
bought Stanley H. Kaplan Educational Centers, which has turned out to be
a cash cow and is now more profitable than The Post.
Unlike The New York
Times, The Washington Post had a clear idea of what to do with its
web pages, which are now in profit – as is Slate, the online
magazine that The Post bought from Microsoft.
Nobody knows the future
of newspapers. But we do know that the well-being of a democracy depends
on them. Both The New York Times and The Washington Post
are still making a profit, though not as much as in years past. And the
public still has the energy and good sense to hate them.
© 2008 North Star
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