Philadelphia-based journalist, I have written about many issues that affect this fifth largest metropolitan region in the nation. For national publications.
I have written what many reviewers have called the definitive book on the biggest death penalty case in the state, the Mumia Abu-Jamal case (Killing Time: an Investigation into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, Common Courage 2004). I have written myriad columns and op-ed articles on issues such as the Iraq War, the so-called “war” on terror, civil liberties threats, etc.–for national publications.
I make no claim to scrivener stardom, but I’ve done my share of investigative pieces that have appeared in national publications–and that have even been cited locally in Philadelphia.
What I have never managed to do is get an op-ed submission published in my hometown paper, the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Not for lack of trying, mind you. I’ve sent in many submissions over the years. And certainly not for lack of quality. I’ve had many a good piece passed over by the Inquirer (hardly a paragon of stylistic excellence) that has won approval in other publications.
I’ve often wondered why, even after having my book, Killing Time, favorably reviewed in the Inquirer, I have been so unsuccessful with the paper’s opinion page.
But I finally got my answer. It came from the opinion page editor, John Timpane, whom I called recently to ask about the fate of my latest submission, an op-ed piece about the state legislature’s recent passage of a resolution authorizing a legislative inquisition of liberals on the state’s public university campuses. Mr. Timpane allowed that the piece was “well written” and addressed “an important issue.” But he said that unfortunately his “mix was not propitious” for the foreseeable future.
I puzzled over that phrase for a while after hanging up.
I had, in my 32 years as a journalist, certainly never been told this before.
Then I realized what he meant. The paper, which runs opinion pieces from the far right (Charles Krauthammer) to the center (Matthew Miller), had recently made one of its rare forays to the left, with a piece by New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. That column, sort of like a dash of cayenne in a soufflé, was enough to put poor Mr. Timpane off of left-leaning columns for as far into the future as he could imagine.
His mix was not propitious for another article from the left.
I’ve since learned from an Inquirer staffer that “mix” is a common term among the paper’s senior editors, to the dismay of those hoary reporters who still hold to the old notion of truth-telling that once was a staple of the profession. Editors at the Inquirer reportedly discuss the “mix” of story topics that will be assigned, or that are to run in the next day’s edition. They are referring, apparently, not to the matter of what is the right proportion of local, national and international news, the right ratio of sports, opinion, lifestyle, culture–these are basically predetermined by the size of various sections of the paper, and by the various news holes, and rarely change much. What they are referring to, I’m told, is the mix of political content of the news stories.
Only recently, at an editorial session, the matter of Cindy Sheehan and her remarkable campaign to meet with President Bush came up, and the news editor was heard to fret, “How can we cover this story without appearing biased?” The comment raised howls of protest from some staffers present, but it points out the news managers’ thinking clearly enough.
As one staffer grouses, “I used to think news stories were decided on their own merits. If it was news, you ran it. Now a story, no matter how good, has to be considered in the context of other stories the paper is running. It’s a question of the mix.”
This new crabbed concept of what a newspaper is willing, or dares, to present to its readers is, I’m certain, not unique to the Inquirer, though among major metropolitan dailies, this once a proud standard-bearer of muck-raking journalism, today stands apart for its shabbiness and timidity. The mix–the day’s paper taken in its entirety–must now adhere to a comfortable standard of centrist conformity, so as not to offend any group of readers (or at least any group of well-heeled readers). If there is an article critical of the president’s Social Security plan, there has to be another article that presents the president in a favorable light, or that embarrasses his political rivals. If there is an article about things going badly in Iraq, there needs to be another in a more positive vein, or at least some other brighter foreign report.
This same kind of thinking about “mix” has long been common in television newsrooms, where “balance” has been a fetish for decades. But I know that in my days as a daily newspaper reporter, which ended in the late ’70s, the term “mix” never came up. Stories were assigned and run, and given their placement in the paper and on the page based upon their intrinsic importance, not on how they fit politically with the rest of the issue. There might have been concerns expressed about the “balance” in an individual story, but I never heard anyone talk about :”balancing” one story against another.
The joke of course is that there really is no “mix” at the Inquirer, which has purged genuine left-wing views from its pages, including its opinion pages, almost totally. As for its news pages, when a story as compelling as Cindy Sheehan’s one-woman campaign to challenge a president and commander-in-chief can produce such editorial angst, the situation is no better. (And it is fear we’re talking about here. After all, there would be no such discussion about “mix” were the paper about to run a story about a staged presidential appearance.)
The truly sad thing is that while the Inquirer may be a particularly noxious example of this pathetic decline in journalistic standards, most of the rest of the corporate media are not far behind.
When it comes to our mainstream sources of genuine information about what is going on in our communities, our states, our nation and the world, the mix is not propitious. Nor do I expect to be seeing my byline on the Inquirer opinion page any time soon. The politics are not propitious either
DAVE LINDORFF is the author of Killing Time: an Investigation into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. His new book of CounterPunch columns titled “This Can’t be Happening!” is published by Common Courage Press. Information about both books and other work by Lindorff can be found at www.thiscantbehappening.net.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org