The Journal Is Not What Mr. Dooley Had in Mind

May 18th, 2015 · No Comments · journalism

By Arthur Alpert

I’ve always known some journalists believed the purpose of a newspaper was “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” but not until a few days ago did I learn the source of the quote.

Finley Peter Dunne, the 1890s-era humorist, wrote it in the voice of Martin Dooley, his famous bartender/political commentator, as Dooley’s granddaughter told the NY Times Book Review May 10.

Mind you, few publishers agreed. In the early 1900s most newspapers reflected their owners’ class interests, notwithstanding Teddy Roosevelt’s muckrakers. Then about midway through the 20th century, publishers adopted a kind of professionalism. Out with the most sensational and fictional (bye-bye, “Front Page”) and in with relative sobriety, accuracy and “objectivity.”

This professionalism was tilted toward the status quo, relying heavily on Establishment sources, “balance” and little questioning of the powerful. Nothing surprising there; a newspaper, like life, is hierarchical and owners, not reporters, call the shots.

At this mid-century point I got into the business, captivated by the joy of getting paid to learn how the world worked, innocent of the history.

Since then, beginning with the collapse (after Richard Nixon) of the liberal consensus that had prevailed since the Great Depression, we’ve experienced challenges to that professional model.

There was the New Journalism’s defiance of “objectivity” in the 1960s (Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, et al.); TV’s reshaping of news as entertainment; the unsuccessful promotion of civic or public journalism (Jay Rosen, NYU; the Pew Center), and the rise of opinion disguised as news (FOX).

What’s moved me to recall this history is that new technology is upsetting things big time. This digital age, sometimes called the Great Disruption, challenges citizens and news people alike even as it opens new horizons for news coverage.

[To assess it, I’ve set up a panel discussion June 4 at OASIS, the adult education program, wherein four excellent news people will discuss the what, where and how of their work. They are Peter St. Cyr, web and print reporter; Gwyneth Doland, New Mexico in, radio, TV; Elaine Baumgartel, KUNM Radio and Dan Vukelich of the ABQ Free Press.]

That this technological upset has already undermined the old business rationale for dailies isn’t news.

Heck, the Albuquerque Tribune was strangled seven years ago. Way back on Feb. 20, 2008, a Bloomberg story reported that E.W. Scripps’ Albuquerque afternoon daily saw “advertisers increasingly shift spending to the Internet.” The story also cited Scripps’ “faster-growing cable-TV business.” And it noted that news of the Trib’s closing boosted Scripps’ stock on the NYSE.

Let’s keep in mind though what a French journalist, Alphonse Karr, once observed:

“Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. ”

That means, on one level, there’s still fine journalism around, if in new bottles. Sadly, however, it also remind us of the Albuquerque Journal, where the pre-professional era lives on. As does phony objectivity and ownership – working around staff reporters –opts for pushing an editorial agenda instead of just covering the damn news.

Which is not to say the Journal is uninteresting. As we have documented ad nauseam here, it’s wonderfully resourceful in misconstruing reality by commission and omission. So much so that I sometimes read it the way Cold War Sovietologists used to pore over Kremlin photos to detect changes in power or policy.

The USSR experts learned most, perhaps, when a Politburo personage was missing from the reviewing stand at the annual parade of tanks, planes and rockets.

So it is with the Journal, whose editors omit stories every day that matter to our lives as New Mexicans, residents of the Southwest, Americans and citizens of the globe. Or skew them so as to erase facts and opinions that cast doubt on the Journal’s deepest convictions. Or, believe it or not, take sides in intra-oligarchic battles!

Consider, for example, an Op Ed piece on Friday, May 15, that put down Jeb Bush.

To quote Nat Cole, “Flash! bam! alakazam! Out of an orange-colored sky!”

To understand my shock you need only to have followed the editors’ ongoing coverage of the 2016 presidential race.

They have run at least a dozen syndicated or Op Ed columns and several “news stories” reminding us Hillary Clinton is, for a host of reasons, a threat to Western civilization on a par with, say, Obamacare, a living minimum wage and funding for public transport .

Simultaneously, however, they’ve published almost no coverage of the competition for the GOP presidential nomination.

Exceptions to that rule include one story noting Jeb Bush, as Florida’s governor, used private emails (like Clinton). In the same time frame and by contrast, the Washington Post has published more than 50 stories on Gov. Bush, weighing his strengths and weaknesses, dealing with policies, fund-raising, you–name-it. Fifty-plus stories!

Journal editors have also published two stories on Ted Cruz. The first (March 22) reported that he was going to announce the next day. The second (March 23) reported – wait for it – that he had announced.

Neither AP piece mentioned the cost to the nation of the government shutdown Cruz promoted; $24 billion, said Standard & Poors.

So what do we make of this? Well, let’s look, at the Kremlin photo again. Sorry, I mean let’s recapitulate:

• Umpteen stories and opinions clobbering Hillary Clinton, plus one or two reflecting her political stands.
• Near-perfect silence on the GOP candidates for the nomination. Perfect silence on their pursuit of dollars.
• Two (uncritical) stories on Sen. Cruz.
• And re Jeb Bush, that private email story and an opinion piece ridiculing him.

I’m no Sovietologist, but that suggests a working hypothesis – that Journal management, while continuing to trash Clinton, will put its thumb on the scale for Cruz and against Bush.

Yes, this is fun, but it’s also sad because we’re talking about the Journal’s use of its opinion and “news” pages to serve its corporate politics.

In other words, New Mexico’s largest print daily is fixated at the pre-professional stage of journalistic evolution, where management uses the paper as a political vehicle.

As for Martin Dooley’s formulation on the mission of a newspaper, the Journal isn’t just rejecting it. It’s actively pursuing the reverse, comforting the comfortable.

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