Decline of the Lapdog Press
I haven’t read the Toronto Star in decades and I imagine it must have changed since my days as its Labor reporter.
When I got that job 55 years ago, the Star was known as a fearless defender of the downtrodden. It was also the bare-knuckle champion of the working class. The newspaper’s editors made no bones about it: Unions mattered.
The strikes that occurred periodically during construction of Toronto’s subway system were front-page news. And the internal politics of trade unions got full coverage. Labor leaders were treated as celebrities.
I think this posture was possible because the Star was not required to make a profit for shareholders. “Holy Joe” Atrkinson, a famous former editor, had left an endowment that freed it from such financial constraints.
Without fear of losing advertising, the newspaper could do what newspapers are supposed to do (as Finley Peter Dunne’s fictional bartender, Mr. Dooley, famously put it) – “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
Its brash independence gave the Star an authentic personality that the competition could not match. And this authenticity attracted a rapidly growing circulation.
As its circulation grew so did its advertising. Ironically, the Star became very, very profitable.
When I moved to Florida, I witnessed the same phenomenon in the St. Petersburg Times. Also funded by an endowment, it stubbornly refuses to pander to advertisers or politicians.
The robust survival of the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) tells me that it wasn’t television that killed so many newspapers. It wasn’t the Internet and the rise of social media. It was the loss of the independent spirit that the old Star had and the Times still has.
As corporations swallowed them up one by one, America’s newspapers faded into irrelevance, and their readers turned into TV viewers. Then, as the corporations bought out the broadcasting industry, TV stations also changed. They became champions of the elite, losing interest in the working class. As a result, trade unions have virtually vanished from the airwaves.
In a Salon.com article this morning, I read about a study by the media watchdog FAIR, which found that, over an eight-month period last year, no representatives of labor unions appeared on any of the five main Sunday talk shows. Corporate CEOs, on the other hand, got a dozen opportunities to air their views.
When you hear labor unions being mentioned in today’s media, they are usually being smeared. The media’s scandalous treatment of teachers’ unions – and other unions in the public sector – is a glaring example of this distressing trend.
But, as the kids say, what goes around comes around. Television is also fading into irrelevance as a source of America’s news.
Now, viewers are turning into Internet surfers.
(Photo from the Star’s archives shows strikers on the march.)