Two years ago, I had one of journalism’s peak experiences. At a ceremony on the campus of Columbia University, I stepped onto a platform with three colleagues to receive the Tiffany crystal trophy that embodies the Pulitzer Prize.
At the end of 2007, I slid into one of journalism’s biggest ditches. Sizing up the declining fortunes of my newspaper company, I accepted a buyout rather than expose myself to the inevitable coming layoffs.
The Pulitzer recognized our work exposing the bribery-for-earmarks scandal whose central figure, former San Diego congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham, now resides in prison. Federal investigators are still probing the world in which Cunningham’s corruption flourished. It is a cynical, corrosive Capitol Hill subculture that combines Congress, lobbyists and earmark-seeking special interests in a sleazy loop of influence buying and selling.
The buyout, also taken by dozens of colleagues who left before dozens more were laid off in January, was part of the ongoing implosion of the newspaper industry as readers and advertising dollars migrate to the Internet. While journalists have reveled in the power of the Internet as a reporting tool, we have learned to dread its dark power as a sort of newsroom neutron bomb.
From 2000 to 2006 newspaper editorial staffs shed 4,000 jobs, about 7 percent of their workforce, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism. The industry trade publication Editor & Publisher reported that during the first 10 months of 2007, newspapers severed 10,000 employees of all descriptions.
In our world the trauma has stirred the sort of existential anxiety seen elsewhere during fearful discussions of climate change and rising sea levels. Global warming has the internal combustion engine and coal-fired industrial plants. Newsroom demolition has Google News, Drudge, Craigslist, Facebook and YouTube.
With their desktops and cell phones crammed with such remarkably varied, instantaneously accessible and endlessly diverting digital news and booty, why should Americans care what happens to the “dead tree” medium of newspapers? So what if, as Harvard’s Thomas Patterson writes, “The decline of the hard-copy newspaper appears inevitable.” Or if, as Slate media critic Jack Shafer insists, newspapers are on a “slow, unstoppable train ride to hell.” Isn’t this just more of the creative destruction by which the economy adjusts to shifting circumstance?
Acknowledging my obvious bias and personal stake in the twilight struggle, I think we should care because it’s not clear that post-newspaper journalism would be able to muster the resources to do journalism’s essential job. Indeed, it is increasingly doubtful that the new journalism, whatever form it takes, will provide what media scholars Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel call journalists’ role in providing the “independent, reliable, accurate and comprehensive information that citizens require to be free.”
Newspapers’ worsening financial circumstances are also discouraging the aspirations of journalism students, including those at Notre Dame, where the John W. Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics & Democracy provides a core curriculum of five courses. Said Professor Robert Schmuhl ’70, who directs the program, “Classes and the required news internship enlighten the students on the problems—and many decide to do something else.”
Sydney Shanberg, the former New York Times reporter whose gutsy work in Cambodia with colleague Dith Pran inspired the film The Killing Fields, summed up one fundamental issue this way in The Village Voice: “Serious journalism is labor-intensive and time-consuming and therefore requires large amounts of money and health benefits and pensions.”
Information all the time
A decade ago, many newspapers could write the checks and still rack up big profits because they had monopolies in their home towns. Now comes the Internet with its phantasmagoric and proliferating offerings of news, sports and entertainment from around the world, along with videos, podcasts, blogs and interactive smackdowns that pull the audience through the computer into an ever-expanding universe of information and stimulation.
The Internet shatters advertising dollars into a billion jagged pieces strewn across the turbulent landscape of what business strategists call “the attention economy.” That’s the battleground for the over-stimulated eyeballs that used to spend time calmly surveying the local paper and choosing their television news from a three-channel menu.
The Internet also allows advertisers the precision of “behavioral targeting,” which offers a product to those whose reading or shopping habits have demonstrated an interest in it. Users of Amazon.com who receive the website’s “recommendations” based on their previous buys are familiar with the concept.
The whirl of change threatens to make the quarter-page display ad a museum piece. The plump roll of newsprint that has been tossed for decades onto front stoops and lawns may be headed the way of the LP record and the typewriter. It has become anachronistic to depend on a delivery system that uses tractor-trailers dispatched from printing plants which use a technology that the 15th century’s Johannes Gutenberg could claim as technological offspring. The expense of this dead-trees-and-trucks system is enormous, even when unions aren’t part of the manpower mix.
As their profitability has sagged, newspaper corporations were forced to respond to the shrieks from Wall Street. Tony Ridder sold off the Knight Ridder empire his family had run for over a century. Then came the sale of the Tribune company, whose key property, the Los Angeles Times, had already suffered a wrenching series of personnel cuts.
Corporate executives, like the flailing pilot of a damaged airplane who jettisons cargo to stay in the air, say they have no choice. Critics warn that by cheapening their product through cutting staff, newspapers risk a death spiral in which readers see less and less reason to subscribe and more reason to boot up.
Expensive heavy metal was long part of the newspaper’s boisterous soul. "God how I loved it,‘’ said Walter Cronkite of his days as a budding reporter in a Houston newsroom. "It was a wonderfully noisy place: the clatter of all the typewriters in the city room and the pounding beat of the press service machines over in the corner. . . . The loud roar of the Linotype machines. The smell of hot lead. The smell of printer’s ink."
Today, as Paul Steiger, former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, described the new, antiseptic newsroom, “Nothing but electrons stands between the minds and hands of the journalists and the photographic image used to produce a printing plate.”
TV takes a cut
Of course, even Uncle Walter played a role in the long slide of the print journalism that prepared him for television emergence as the most trusted man in America. Until September 2, 1963, the CBS evening news had been confined to a brisk 15 minutes. On that day he led it into the first half-hour broadcast, featuring an interview with President Kennedy. The other networks soon followed, and by the end of the year a Roper survey reported that more Americans were relying on television for their news than on newspapers.
Theodore White, one of the last century’s great journalists, described the slow resolution of the story. “So the afternoon papers slowly died in the big cities, because when people came home from work, they could learn in 30 minutes all they thought they really needed to know.” White reported that by 1980 the media manager for Ronald Reagan’s first presidential campaign declared, “The evening news is the ball game. That’s all there is to it.”
Of course, the evening news is suffering its own long, seemingly irreversible decline. While the 25 million viewers who turn each night to the three networks still mean that they have—as Howard Kurtz puts it—"the biggest media tent around," they represent less than half the 52 million who showed up around the flickering hearth in 1980. That was the year Ted Turner founded CNN, beginning a cable news phenomenon that FOX news then began pushing away from straight news and toward the edginess and advocacy which can sharpen a news organization’s personality and consolidate a core audience.
One of the most clear-eyed looks at how the networks’ efforts to drum up an audience have cheapened the news product and endangered the country is provided by former CBS correspondent Tom Fenton in his 2005 book Bad News. Fenton writes angrily about his futile efforts in the late 1990s to interest jaded producers in stories about a shadowy, little-known group of Arab radicals called Al Qaeda. He writes about the CBS fascination with triviality in the late summer of 2001. “On the eve of our Armageddon, the evening news was a mirror image of a nation eager for titillation and fascinated with its own navel.”
As audiences for television news shrink alongside newspaper readerships, the new ball game is the Internet, which such astute observers as former CBS Evening News and ABC’s Nightline producer Tom Bettag ’66 think may one day swallow the evening news. Finding their jobs redefined for the new era, newspaper reporters are expected to consider themselves “content providers”—filing not just quick stories for the web but often videos as well—in addition to crafting stories for the print edition.
While traditional ad revenues are falling fast, Internet ad sales have been unable to make up the difference. The New York Times tried putting some of its most popular content beyond a pay wall. Now it has torn down that wall, deciding that it makes more sense to sell the eyeballs to advertisers. The Wall Street Journal is also moving in that direction.
Watergate and journalism
Like many Catholic boys who grew up in the 1950s and ’60s, I heard frequent suggestions that I might have a calling to the priesthood. Even in 1970, when I took a class in Jewish theology at Notre Dame, Rabbi Elliot Rosenstock suggested I had the makings of a priest. But I had little sense of religious vocation. Restless, with a hunger that had no aim, I spent some time as a truck washer and amusement park security guard before moving to the Navajo Reservation in Arizona to work as a volunteer teacher and coach at a school run by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.
It was there, in late 1973, that I found the work which best fit my potential-priest profile as a patient listener who liked to ask questions and help resolve conflict. The Navajo Times was sending its assistant editor off to photography school in Chicago and needed a replacement.
I took the job and started to explore the high, red-desert rangelands east of the Grand Canyon. It provided the chance to write about medicine men who pray to the morning sun, a tribal chairman who clashed bitterly with Senator Barry Goldwater, the Navajo Marines who put their language into a code that baffled the Japanese during World War II, and a multilayered land dispute with the nearby Hopi tribe that rumbled through Congress in 1974. A massive coal seam lay beneath the sacred land, and corporate interests worked their will in Congress. That story led to an investigative book that introduced me to power politics in Washington.
Nineteen seventy-four was also the year the Watergate scandal climaxed with the resignation of Richard Nixon. The story of the two Washington Post reporters who dug the story out became a book and a movie—All The President’s Men, which contrasted the dark world of Washington streets and garages where they pursued the story with the pure white of the newsroom where they fleshed it out. Woodward and Bernstein inspired a generation of young reporters and elevated the job in the eyes of the public.
Like many at the time, I believed that journalism, at its best, was heroic. Like the hero’s journey as outlined by Joseph Campbell, it requires a willingness to venture out of the comfortable world of community, into a strange world of dark power and hidden influences, to gather vital information and bring it back to strengthen the community.
I still believe people can often be categorized according to whether they enhance the life around them or put a drag on it. A good reporter strives to be one of the good guys. A good reporter helps in the essential effort—maybe at the school board, maybe on Capitol Hill—for a people to understand their challenges, identify their failures and set about the work of making things better.
A public service
While media scholars Kovach and Rosenstiel describe the fundamental duty of journalism “to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing,” they also talk about the essential work of telling the people how the powerful use their power. This is a public trust, which journalists themselves have occasionally abused, betraying our code and undermining readers’ trust. But when the job is done faithfully and well, it is a public service. It can also be a lot of fun.
A few personal details can demonstrate why I think so.
In 1986 I took a job covering the Mexican border for Arizona’s largest paper, The Arizona Republic. I moved to Phoenix two years later, in time to work on one of the biggest financial and political scandals in the nation’s history. It erupted from the nexus between the savings-and-loan industry and Congress. Its central figure, Phoenix financier Charles Keating, became known for buying political protection as he plundered his thrift and pushed the junk bonds of its rotting parent company at elderly investors who believed the bonds were federally insured.
We dug heavily into Arizona’s two members of the Keating Five, the senators who notoriously tried to pull regulators off Keating’s back. First we detailed Keating’s massive land fraud, showing how he booked phony profits on bogus land sales to developers who received fat loans in return. Two of those developers were the campaign manager and principal fund raiser for Arizona Senator Dennis DeConcini.
Then my partner, Andy Hall, discovered by digging through stacks of financial reports that the wife of Senator John McCain, who had long claimed to have a constituent relationship with Keating, was an investor in one of the real estate syndicates that Keating used along with campaign contributions to widen his circle of influence.
Confronted with that information, McCain exploded at us in a telephone interview, furiously insisting that we had no story and that we were subjecting him to worse treatment than his former North Vietnamese captors because even they had not questioned his honor. Then he turned over information that widened the story considerably, admitting that he had taken many trips to Keating’s Bahamas vacation home. These had not been reported as required by congressional rules.
The Keating story became the great divide in the careers of the two senators, revealing a political chasm in our political culture that reporters need constantly to explore. DeConcini tried to shrug off his interference with federal regulators as nothing more than traditional constituent service for a big Arizona employer. But as the stories continued and the Republic’s cartoonist depicted the senator as a piano player in Keating’s Cat House, DeConcini realized it would be folly to seek re-election. He became a lobbyist, specializing in representing the pharmaceutical industry. In the shameless world of Washington, he cashed in.
Scandal and advocacy
McCain took a different path, aimed at redemption and at reforming a campaign finance system he acknowledged as a form of legalized bribery. As The New York Times reported in 1999, “In the wake of the Keating Five affair, Mr. McCain became one of the Senate’s strongest advocates for changing campaign finance rules.” That advocacy has antagonized many leading Republicans, costing him support in his current run for the presidency. It also has won him admiration among independents, whose support he is counting on to carry him to the White House.
We reporters were puzzled by McCain’s occasional fits of volcanic self-righteousness and debilitating fury. Our editorial page even questioned “whether McCain has the temperament . . . we want in the next president of the United States.” Still, I came to admire his bedrock code of honor and his recognition of the anti-democratic rottenness of a system that subverts broad public interests to the desires of those who pay for political campaigns.
The Keating scandal prepared me well to study the world of Duke Cunningham 16 years later. My principal job, after a blockbuster story by my partner Marcus Stern about the sale of Cunningham’s home to a defense contractor who paid an inflated price, was a series of stories that showed the systematic nature of the problem. We showed that Cunningham, far from being a corrupt anomaly, was an egregious expression of a systematic corruption that is allowed to continue because it serves those who make the laws.
Stories like the Cunningham scandal are alarm bells about the state of our democracy. Increasingly, we have a government that would embarrass Mr. Lincoln, a government of the lobbyist, by the earmark or tax break or regulatory favor, for the campaign cash. Capitol Hill watchdog Keith Ashdown of Taxpayers for Common Sense says it was the Cunningham scandal that made the corruption of earmarks—line items inserted into spending bills often with little or no oversight—comprehensible to the general public, which in 2006 turned House and Senate majorities back to the Democrats.
“Before Cunningham, it was more of a budget wonk thing, it wasn’t anything that grabbed you by the throat and made you pay attention” Ashdown told us for our book on the scandal. “A lot of people thought that earmarking was just something that congressmen are supposed to do.”
As exit polls during the 2006 elections showed, the Cunningham scandal combined with the Jack Abramoff lobbyist scandal to produce the outrage that took from Republicans their Congressional majorities. But the rampant waste of earmarks would not be possible without the active involvement of such Democrats as Pennsylvania’s Jack Murtha, the chairman of the defense appropriations subcommittee, who has jammed through some $600 million in hometown earmarks over the past five years.
Murtha famously called proposals for reforming the earmarking system “total crap.” But when Nancy Pelosi became speaker of the House, she promised to “create the most honest, most open and most ethical Congress in history.” She pushed for an ethics reform bill that would seriously weaken the influence of lobbyists.
That bill was greatly diluted before final passage. In a move that showed the half-life of shame on Capitol Hill is about the time it takes to slap a lobbyist on the back and grab a campaign check, the House ethics committee “clarified” some language, essentially revoking some its most important provisions. For those of us who grew up with the notion that the House of Representatives was the People’s House, it was painful to see the committee’s stunts. As a reporter I see a working definition of cynics as those who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.
What’s next for investigative reporting?
The diminishing resources of The San Diego Union-Tribune’s Washington bureau make it unlikely that the bureau will be able to follow another story like the Cunningham scandal with anything like the rigor we brought to it in 2005. And since the 2000 sale of The Arizona Republic to the Gannett corporation, the resources available to investigative reporting there have been cut drastically.
Maybe investigative reporting will find alternative sponsors. Paul Steiger has left The Wall Street Journal to start an Internet-based investigative reporting enterprise called Pro Publica—with funding from California philanthropists.
The role of charitable groups could become essential. Charles Lewis, a former producer at CBS’s 60 Minutes who is now a journalist-in-residence at American University, has a vision of a new, Internet-based brand of investigative reporting. “Why not nonprofit online newspapers serving their communities—Orlando or Akron or San Francisco—supported by local citizens and area foundations, or perhaps in association with local colleges and universities?” he asked last year in the Columbia Journalism Review.
It was two executives of the Pew Charitable Trusts who offered a passionate defense of the work done by reporters, the work most endangered as newspapers downsize or fade to gray. “For journalism is not just a business,” they said. “It’s a public trust, an essential element in the democratic mosaic.”
After receiving a buyout, Jerry Kammer is now freelancing from his home in Washington’s Maryland suburbs. In his reporting career, he has won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting, the Robert F. Kennedy Award for international reporting, the George Polk Award, the Edgar Poe Award, the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business and financial reporting, and both the National Headliner and the Don Bolles awards for investigative reporting.