A look into owners' control of newspapers

Powerful testimony by Keith Gottschalk regarding the window on how reporters are treated regularly opened to us by the Cleveland Plain Dealer's dealings with workers who do not have to make their way in the media world, and so could blow the whistle.

http://www.pbs.org/idealab/2007/11/cleveland-plain-dealer-deals-w.html

Great post and great comment.

With experience at five daily newspapers, I sadly can't say I was too surprised at how this went down although I think that in this case, the focus is a bit off.

I think people are bending over backwards to give the PD the benefit of the doubt and I understand that. However, after going through this over and over with the principle people (bloggers) involved and knowing what I know of the inner workings of metro dailies there is more than just a preponderance of the evidence to suggest that journalist ethics had little to nothing to do with the Wide Open Blog incident.

At base, this cannot reasonably be construed as anything other than a political hit, launched by Steven LaTourette and acquiesced by the Plain Dealer. But this sort of thing goes on, in my estimation, at newspapers big and small all over the country. The difference here is that we had a rare occasion where the principal players were not beholden to the newspaper industry for their jobs and thus, did not go quietly.

In most cases, reporters who wish to work in the business again may leave in disgust or even be fired when their journalistic sensibilities come up against the political realities of a newspaper owner's ethics. But they keep their mouths shut in order to be employable in the future. In this case, we got a rare inside look at sausage being made, to borrow a metaphor.

If nothing else, this should be a teachable moment for any blogger who wants one day to work as a print journalist or anyone else so inclined. There is little that is 'free' in terms of opinion at a daily newspaper or at any commercial media outlet. I would love to teach one class for one hour at every journalism school to disabuse young wanna be's of any notion that they can come in and change this culture and be the next Upton Sinclair, because it ain't gonna happen. The newspaper's view is the owner's view, the newspaper's friends, enemies and allies are the owners as well. You are as free to crusade for truth justice and the American way as much as your owner and his/her boss allows you to be. Trust me when I tell you, I have seen it many times in my years on staff and it seems to be getting worse.

Here's a great test of this theory: you as a reporter has a friend who has been shamelessly ripped off by a local car dealer. You do a little digging and discover all kinds of financial and ethical shenanigans at the dealership. The chance that any kind of story you will write will ever be printed in your newspaper is exactly zero because (and it has happened) the minute you single out one dealership, the other withhold their advertising from the newspaper, which, in many small to medium markets, cannot long survive without those whole page auto ads.

It doesn't matter if its business interests or political interests. The owner's business is the name of the game. The only ethics that matter in the newsroom belong to the owner, like it or not. The owner can dictate the paper's political coverage and endorsements (I saw it firsthand at the last paper I worked at) but the employee/reporter had better not think about reflecting any view contrary to the owner's in their stories.

In that way, its less a question about ethics and more about the traditional relationship between labor and capital. I suppose than when labor truly owns a media outlet, that outlet will reflect the viewpoint of labor.

In the meantime, perhaps we should be less shocked at the antics of The Plain Dealer and work harder and trying to foster a more diverse and ground level journalism at the grass roots - especially in the Internet, but also at local low power FM stations, community weeklies and cable access TV as well. The old giants are falling and people really are looking for something different and exciting that they can interact with. The Wide Open Blog was such a vehicle but could never work under the old media paradigm. We just have to create and foster new ones.

By Keith Gottschalk 1:29PM on 12 Nov 07

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