The editor of a newspaper is often described as a gatekeeper because part of the job is deciding what gets published and how. Today, as I picked up the local newspaper in Lakeland, Florida, I saw a glaring example of the ease with which this privilege can be abused.
The Ledger is part of a chain of local dailies owned throughout Florida by the venerable New York Times. You might think that the high minded principles attributed to the New York Times would be applied to its local offspring, but you would be misled. These publications are guided by an even more venerable law: Make money or die.
And if they are to make money, especially in these lean times, publications cannot afford to offend their advertisers.
You probably know that advertisers tend to be Republicans, as that’s generally the party of the rich and powerful. The Ledger has become increasingly Republican as the economy has waned and advertising dollars have become more elusive. So it is understandable that the newspaper would give short shrift to the Democratic Party’s convention. All week long, the convention has merited small headlines and cursory reports. But today, surprise! The convention was awarded a banner headline across the top of Page One.
Obviously the “analysis” was conceived before President Clinton’s gracious speech last night, in which he declared Senator Obama “ready to be president.” I can’t think of anything that Clinton might have said or done at the convention to create an impression of tension between the two men. President Clinton and Barack Obama were all smiles and hugs, and Hillary Clinton’s supporters cheered uproarously.
The piece, taken from The Washington Post, was full of old and unattributed allegations that Clinton was bitter about his wife’s defeat in the Democratic presidential primary and that Obama did not like Clinton. The writer displays his ignorance of the facts by saying this “dislike” was sparked by a remark Clinton made during the primary.
Here’s what really happened. The former President had described as “a fairytale” Obama’s claim to opposing the Iraq War consistently from the beginning – in contrast to Senator Clinton, who had voted for the war. President Clinton’s argument was that Obama had waffled on the war after his initial opposition and that Senators Obama and Clinton had cast identical votes on the war almost all of the time. That’s not how the writer, Washington Post Associate Editor David Maraniss, remembers it. Maraniss said Clinton dismissed Obama’s life story as a fairytale. There goes the guy’s credibility as far as I am concerned.
But my quarrel is not with the poor quality of the piece. And I am not prepared to rebut the premise that Bill Clinton might harbor lingering resentment against the upstart who stole his wife’s dream. I am disgusted by the way in which the item was displayed. When I was editor of a daily newspaper, we had a meeting of editorial department heads every afternoon to decide what would appear in the paper the next day and where. We agonized especially over the headline because we knew how important that choice was.
It is inconceivable that – with the United States on the brink of a new cold war with Russia, with the nomination of the first African-American presidential candidate (of a major political party) in America’s history, and with the prospect of another Katrina disaster looming in the Gulf – that a group of responsible editors would choose the “analysis” as the lead story of the day. Obviously, that’s not what happened. The choice must have come from a single individual. And it is equally obvious that the decision to display that negative item at the top of Page One was politically motivated.
The gatekeeper saw a chance to spread a negative impression of the Democratic party (to win brownie points with advertisers) and seized it. It wasn’t the first time an editor has taken advantage of that opportunity, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.
It’s no wonder that public trust in the media is at an all-time low.