Who Needs Yesterday’s Papers?

I read the anguished valedictories to our sinking newspaper industry, the calls for some sort of government bailout or subsidy, with mounting incredulity. It’s like hearing the witches in Macbeth evoked as if they were Aphrodite and her rivals vying for the judgment of Paris. Sonorous phrases about “public service” mingle with fearful yelps about the “dramatically diminished version of democracy” that looms over America if the old corporate print press goes the way of the steam engine.

In The Nation recently John Nichols and Robert McChesney quavered that “as journalists are laid off and newspapers cut back or shut down, whole sectors of our civic life go dark” and that “journalism is collapsing, and with it comes the most serious threat in our lifetimes to self-government and the rule of law as it has been understood here in the United States.”

I came to America in 1973 to the Village Voice, which Dan Wolf, Ed Fancher and Norman Mailer founded in 1955 to bring light to those whole sectors of civic life kept in darkness by the major newspapers of the day, starting with the New York Times. As a tot I’d been given bracing tutorials about the paradigms of journalism and class power by my father, Claud, who’d founded his newsletter The Week in the 1930s as counterbalance to the awful mainstream coverage in those years. From Europe, I’d already been writing for Kopkind and Ridgeway’s Hard Times and also for Ramparts, respectively a newsletter and a monthly founded—like much of the old underground press—to compensate for the ghastly mainstream coverage of the upheavals of the ’60s and the Vietnam war.

In other words, any exacting assessment of the actual performance of newspapers rated against the twaddle about the role of the Fourth Estate spouted by publishers and editors at their annual conventions would issue a negative verdict in every era. Of course there have been moments when a newspaper or a reporter could make fair claims to have done a decent job, inevitably eradicated by a panicky proprietor, a change in ownership, advertiser pressure, eviction of some protective editor or summary firing of the enterprising reporter. By and large, down the decades, the mainstream newspapers have—often rabidly—obstructed and sabotaged efforts to improve our social and political condition.

In an earlier time writers like Mencken and Hecht and Liebling loved their newspapers, but the portentous claims for their indispensable role would have made them hoot with derision, as they did the columnist Bernard Levin, decrying in the London Times at the start of the 1980s the notion of a “responsible press”: “we are, and must remain, vagabonds and outlaws, for only by so remaining shall we be able to keep the faith by which we live, which is the pursuit of knowledge that others would like unpursued and the making of comment that others would prefer unmade.”

But of course most publishers and journalists are not vagabonds and outlaws, any more than are the professors at journalism schools or the jurors and “boards” servicing the racket known as the Pulitzer industry. What the publishers were after was a 20 per cent rate of return, a desire that prompts great respect for “the rule of law,” if such laws assist in the achievement of that goal. In 1970 this meant coercing Congress to pass the Newspaper Preservation Act of 1970, exempting newspapers from antitrust sanctions against price-fixing in a given market. Nixon signed the law and was duly rewarded with profuse editorial endorsements in 1972.

The early and mid-1970s saw a brief flare-up of investigative zeal, but not long after Nixon had been sent packing, Katharine Graham, boss of the Washington Post Company, used the occasion of the annual meeting of the Newspaper Publishers Association to issue a public warning to reporters not to get any uppity ideas about shining too intrusive a searchlight on the way the system works: “The press these days should…be rather careful about its role.… We had better not yield to the temptation to…see conspiracy and cover-up where they do not exist.” Who wanted ugly talk about conspiracy and cover-up when there were broadcasting licenses to be OK’d by the FCC, postage rates to be rewritten and laws to be drafted such as communications “reform” in 1996.

South of me in Mendocino County, California, is the Anderson Valley Advertiser, a weekly edited by my friend Bruce Anderson. I’ve written a column for it for over twenty years. The AVA does everything a newspaper should do. It covers the county board of supervisors, the court system, the cops, water issues, the marijuana industry. It’s fun to read and reminds people of what a real newspaper should be, which is why half its circulation is outside the county, often the other end of the United States. The AVA lives resolutely up to the injunction by Joseph Pulitzer it carries on its masthead, “A newspaper should have no friends.”

I asked Bruce about proposed bailouts of the mainstream press: “Do you like these bailout ideas?” “No I don’t. I don’t even want them to rest in peace. I want them to twist and turn in their graves eternally. Why? They don’t do any local reporting and haven’t for about twenty-five years. I’m talking here about the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, owned by the New York Times Company, and the San Francisco Chronicle.

With the drought upon us here on North Coast the Press Democrat has yet to run a coherent account of how precarious our water supplies and delivery systems are. Why? They might get objections from the building industry and the wine industry on which they’re almost totally dependent for advertising these days.

“They don’t cover the way the place is run and for whom it’s run. That is, the board of supervisors, the boards of education, the water districts—all of which we regularly cover with a staff of two. The Chronicle no longer serves any function. It’s a museum running reprints of Herb Caen and Art Hoppe.”

Does this remind you of a paper near you? Weep not for yesterday’s papers, for the old Fourth Estate. At every critical hour, in every decade, it failed us. And yet they do weep. It’s like the dogs in Konrad Lorenz’s book running up and down either side of the fence, barking at each other. One day they take the fence down and after a moment’s bewilderment the dogs continue as before. The other night I watched Bill Ayers at some bookstore being filmed by CSPAN. He was asked what he thought about the press. Ha! I said to myself, here’s a fine opportunity for the Terrorist Ayers to throw some bombs, hail the rise of the internet and the opportunity for millions to read a fact-filled radical website like CounterPunch. Come on, Bill, greet the new day. But no, Ayers said that he liked to settle down at the breakfast table with the New York Times and The Nation and have his daily little bicker with them. Bark, bark, bark. It adds up to what Mark Ames, featured today on our site, just referred in an email to me as that   “inexplicable cowardice that everyone here in print is infected with. Jesus, they don’t even shoot or club people here like they do in Russia, [where Ames founded the splendid Exile] and still they exercise more freedom, take more risks there in print than they do here.”

Comrade Ayers, that’s not your lifelong partner New York Times the other side of the fence. That’s the graveyard. So much for the so-called Left. Without the New York Times, the Federal Reserve, the public school system, the Fundamentaists and the IRS to yap at, they’d be lost. Two years ago Jeffrey St Clair and I wrote End Times (a fine title lifted by Jon Stewart’s Daily Show in a recent visit to the New York Times, where editor Bill Keller said his paper provides the news its readers “ought” to know) – The Death of the Fourth Estate. At its start we evoked the old world of a mass, semi-organized left in America: of pamphlets and mimeographed leaflets; of last minute  rushes to the print shop; of inky proofs and galleys; all now as distant as a hot-metal linotype machine. Back in the dawn off the nuclear disarmament movement in the Fifties and Sixties, I thought it  a good day’s work when we  stood outside a U.S.A.F./ R.A.F. base at Upper Heyford, Oxfordshire,  handing out leaflets and got maybe 50 service people to take one, as they drove in and out. These days, at the end of each month here, at CounterPunch, we can look at the daily breakdown of our 3 million or so hits, 300,000 page views and 100,000 unique visitors and see that we’ve had some 15,000 regular readers on U.S. military bases around the world.

In the David vs. Goliath struggle of the left pamphleteers battling the vast print combines of the news barons the tide has turned. On a laptop’s twelve-inch screen we stand as high as Punch Sulzberger, or Rupert Murdoch. Twenty years ago the Los Angeles Times was a mighty power. The owners of the Knight Ridder chain complacently counted on a 20 per cent-plus   rate of return on their properties. Today the L.A. Times totters from one cost-cut and forced employee retirement to the next. Knight Ridder’s papers of high reputation went on the auction block. Will the broadsheets and tabloids vanish entirely? Not in the foreseeable future, any more than trains disappeared at the end of the railway age. A mature industry will yield income and attract investors interested in money or power long after its glory days are over. But it’s a world in decline, and a propaganda system in decline.

The left is so used to being underdogged that it is often incapable of  looking a gift horse, meaning a dead horse, in the mouth and greeting good fortune when it knocks on the door. Thirty years ago, to find out what was happening in Gaza, you would have to have had a decent short-wave radio, a fax machine, or access to those great newsstands in Times Square and North Hollywood that carried the world’s press. Not any more. We can get a news story from a CounterPuncher in Gaza or Ramallah or Oaxaca or Vidharba and have it out to a world audience in a matter of hours.

Yes, of course the state doesn’t like the loosening of control; of course it could start policing the net more heavily and subsequently take sites down more often. Costs of access could shoot up. All of these could happen and, absent resistance, may well happen. But right now, as so often amid “end times,” there are new times to be explored and turned to advantage of radicals.

Is There A Detention Center Near You?

On June 10, Paul Craig Roberts wrote in his fine column “Fear Rules”:

“Fearful of American citizens, the US government is building concentration camps, apparently all over the country.  According to news reports, a $385 million US government contract was given by the Bush/Cheney Regime to Cheney’s company, Halliburton, to build “detention centers” in the US. The corporate media never explained for whom the detention centers are intended.

“Most Americans dismiss such reports.  ‘It can’t happen here.’  However, In northeastern Florida not far from Tallahassee, I have seen what might be one of these camps.  There is a building inside a huge open area fenced with razor wire.  There is no one there and no signs.  The facility appears new and unused and does not look like an abandoned prisoner work camp.”

Roberts tells us this column aroused much interest and now adds:

“If anyone wants to know the camp’s location, the directions are to take 67 NE out of Carrabelle, Florida, to the intersection with Lake Morality Road, and there is the camp. Or pull the camp up from maps.live.com   Just type in Carrabelle Florida and use the maps features to zoom in and to follow 67 NE.

“According to job applicants, camp guards are required to take four months of military training and be willing to shoot to kill. I know, it sounds like conspiracy theory. But I have seen the camp, and it has been sitting there empty for several years. It has a strange lay out.  And it is not a county work camp.  One of those is nearby.”

Slitting Detroit’s Throat

I’ve got a 1960 Valiant, scheduled for its fiftieth year of  service next year, following this year’s half century for my ’59 Imperial. I’d step into either car tomorrow and point it towards the other side of the continent without a qualm. Aside from Ralph Nader who made America safe for the VW with all that silly fuss about the Corvair — a pretty good car — when did the auto industry here lose its moxie?

There’s plenty of blame to go round, but almost no one has pinned the badge of blame where it partly belongs, on the elite corporate press which year after year has misrepresented the enormous trade advantage the US and British governments gave the Japanese and Korean auto industries. As each successive U.S. Congress and each successive U.S. President slit Detroit’s throat, the reporters and editorial writers of the Wall Street Journal, of the New York Times, of The Economist unleashed paeans to “free trade” and recycled claptrap written for them by lobbyists working for Japan and Korea. It’s an outrageous saga that is detailed in a thrilling narrative by Eamonn Fingleton in our latest newsletter. A few years ago Eamonn wrote a fine book In Praise of Hard Industries: Why Manufacturing, Not the Information Economy, Is the key to Future Prosperity. These days he’s based in Tokyo. He knows the auto industry. He knows the press. He knows the inside story of the trade wars. Don’t miss his CounterPunch report in our newsletter.

When you’re done with Fingleton you can read Bill Hatch’s hilarious report from Merced, Caifornia, of Michele Obama’s recent visit to the Central Valley and the new campus of the University of California.

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ALEXANDER COCKBURN can be reached at alexandercockburn@asis.com


Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.