Resurrecting St. Pete: The Journal’s Domenici Story Decoded

December 20th, 2012 · No Comments · budget policy, journalism, tax policy

By Arthur Alpert

A publisher coined the phrase “without fear or favor.” When Adolph Ochs acquired The New York Times in 1896, he promised readers it would be his “earnest aim to … give the news impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect, or interest involved.”

Obviously, the Albuquerque Journal takes a different journalistic tack. The publisher and management wield the daily as a weapon of persuasion to their political agenda.

That’s so self-evident it hardly bears repeating, but corroboration should not be spurned – especially when the source is the newspaper itself. The top story on the front page of the Friday, December 14, 2012 issue provides that proof by way of a story that tells us nothing new.

That judgment relies on conventional journalistic standards, so before dissecting what the Journal perpetrated, permit a few words on how newsrooms work – at least those I’ve inhabited at newspapers, radio and local television stations, a TV network and cable channel.

Editors convene, in late afternoon or morning, to map out the day, determining assignments and (tentatively) story placement.

To do that, they ask three fundamental questions:

Is it new?

Is it important?

Is it of broad public interest?

(OK, in local TV newsrooms, they also wonder, are there pictures?)

The answers are necessarily imprecise so there’s plenty of room for dissent. But after some flailing around, the bosses make the decisions that set the day’s agenda.

With that in mind, let’s look at the Journal’s top story.

A bright red “DOMENICI” followed by a colon ran atop the headline.

The head itself, in large black type, read, “Spending Cuts Needed along With Higher Taxes”.

Below that was a sub-head, “Former Senate Budget Chief Advises Less Public Posturing”.

As is typical, those rubrics reveal a lot, but let’s deconstruct them in the context of Michael Coleman’s story.

Here’s his lead:

“Former Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico – a battle-hardened veteran of congressional budget wars – has some advice for national leaders negotiating a long-term budget deal. Stay away from television cameras and do your work in private.”

Coleman’s next paragraph lists more of the Senator’s resume and ends with his admonition that “negotiating in public makes agreement harder to reach.”

Let’s mull that much. Coleman is a professional, so he put what is newest at the top in his first two paragraphs.

Few will disagree with the Senator’s advice, but Coleman surely knew it’s neither new nor terribly important.

Putting it up top signaled that he was writing a dope story, a thoughtful backgrounder, not giving us new information.

Betcha he was surprised to find it leading the newspaper.

Before moving on, note, please, that the headline writer didn’t pick up on Coleman’s lead for the big rubric. It was relegated to the sub-head.

No, the editor had to go to near the end of the long account, in the page two jump, to find inspiration for the “spending cuts” headline. I’ll explain why later. Bear with me.

For now let’s note that Coleman does an admirable job of providing background for his interview with the Senator and long-time Domenici aide William Hoagland.

With, however, one significant omission.

For eight years coinciding with the presidency of George W. Bush, Senator Domenici’s passion for balanced budgets vanished. He helped the nation dissipate that annoying Clinton surplus and dive into deficit.

Specifically, with collaborators in both parties, Sen. Domenici spent money on the Afghanistan war, the Iraq misadventure and (just prior to an election) a new entitlement, Medicare Part D, which cut drug costs for seniors.

And paid for not a penny of it. All the money was borrowed.

Simultaneously, the Senator helped reduce the government’s income big-time; he supported an across-the-board tax cut that was kindest to the richest rich.

It was no surprise that Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan blessed this massive tax cut; he was an Ayn Rand disciple. But the Senator professed a different faith. He was a traditional conservative, a principled advocate of balanced budgets and governmental nurturing (without apology) of corporate America.

So what happened? Was it eight years of amnesia? Partisanship, pure and simple? Or does the Senator have good arguments for all the borrowing and spending and budget busting?

We don’t know because the Journal has never held Domenici accountable.

(My guess is that is management’s decree and the reporter isn’t responsible for the hole in the story.)

Let’s move on. Coleman makes clear that Domenici was ahead of the crowd, favoring a combination of higher taxes and cutting entitlement spending back in 2010.

And this is where we approach figuring out why this none-news story made the front page. Sorry but the search will require a detour into politics.

Think about it. Once the Senator retired, the Journal’s passion for him and his ideas cooled. The editors were respectful but paid him little attention.

After all, from a radical right perspective, Domenici had defects. St. Pete sometimes put community before individual. He did not oppose every public initiative; in fact he brought dollars home from Washington to fund some do-good projects. Nor did he fight every regulation. He worked with conservatives across the aisle, too.

And, least forgivable, he called for tax hikes.

Meanwhile, the Journal had taken up with the radical right, dallying with a new flame, a French temptress née laissez-faire who was cavorting now under a more attractive nom-de-guerre, “libertarian.”

No matter that her unrestrained capitalism ruined whatever it touched, most destructively in the worldwide Great Depression; the Journal embarked on a red-hot affair with her.

Her agent, Paul Gessing and his Rio Grande Foundation roamed freely throughout the paper, perfuming the Op Ed pages, the letters page and Business Outlook section. So did RGF volunteers and alumni.

Heck, the Journal’s reporters (who, as a rule, don’t participate in management’s advocacy) often sought out Gessing for comment as if he were an economic authority, not a plutocratic hired gun.

The Journal complemented the work of Gessing and friends with laissez-faire-friendly essays from a host of national “think tanks” – CATO, Heritage, Manhattan Institute, Heartland, ad infinitum.

Which “think tanks” the Journal never identified as billionaire-supported.

This didn’t keep Journal editors from sprinkling in some locals fronting for specific industries trying to maintain their subsidies or escape regulation, competition and taxation; credit my insightful colleague, Denise Tessier, for excellent documentation of the efforts of one New Mexican, Marita K. Noon, on behalf the oil industry.

So, post-Domenici, the Journal’s message was –nutshell- deficits are the nation’s greatest danger, what’s required are big cuts in spending on the middle-class and freeing Corporate America of “job-killing” taxes and regulations.

Came the election wherein voters soundly rejected plutocratic economic positions. What are the commissars to do?

Retreat to their old conservative stance by way of rehabilitating (a la the Soviets and Chinese) their old comrade, St. Pete.

Does this mean they’ll drop Gessing and friends? No. The Journal will romance both, using the radicals to make Domenici’s traditional conservatism acceptable.

Remember, you read that prediction here first. And here’s another.

Our daily opinion magazine will continue to ban from its pages any point of view to the left of Domenici’s very conservative opinions.

Ergo, the newspaper will keep its eyes shut to Corporate America’s threat to democracy.

Ergo, there’ll still be no syndicated economist arguing that the major threat is joblessness, not the deficit. Or that imposing austerity now will prolong this Lesser Depression or deepen it.

Nor will the Journal publish the view that shooting the middle class is an imbecilic response to the crime of strangling the economy perpetrated by Masters of the Empire and Wall Street.

But having read the election returns, the Journal has moved back from its embrace of radical laissez-faire (and its Tea Party followers) to woo that old-time conservative doctrine.

That’s why they wrote, “Spending Cuts Needed Along With Higher Taxes”.

It endorses Domenici’s position, runs a white flag up the mast (bowing to the public’s endorsement of higher taxes on the affluent) and hangs a 180 on the recent past. Heck, before November 6, you needed a super computer to track the Journal’s ”beware higher taxes” stories.

Did I mention that Pete Domenici is back? That’s the message of the bright red rubric, “Domenici”. Oh, and the tipoff was the editors’ decision to reprint a Washington Post essay by Domenici and Sam Nunn on Nov. 8, exactly one day after election results.

And we know all this how? From the editors’ decision to play Mr. Coleman’s backgrounder as a news story, place it prominently on page one and headline it as it did.

Yes, we have to decode the Journal the way Sovietologists examined the Kremlin before glasnost.”

And yes, the editors’ decisions were political, not journalistic.

And no, the Albuquerque Journal’s approach is nothing like what Adolph Ochs had in mind.

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