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All the News that’s Fit to Spitby Open-Publishing - Friday 27 February 2009
By David Glenn Cox
It was announced yesterday that the San Francisco Chronicle is in danger of shutting down. Founded in the days of the California gold rush, the Chronicle was once staffed by writers such as Mark Twain and Bret Harte. But those days are long gone; what with I-Pods and laptops, who reads newspapers anymore? I can’t say that I know much about the Chronicle, being almost 3,000 miles away from it; I’ve never read it.
Maybe it was a great paper, I don’t know. Of course, I’ve heard of great newspapers, but I’ve never actually seen one. I grew up on the Chicago Tribune and the Sun Times, and the Sun Times was good, with Mike Royko and Irv Kupcinet. But then the paper was bought by Rupert Murdoch, enough said. As a child I delivered the Homewood-Flossmoor Star, a local paper about women’s club tea parties, taxes and easements, and local high school sports coverage.
I was once accused of breaking a window on my paper route. My father received a phone call from an angry subscriber. “Your kid threw my copy of Tribune and broke my window. What are you going to do about it?”
“I’m going to tell you that breaking windows is about the best thing you can do with the Chicago Tribune. My kid delivers the Star.”
For years I had to deal with the Montgomery Advertiser, a newspaper of such ill repute that caged birds had been known to complain as they made their improvements upon it. This was a newspaper that called Martin Luther King a communist, right up until the day he died. A newspaper that once referred to John Kennedy as being assassinated to death.
The problem that I see with newspapers is that they are an agenda in print trying to compete, head on, with the Internet and its thousands of points of view. Newsprint is wedded to a stubborn refusal to come to grips with the modern age. The Chronicle was owned by the Hurst Company, famous in years past for it’s own brand of yellow journalism and opinion-driven papers. The film “Citizen Kane” was based on William Randolph Hurst’s life, but the Hurst legacy has been eclipsed by Rupert Murdoch with his same schtick, different media.
Former Vice President Dan Quayle’s family owned a string of newspapers throughout the Midwest, all rabidly Republican and all ardent supporters of the candidacy of Dan Quayle. But Quayle failed the spelling test, explaining to a school kid that potato was spelled potatoe. In his defense Quayle was from Indiana, not Idaho, and his forte was family values and being a scratch golfer. That’s not easy, spending time with the wife and kiddies, working all day and playing golf until you achieve a zero handicap. Something had to give, and who would have ever thought a vice president needed to spell?
When I moved to Atlanta I thought to myself, finally a big city newspaper. What I found was a big city newspaper with a little city point of view. Other than better spelling, the Atlanta Journal Constitution was in many ways no better than the Montgomery Advertiser, and was unworthy of the paper pulp necessary to print it. While it takes a more balanced approach in its editorial opinions, the bulk of the paper is voraciously conservative. It makes the paper difficult to read. Instead of a story with a slant you usually find a slant with a story.
The newspaper happily reported on a new 150-bed homeless shelter, which opened in downtown Atlanta. It was then up to the reader to do his or her own further research to find out that the new shelter was replacing a 250-bed shelter. A net loss of 100 beds at a time when homelessness was on the rise in Atlanta. Somehow that seemed to me to be an important detail to the story. Or that the new shelter was not located on the mass transit routes as the old shelter was. That the new shelter was located in an industrial area and had all the appearances of trying to hide the homeless. Of course, since the newspaper only interviewed the donors and administrators of the shelter, that point was lost, as well .
Then there was the upbeat story, “Jobs Continue to Migrate,” a lovely piece printed in the classified section of the newspaper extolling the glories of outsourcing. X-rays could be read at midnight by doctors in India, and Canadian fishermen were operating call centers. These glories were then sanctified by the expert opinions of two local university professors for the benefit of non-critical thinkers everywhere. It is as Mark Twain once advised, “A man who doesn’t read the paper each day is uninformed; the man who does is misinformed,”
Why would one spend hard coin to be misled? It reaches the point where you don’t even trust the sports scores anymore. And last week the Atlanta Journal Constitution topped themselves with their article, “Job Fair Attracts Hundreds.”
“Darlene Ellis waited in line for two hours Wednesday morning to get information about a job. What kind? ’One that pays the bills,’ said Ellis, of Acworth.
She stood among more than 1,000 people in a queue that crawled around the Sam Nunn Federal Center in downtown Atlanta. Georgians joined in the quest for a federal paycheck.”
Let’s see, "more than a thousand," so the Journal Constitution is factually correct. A thousand is ten hundred. AOL did a story about the same job fair, but they said that it was two thousand, or twenty hundred. The German newspaper Der Spiegel did a story about the job fair and said it was six thousand, or sixty hundred. They went on to interview the women in charge of the fair who explained that the job fair had only printed six thousand forms (sixty hundred), and they ran out of the forms by two o’clock in the afternoon. But the Journal Constitution was still accurate in their reporting; six thousand is "more than a thousand."
The following day the Journal Constitution went back to their web site and updated the name of the story to, “Federal Job Fair Gets Huge Turnout.
“’It’s sad that all these people, many of them out of work, are in this line,’ said Russell Lohr, 37. ’It’s definitely a sign of bad times. It shouldn’t be happening like this — all these people wrapped around a building trying to find their future.’”
Many of them out of work? You think? Maybe it was just their day off and they decided to spend it standing in line. But you really can’t paint a masterpiece like this without a frame. Underneath the photo of people waiting in line was, "Related Links: How to ace a job interview, Interactive: nail that interview, Interviewing like a champion. Telephone interview tips." You get the point, intentional misrepresentation of the facts, glossed over with spin.
I pick on the Journal Constitution because it is my hometown newspaper, but it is no different from most newspapers in America, in the business of selling their opinion instead of the news. The legacy of the bygone days when Americans depended on newspapers as their sole source of information is over. The editors and publishers cling to that archaic notion that they are somehow the framers of national opinion. Instead they are Charles Foster Kane, a sick, old man in bed at their Xanadu and as the shot draws close, the snow globe is about to fall from their hand and shatter on the floor as the last words leave their lips, “Rosebud.”