FOR SALE: The integrity of American print journalism.
That’s not what the flier sent out by the Washington Post said. Not in so many words. But it might as well have said that. The flier, circulated Wednesday, offered lobbyists access to Obama administration officials, members of Congress, and the paper’s reporters and editors. This off-the-record access would be arranged at the home of Washington Post Publisher and Chief Executive Officer Katharine Weymouth (photo below). The price of admission: as much as $250,000 a head.
A health care lobbyist, who received the flier, passed it on to a reporter because the lobbyist said he felt it was a conflict of interest. Imagine that! A lobbyist giving ethics lessons to the press!
As they say in Jamaica, look what me, poor boy, live to see!
This poor boy has lived to see the once-proud American press degraded and diminished over the years… Unheeded at my anonymous newsroom desk, I grumbled as ads began appearing on section pages, and then on front pages… as coverage of the nuts and bolts of democracy – city and county commission meetings, courts, school board meetings, and so on – was cut back, way back… as tabloid froth and pseudo-literature spread like a fungus over the news pages… as obvious pandering and naked polemics replaced honest commentary in editorials and on op-ed pages…
The excuse for the transformation was always declining readership and the resulting loss of advertising revenue. Times were hard and newspapers had to do what they had to do to stay alive, I was told. To quote another Jamaican saying, “When man in trouble monkey jacket fit him.” Trouble is when a man wears a monkey’s jacket he tends to make a monkey of himself.
Over the years, I watched in dismay and disbelief as newspapers were perverted in a misguided attempt to inveigle readers, pacify critics and please advertisers. I saw slick, “market-oriented” business executives take over the newsroom, and I listened to endless messages of a new journalism that would captivate readers and usher in a new and profitable era for newspapers. It didn’t happen, of course.
The reason newspaper readership vanished was because the newspapers vanished. In their place appeared an array of pseudo-magazines, with full color and fancy phrases, consumer tips and quasi-fictional feature stories. Occasionally, newspapers ran an “expose” to maintain the illusion of a vigilant press. Readers realized they could get the same kind of thing – only better – on television, and started canceling their newspaper subscriptions. And the trend accelerated with the emergence of the Internet.
Instead of recognizing they had abandoned their franchise and returning to their roots, newspapers became even more frothy and frilly, forgetting their traditions and losing their souls… until it has come to this.
With the newsroom in an uproar after Politico ran a story on the Post’s flier, Weymouth canceled the planned “salon.” Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli (photo at left), who left the conservative Wall Street Journal to join the supposedly more “liberal” Post, denied all knowledge of the sell-out.
“This should never have happened,” Weymouth told Post media reporter Howard Kurtz. “The fliers got out and weren’t vetted. They didn’t represent at all what we were attempting to do. We’re not going to do any dinners that would impugn the integrity of the newsroom.”
Not this time, anyway.