The Arizona Capitol Times interviewed me last week for their "Up Close" series. I knew that Reporter Matthew Bunk would eventually get around to the question that everyone asks me, but that I've never really answered. The question usually goes something like this: "You cover the decline of the newspaper industry, and you seem really happy about it, almost gleeful. Why the glee?"
I've explained in previous posts why I cover the economic aspects of the newspaper industry. But I've never explained why it gives me such a deep sense of satisfaction to observe the decline. The answer is too long and passionate to put into an ordinary post, so I've written about all the pieces, but never put them together. So here goes.
Let me say at the outset that reporters are wonderful people. I mean that. I really enjoy getting to know them and pretty much without exception, they have been interesting and charming. But reporters are like the guy who opens the door for you at the mall and then flips you off in the parking lot. There's something about being in a car that changes people into Mad Max and there's something about getting behind the keyboard at a major newspaper that changes people into biased hypocritical bullies.
So now the business model has failed. Ad revenue has collapsed, layoffs are imminent and the barbarian bloggers have penetrated the gates. I'm almost giddy. Let me explain the glee.
If I could sum up my animosity towards newspapers in once sentence, it would be these five words: "Merry Christmas to Trish Groe."
That's the first sentence of this year's Republic "Don't drive drunk over the Holidays" editorial.
Here's the full reference to Groe.
Merry Christmas to Trish Groe.
The state representative from Lake Havasu City pleaded guilty this week to misdemeanor drunken driving and was sentenced to 10 days in a Maricopa County jail.
She'll pay attorney bills, fines, various fees and have to breathe into a device (which she'll pay for) before her car will start. Her car-insurance premium will shoot up. This adds up to thousands of dollars.
Her reputation is seriously damaged. Her political future may be wiped out. The only silver lining is that she managed not to injure or kill anyone.
Sadly, Groe will get a lot of company over the next two weeks. Arrests for DUI go up this time of year, because more people are drinking away from home and police devote more resources to getting drunken drivers off the road, said Sgt. Mark Clark, spokesman for the Scottsdale Police Department.
The December 22nd editorial had nothing to do with Groe. The anonymous author just used the occasion to dredge up the incident. The worst part is the mock "Merry Christmas" wish. The Republic isn't reflecting on Groe's problems and sincerely wishing her Merry Christmas. The Republic has dredged up the long stale incident by attaching it to an unrelated editorial. Don't be fooled. The mocking "Merry Christmas to Trish Groe" is the closest a newspaper can get to "Hey Trish F**k You."
Here's another great example of a reporter acting as a bully. Mary Jo Pitzl creates a story in order to dredge up and ridicule Senator Harper for his bankruptcy. Click the link and notice the glee with which she pursues Harper.
One characteristic of a bully is that they hit you even when you aren't doing anything to deserve it. Here's an example where Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox received an award for running a great Mexican food Restaurant and the Republic used the occasion to pummel her.
Occasionally bias and bullying tactics lead to obsession. Here's the Star's Sam Negri fabricating a quote about Rep. Paton. The Star was forced to issue a correction, and Negri then insisted that his fabricated quote was fake but accurate. Negri devoted two editorials and a Sunday column to a quote that he eventually admitted that Paton never said. (Paton found it difficult to defend himself since he was on active duty in Iraq at the time.)
Many of the attacks are outrageous even by journalistic "standards." Here's an example that I wrote about in September of 2006. This sentence has no business in any newspaper. "Republican gubernatorial candidate and abstinence advocate Len Munsil admitted on Friday that he had sex before marriage."
That's right, 22 years and eight kids after his marriage, the Republic decided to print that Munsil wasn't a virgin when he got married. Are we discussing the sexuality of the candidates now? How about publishers? Or maybe the Governor? Are their sex lives on the table--so to speak?
Here, Dennis Welch manufactures a "conflict" in Rep. Steve Yarbrough's voting record and then admits that such "conflicts" are legal and common. It becomes clear in the article that Welch's real complaint is Yarbrough's support for "so called" school choice.
Perhaps the most egregious example of journalistic bullying is the Republic's treatment of Constantin Querard. The coverage is the equivalent of a journalistic Hat Trick. It combines bullying, obsession and the Mainstream Media's notorious refusal to admit when they have been proven wrong. The Republic's Robbie Sherwood wrote TEN stories about Republican activist Constantin Querard being under investigation by the Attorney General. Sherwood never pointed to a source who would confirm that there was an investigation and it now turns out that there may never have been an investigation.
We do know that there was a CCEC investigation, but that was resolved in Querard's favor. There was a complaint by the Maricopa County Republican Party, but the party dropped the complaint and issued an apology. All of the negative stories were well covered. None of the successful resolutions were ever printed.
The Querard stories also had a weird retro-racial tone that was troubling. Just like when Life magazine said of Joe DiMaggio in 1939 "Instead of olive oil or bear grease he keeps his hair slicked back with water. He never reeks of garlic and prefers chicken chow mein to spaghetti." Former columnist Richard Rueles described Querard as having a "slicked back Gordon Gecko haircut," and "shinny gold watch."
I took a huge risk in 2005 by attacking the Republic's credibility on the Querard stories. Sure, there were plenty of people who were critical of the Republic, but no one had ever systematically laid out the case that the facts underlying a series of Republic stories were wrong. It was the first time I took on the paper.
The Yellow Sheet Report provided daily coverage of my posts and interviewed Sherwood to get his response. Here was their conclusion.
"If no indictments are handed up against Querard, Patterson can claim street cred and take on the mantle of a proven pundit. Otherwise, Patterson, like Geraldo Rivera will have gathered the people for a look at The Vault and uncovered only a few old bricks and a lot of stale air."
Querard didn't get indicted and he's still an active consultant. In fact he's directing the Legislative races for the Republican Party, but his reputation is irreparably damaged. The Republic never acknowledged the successful resolution of his case.
I can't emphasize enough how much these stories devastate the lives of the people who are targeted. This isn't a game folks. This type of abuse hurts people. Sure, they step into the arena voluntarily and they are public figures, so the paper can say anything about them with impunity, but when cut, I assure you that they bleed.
After bullying, the issue that bothers me most is hypocrisy. Newspapers love to point out what they perceive as hypocrisy--just ask Senator Larry Craig. But newspapers themselves are often more hypocritical than the politicians or industries that they cover.
For example, newspapers are quick to pounce on elected officials whom they perceive as intolerant. The media hounded Russell Pearce when he quoted the official name of a government program from the 1950s, and Democrats called for the removal of his Chairmanship.
Newspaper writers however, can say anything they want with impunity. Here's the Republic's Linda Valdez writing in support of European laws that restrict citizens from wearing "Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses." She supports laws against this type of "religious exhibitionism." What? An editorial writer in the state's newspaper of record writes in support of laws that make it illegal for Jews to wear Yarmulkes in public? Did she go to the David Duke school of Journalism? The industry reaction was...zero.
Bias enters into the equation as well. Editorial writers aren't the only ones who get to speak with impunity. Here's Rep. Steve Gallardo using a term that would get my kids grounded for life. Media reaction? Again zero. Can you imagine if Russell Pearce had used the term "Bitchslap?"
The hypocrisy meter red lines when someone dies. Some of the Republic's worst stories are about people whom the paper later lionizes: Jon Kamman played Captain Ahab and hounded Congressman Bob Stump in story after story. Keven Willey declared Carmen Cajero "one of the worst" legislators and the Republic Editorial Board sat on their hands while the Rev. George Brooks was unfairly investigated, hounded and indicted. Then when these three died, the Republic provided glowing editorials about how wonderful they were.
The solution isn't to ignore great Americans when they die. The solution is to treat them decently while they are alive.
Perhaps the worst hypocrisy is the way the Republic handles its own corporate affairs. For example, the Republic insists on using children in a door-to-door campaign in order to sell subscriptions. I've reported several times on the practice. Can you imagine what would happen if SRP used children to read meters?
Just when I thought the paper couldn't go any lower, I got a report that the Republic was using a developmentally disabled child to sign up subscribers.
Another example of the hypocrisy is the way newspapers treat their own workers. Newspaper management seems to layoff older workers first. While that makes economic sense--older workers are paid more and are more expensive to insure--it's ethically and legally suspect. But there's no one to cover it, so unless the fired employees sue, they have no advocate.
A friend of mine was 53 when the Republic laid him off; he had worked for the paper since high school. When he got the news, he was not allowed back on the newsroom floor; a security guard escorted him to his car and scraped the parking sticker off his windshield. His personal belongings arrived in the mail a few days later.
Remember that the next time you read a four-part series on corporate ethics.
Then there are the Seinfeld stories. Some stories have great dramatic flair; they are labeled as "exclusive", sometimes copyrighted, longer than most stories and include fancy time lines and graphics. Yet when you finish them, you realize that...nothing happened.
Here's a breathless "exclusive" A1 story that I'm sure devastated the two people who were targeted by it. Read the story and ask why two single people who have devoted their lives to charity and haven't even been accused of wrong doing are humiliated in this front page "exclusive" story.
One of the worst examples of a devastating Seinfeld Story is the astonishing 7,000 word, A1, Sunday Republic Story that tried to tie John McCain to a local murder while claiming that he had an inappropriate relationship with singer Connie Stevens. By the end of the story, the Republic admitted that there was no evidence of McCain's involvement with the murder or with Stevens. What's worse, the story ran in February of 2000 in the middle of McCain's first Presidential campaign.
The McCain fiasco was before the rise of the Blogs, but it was so egregious that the industry actually took the extraordinary step of policing itself. American Journalism review published an analysis of the McCain piece and asked the obvious question. Why publish rumors about a presidential hopeful and the fact that the insinuations didn't check out? Why indeed.
Another example of a breathless A1 Sunday exclusive that implies great wrong doing but goes nowhere, was the hit piece the Republic did on Supervisor Andy Kunasek and his family.
I pointed out that all the allegations of wrong doing that were implied in the story were debunked in the same story. Fortunately, this Seinfeld piece was so egregious that the Republic Editorial Board came to Kunasek's defense, and actually rebutted their own paper's front page story.
Plain old Bias
Then there's the everyday bias. Reporters don't consider themselves liberal, so they think the legislature is filled with moderates, conservatives and "ultra" conservatives. The Capitol Times once claimed that the legislature had 24 "ultra" Conservatives. When they can't use "ultra," they have to get more creative.
Some bias is fairly harmless. Like Mary Jo Pitzl describing a political organization as "pro-woman" simply because it is pro-choice. That's why it's called bias. The reporter's views are so strongly held, that they permeate the stories. So those little slips are a fun indication of how the reporter really thinks. Naturally groups like Emily's list are "pro-woman" and by implication, groups like the Center or Arizona Policy are "anti-woman." So do you think the Center for Arizona Policy gets a fair shake from Mary Jo when she covers, say, the initiative to define marriage as one man and one woman?
Sometimes the bias is overt and malicious. The Employer Sanctions law is clear that violations have to meet the standard of "knowingly" or "intentionally." The media, of course, knows this fact, but in the beginning, they tried to systematically obscure this fact. Even if they have to make stuff up.
It's fun to watch what happens when a Republican and a Democrat each get in hot water. Notice in this post that the term "Republican" is used to describe Renzi, while "a Congressman" is used to describe Pastor.
Finally, there are the editorials that simply make no sense. Some are logically flawed to the point of incoherence. Some seem like they were written after a wild office party. Some are simply shrill and hysterical.
The logical flaws and weak analysis would be funny except that editorials still have some influence and they can occasionally tip the balance. With power comes responsibility
Aren't they Important?
Whenever I explain my glee, I always get a follow up question. "If the papers go away, who will hold the powerful people accountable? How will we know what's going on?" That questions assumes that corporate media with its group think and herd mentality actually break important stories. Think about the biggest stories of the last decade--the fall of the Baptist Foundation, Priest abuse under Bishop O'Brien, Colorado City, Arpaio's Jails--those stories broke in Phoenix New Times. The big story of the late 80s and early 90s was the S&L fiasco. That story broke in Barron's.
There are a few exceptions. Mark Flatten wrote an interesting series on water farming in 1990 and did a great series on RICO abuses in 1992. Mary Jo Pitzl wrote an interesting expose on the Board of Regents in 1990.
Ed Foster covered the poor management at America West Airlines in the early 1990s. That was a gutsy series of stories because America West was a big advertiser and one of its executives was on the Phoenix Newspaper board. Of course, the paper promptly fired Foster, so perhaps it wasn't not such a good example.
The rest of the stories are just press releases, that's why the paper is being written by interns. So I reject the argument that the populace will be worse off without a big dominant corporate media newspaper on everyone's driveway.
So that's it. By the way, Gannett Stock hit another low on Friday. I just want to take this opportunity to wish the Publisher a Merry Christmas.