(Note: Sometimes things just work out. This piece was to debut last week, but other demands forced its delay. In light of the object lesson we received last week in how the mainstream media – MSM – manipulates the discussion of policy making in this country, specifically Dennis Kucinich and “health care reform,” I’m glad I waited. This is the first in what will be an exhaustive series. For simplicity’s sake, future installments will be titled based on the facet of the topic each explores, with the prefix “MSM.” For example, part two will be called “MSM Theater.” Look for it in early April.)

I know, I know – you’re thinking, “I already distrust the MSM and get my information from a variety of alternative sources.”

That’s good. And if you’re not getting your information from original sources (the horse’s mouth) – and you’re verifying that the information you do get can be corroborated by at least two separate, unrelated secondary sources (three is better) – that’s very good indeed, because then you’re flirting with something called “journalism.”

You remember journalism, right? It’s the practice of collecting , verifying, and reporting facts within a specific context, also known as a “story.”

If that sounds sarcastic, forgive me, it’s not my intent.

What is? A little consciousness raising.

For better or worse (trust me: it’s worse), the first generation to never have known anything other than the utterly castrated entity that is now our mainstream media is out there, watching it, reading it, working in it – and believing it.

The first generation, because even my sons, ages 26 and 27, have a clue about discerning fact from fiction. But those just five years or more their junior, in general, do not – and that, in this land, is shameful. It is also exactly how the MSM want it.

Most of us accept that true watchdogs within the Fourth Estate, as a species, are all but extinct. Few of us, however, understand the reasons why.

Many decried the consolidation of media and understood that having fewer, less-independent media outlets was a bad thing. But the whys and hows of its coming to pass are less understood, and knowing them is important if we are to have even the slimmest chance of seeing real journalism flourish in this country again.

So listen up.

The all but total extinction of our press watchdogs can be summed up in two words: publicly held. The lack of real journalism – something our founders thought crucial enough place atop the Bill of Rights – can be traced without question to the fact that our media are owned by vast corporations who put outlandish profitability above their duty to seek and report the truth.

This is not my opinion. This is fact; and it is documented to a fare-thee-well in Richard McCord’s 2001 book, “The Chain Gang: One Newspaper Versus the Gannett Empire.”

I worked in that empire for two of the longest, most stressful, difficult – and rewarding, funny, collaborative – years of my life.

I came back to journalism in 1995, after a 14-year absence, as editor of a small Gannett weekly. My last job in the industry had been in radio news. During my hiatus I founded and operated a successful manufacturing company.

At my interview for the editor’s job, I waited for it, the inevitable question: “Why do you want this job?” (Translation: “Why would you want to work for peanuts in a small town in rural Pennsylvania?”). The newspaper had a proud history spanning nearly 100 years but now, very frankly, it sucked.

I laid a recent issue – which I’d red lined – on my future boss’s desk. “Because the community deserves better than this.”

The job was mine.

On day one, I learned that the paper’s decline began the day Gannett took ownership. The conglomerate sold off the paper’s print shop and moved the operation from its distinct flatiron building on the town square to rented office space. I’d always wanted to work at an underground newspaper, and now I was editing one: The newsroom was literally half below grade, the only outside light coming from a few awning windows up by the ceiling.

Something else I found out on day one was that the paper’s 1980’s-vintage, text-only computers were the textbook example of no frills. They lacked even basic spell-checking capability. In 1995. In America.

This little weekly paper was part of a deal Gannett had made with its parent, a larger daily about 20 miles away. Selling off the print shop and building were calculated bottom-line decisions that Gannett never thought about in terms of the effect on the community or the staff.

Few are aware of it any longer, but throughout newspapers’ history, their owners were often referred to as having “a license to print money.” In their heyday, newspapers were that profitable. They made consistent, reliable returns to their publishers of between 5 and 9 percent annually. One reason for this, particularly in smaller towns, was the printing operation.

Newspapers were usually founded by civic-minded (or power hungry) men who had built their fortunes in other ways and now wanted the prestige, influence – and platform – that a newspaper provided. But selling newspapers and the ads inside them was not the typical operation’s profit center. It was the print shop, often the only one serving the communities in which the paper was read. Anybody wanting anything printed had one good option.

Talk about cornering the market.

But newspaper chains changed all that, with Gannett leading the charge. Profits of 5 to 9 percent and a cornered printing market weren’t good enough for the publicly owned company’s shareholders, and CEO Allen Neuharth found a way to boost the numbers: Go into markets with only one paper, buy it, sell off the assets, and run the operation as cheaply as possible. In markets with more than one paper, Gannett did the same thing, and drove the competition out of business by slashing advertising rates, as McCord’s book details.

Then, Gannett would jack ad rates even higher than they were in the first place. It’s easy to do when you’re the only game in town.

Neuharth’s strategy worked, at least for his shareholders. Gannett was the darling of Wall Street, posting double-digit returns, usually in the 20-percent range.

Everybody was happy – except Gannett papers’ readers and editorial employees. Once-vibrant newrooms saw staffs slashed, and newholes – the percentage of the paper devoted to actual journalism – drastically cut. As high as 75 percent before Gannett bought them, newsholes shrank to less than half the paper at most Gannett operations, even lower at others. All in the name of outsize – and in the end, unsustainable – profits. (The title of Neuharth’s autobiography, “Confessions of an S.O.B.,” pretty much sums it up).

One week the paper I edited was allotted a 38 percent newshole. It never got that low again during my tenure, one of my few victories. But securing more space for what mattered – afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted – required an hour-long meeting with my superiors punctuated with the threat of my resignation.

Still, the losses were hard to take.

When I first took the job I’d been promised two additional reporters. I got one, and he had to carry a camera, because the full-time photographer was axed weeks later. I was literally cobbling together a newspaper serving a community of 20,000 with three full-timers in the newsroom including myself, and a network of “stringers” – freelancers – I’d begun building on my first day in the job. The toughest cut of all: A part-time typist on a fixed income – she’d worked for the paper since long before the Gannett era – got the ax and I, of course, was the lumberjack.

Without spell-check, my job was hours longer each week than it needed to be, but I was determined to put out an error free newspaper in both content and typography, so I literally read the whole thing every week before pagination.

Meanwhile, in the advertising department, they didn’t give a shit. Not about the news side, of course – and not even about the quality of the ads they sold. I once made the mistake of red lining all the display ads in an issue. It looked like every one of them was bleeding. The ad director took umbrage. “You do your job, I’ll do mine,” she said. “I’m not seeing evidence of that,” I said, ”and I want this paper to be good again in every way.” She called her boss. Her boss called my boss. I got lucky, though, and won that one too.

As an operation we got lucky as well, winning independent recognition for our reporting and writing. But you can only work 70 hour weeks for so long.

Gannett had purchased the parent daily paper – another with a long, proud tradition of terrific work – for one reason only: Its location. About 30 miles outside of Philadelphia, it was strategically located to be a regional printer for USA Today, (or, as many like to call it, McPaper), which became son-of-a-bitch Alan Neuharth’s legacy. Did you ever try actually reading that thing?

The consolidation of the print media Gannett prompted – and which the electronic media have copied – is why the MSM suck. Too little editorial staff, too-big profit demands from shareholders. You think only Big Oil, Big Insurance, Big Finance and Big Retail are the screwing you? Think again.

It’s no coincidence that the disappearance of our media watchdogs – newspapers, magazines, radio, and TV outlets which produced vibrant, well-sourced, get-to-the-bottom-of-it reporting – has occurred at the same time the corporatocracy has taken hold.

Next time, we’ll look at the theater which the MSM conceive and perpetuate – from the nightly news to Bill Maher – in order to consolidate their power and obstruct fundamental change in American social, domestic, and foreign policy.

Cross-posted at The Malcontent.

Anthony Noel

Anthony Noel

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