Among the products of war are a few misconceptions, one of which is the widespread belief that the media are The Media -a monolithic creature of one mind and singular purpose. Well, two minds, if you divide the media into liberal and conservative, which many do.
There seems to be little sense of a middle ground these days. It's an either-or world, a condition that may be blamed in part on President Bush's "you're either with us or against us" mantra following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
If you write in support of Bush policies, such as the war on Iraq, for example, those who disagree infer that you're either on the Haliburton payroll or jockeying for a job with the Bush administration.
I assume that those who write against the war get similar mail suggesting that they're either Clinton apologists, or communists, or teen-raping, pot-smoking, baby-aborting Hollywood agitators. What were once differences of opinion among gentlefolk have become vast ideological divides between fanatics and zealots.
My e-mail since the start of the war has cast a light on the apparently growing misconception that we in journalism operate as obedient soldiers marching lockstep in a sinister army directed by greedy corporate czars.
Don't get me wrong. I think the words "greedy" and "czar" fit nicely with "corporate." The media merger mania of recent years may be good for business but bad for journalism. And there are plenty of horror stories to justify some of the contempt out there, though perhaps not the degree of paranoia I keep noticing.
Famously, for example, Times Mirror Corp. (which merged with my boss, the Tribune Co., in 2000) hired General Mills cereal executive Mark Willes in 1995 to improve company profits. Willes, nicknamed "Cap'n Crunch" and the "Cereal Killer," ultimately tripled the stock price within four years in part by killing the New York edition of Newsday and putting the final nail in the Baltimore Evening Sun.
Within journalism circles, however, he's best known for tearing down the wall between business and editorial, which many correctly feared would compromise journalistic independence. Willes left after five years with a multimillion-dollar severance package, which, need I say, does not inspire the sort of corporate loyalty among union-wage journalists that the conspiracy minders imagine.
No one hates the homogenization of newsrooms more than I, or the corporate bureaucracy that has snuffed out the soul of journalism since I began 25 years ago. Where once there were giants, now there are bureaucratic midgets and bow-tied bean counters obsessing about tidy desks.
Younger newsies don't even remember the ink-stained wretches who used to flop on newsroom couches for an afternoon siesta before hammering out prose so shimmering that people read it aloud. The heartbeat of newspapers -the political cartoonist -has been nearly straight-lined by soulless budget cutters whose own pulse is in question.
Twenty years ago, America's newspapers boasted 200 staff cartoonists; today there are only about 90. Even the once-boisterous Chicago Tribune no longer has one.
So the corporatization of journalism is real, and the trickle-down effect quantifiable. The number crunchers wouldn't have it any other way. But, I always return to this:
There is something fundamentally uncorporate about most of the people who do the actual reporting, writing, editing and sketching of newspapers.
Most are compelled by something less tangible and, on good days, more rewarding than money. There are still a few independent voices out there, and I count myself lucky to be one of them.
The editorial page of the paper may reflect the publisher's preferences, but not so the op-ed page where syndicated columns run. Thus, for the record, the editorial content of my columns is my own and only my own. I don't give a rip -you might have noticed -who likes it, including my editor, publisher, the CEO, Haliburton or Bush. If I cared, I couldn't write.
Moreover, my guess is that some of the 300 or so editors who publish my column personally would rather not. The fact that editors run columnists with whom they disagree or plain don't like is testament to their professional integrity and their commitment to the marketplace of ideas rather than the marketplace of rack sales.
When reporters, editors, columnists and cartoonists start earning what the corner-office guys get, readers might justifiably begin to question personal motives. Meanwhile, no one else gets credit or blame for words under my byline. For reasons that probably can't bear close scrutiny, most of us are quite willing to eat our own.
P.S. If my column goes missing next week, the conspiracy theorists were right and I take everything back.