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Mainstream Media Can't Admit Its Part of the Problem

By Mark Anderson

Here in the shadow of colorful late journalistic icon H.L. Mencken, known for his revealing news stories and biting commentaries that bore his unmistakable grit and wit, professionals from the dominant corporate media and some independent media gathered for a conference in Mencken’s beloved Baltimore. But many acted as if his legacy did not exist. Indeed, most of the attendees seemed to sing the same “collective tune” at the conference, held by Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) in June.



Mencken — judging from his life history as “the bad boy of Baltimore” whose pen poked holes in countless scandals but extended into the philosophical and literary realms—likely would have been repelled by the “tune” that IRE played. One can imagine him bristling at the mantra that IRE discussion leaders invoked, calling on newspapers in these tough times to pool their efforts, even among competitors, and take a collective approach to news stories.


News “cooperatives,” often funded by tax-exempt foundations, are assuming center stage, while the old model of aggressive commercial or employee-owned news outlets striving for individuality with firebrand reporters whose distinctive personality is part of the enterprise is taking a back seat. Were it not for certain Internet blogs and a relative handful of publications like AFP, Republic Magazine, the Idaho Observer and Rock Creek Free Press, among others, the old model could die in America. The IRE conferees also spoke highly of conventional daily papers pooling their news-gathering and writing operations with college and university papers to cut costs and diversify the news, yet little concern was voiced over whether such a practice would funnel the notorious “politically correct” bias at U.S. universities through their student bodies and into community newspapers.

A key question is the general direction news will take in America, given the economic decline that is putting the squeeze on the daily newspapers and on Americans who look to the media for answers. The Ann Arbor News in Michigan has closed; The RockyMountain News and Seattle Post-Intelligencer have closed;

The Boston Globe is reportedly “taking on water,” the Washington Post is losing money; and Chicago’s dominant newspapers have sought bankruptcy protection.  Will the U.S. big-city newspapers risk losing an increasingly frustrated but better-informed readership (thanks to the Internet) by continuing to downplay certain issues while blacking out critical ones like the secretive Bilderberg group? Or will enough independent outlets work their way into the mix so that Americans can finally read things in their media that are only reported in Europe and elsewhere? 

AFP attended several programs at the conference to learn about new developments, along with practical tips on covering the news. A lot of useful information, success stories and other upbeat, inspiring items were shared. However, the “underbelly” of the event indicates that certain taboo topics in the public interest—limited in number but profound in importance—still may not get the wide coverage they should.  Just as AFP one year ago at a Minnesota media conference pressed longtime CBS News anchor Dan Rather on the Bilderberg group—where he claimed he had never heard of it—AFP asked the same question, among others, at this IRE conference, in an effort to understand the outlook of media leaders at a pivotal time in U.S. history when our standard of living and freedom itself literally hang in the balance. 

AFP approached Leonard Downie Jr., vice president at-large of The Washington Post, right after his book signing alongside veteran Post reporter and author Bob Woodward. Downie, who had just given a conference talk with Woodward on the topic “Accountability and Digging Deep” regarding news practices, did not deny existence of the Bilderberg group, only its importance.

“We’ve got a lot of problems but that’s not one of them,” he told AFP.

AFP simply was curious whether Bilderberg’s secret get-togethers are a worthy news topic for “digging deep” in these perilous times.

Downie only added: “I have never been there.” When asked earlier by this reporter in front of 500 people whether the decline of conventional American media readership is purely economic in nature—or whether readers might feel “betrayed” by a media that seems to have few answers for anxious Americans and appears to be part of the power structure rather than separate from it—Downie replied that overall readership of newspapers and websites is up and that things are not as bad as they seem for the major media, overall. 

Woodward felt “betrayed” was too strong a word, but he agreed that the people feel “let down” and they do deserve answers. He went on to share a story about his interactions with the late Katharine Graham, who ran the Post for many years. A couple other reporters in the audience volunteered to AFP a few minutes later that Downie and Woodward largely evaded answering AFP’s question, in their view.

However, during a previous IRE program that day, Wall Street Journal writer Jon Hilsenrath— who stated that the Federal Reserve System is his regular beat—replied to AFP that he is aware of HR 1207 to audit the Fed for the first time since its 1913 creation. While he did not firmly state whether he would report on this bill—though this AFP writer announced that the bill had more than 200 co-sponsors and growing—he did note that the Fed, during an economic crisis that has exposed some of the Fed’s questionable practices, has hired a lobbyist to counter the proposed audit. 

AFP has already reported on the Fed hiring a lobbyist June 22, 2009. That issue also contains AFP’s special Bilderberg 2009 Wrap-up Report that includes an attendees list of the 2009 Bilderberg meeting recently held in Greece; the names of Donald Graham, chairman and CEO of the Washington Post Company, and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke both appear on the list, along with that of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, the NewYork Federal Reserve’s former director.

Downie also took part in a presentation with David Boardman of the Seattle Times and Manny Garcia of the Miami Herald. The panelists noted that newspapers, such as those within Washington state, will be sharing the same stories, except for “exclusive” stories.  When AFP noted that many readers, sensing that all the major newspapers in a given region are printing mostly the same “homogenized” news and that readers may stop purchasing all of those papers and turn to the Internet, the panelists agreed that this is a problem. But they feel that their collective approach may be the only way to stay afloat. There was even less official talk at the IRE conference of one central copy desk being set up for two or more newspapers—meaning centralized editing for newspapers—even if the papers have separate owners.

“There will be newspapers that adapt to the new ‘ecosystem’ and those that don’t,” Downie said, while Boardman said that the key for struggling newspapers is to “forge symbiotic relationships within the ecosystem.” Downie added: “We are one of the papers that is losing money,” which is offset, he said, by income from the Post’s Kaplan educational project.  “It’s an experiment—a work in progress,” Garcia told AFP. He added that such a “trial by fire” is “not always easy.” Boardman added that even though readers may migrate around to various other news sources, the Seattle Times newspaper and website still intend to be the “portal,” or “central platform” for the community of the Northwest.

Is Mencken pacing the floor in eternity right now?

You be the judge.

MARK ANDERSON is AFP's corresponding editor.

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(Issue # 27, July 6, 2009)

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