The state of the press

Posted: Oct 16, 2006 12:01 AM
The state of the press

What's this? A publisher who's tired of gutting his newspaper on orders from corporate headquarters? Jeffrey M. Johnson has been ousted as publisher of the Los Angeles Times, the L.A. subsidiary of the (Chicago) Tribune Co., for refusing to cut his staff back still further.

Imagine that-a publisher who believes that the way to save a newspaper is to maintain and expand its quality, not sacrifice it. A new publisher now has been dispatched from Chicago to make sure the troops in L.A. toe the line. It's no surprise to learn that he's the old publisher of the Chicago Tribune, a lawyer by trade who worked his way up the corporate ladder. This is what newspapers have come to.

It isn't exactly a new phenomenon, this transformation of the Hometown News into just another branch of Distant Corp. to be milked for all it used to be worth.

One of the most successful and respected of newspaper chains, the once mighty Knight Ridder, has just been hacked up and its body parts sold. It seems its 32 daily newspapers had been able to record "only" a 20 percent return on investment in recent years.

Cut back on the quality of a newspaper in order to show an impressive short-term return for the market's sake, and the slide toward disaster has begun. Readers will notice and begin drifting away, and advertisers will soon follow. It won't be long before the vultures are circling.

For now the best hope for restoring the L.A. Times' reputation may be its sale to somebody who would take personal pride in it, and personal responsibility for it.

A century ago, an editor of a small paper in Kansas made it a great one, not in circulation but in quality. He gave that little people a national presence. His name was William Allen White, and the secret of his paper's appeal was its identity with its publisher-and his with it.

William Allen White's fellow citizens knew he was deeply invested in his community, and would stand by his beliefs whatever the cost. They might not agree with the Emporia Gazette, but they could respect it. It had character, just as its owner did.

The importance of the personal in this business/obsession that is journalism was brought home again by the news that Oriana Fallaci had died at 77 in her native Florence. Her life, like her journalism, was one long, very personal fight against fascism, a fight she began as a 10-year-old look-out for the Italian Resistance.

It wasn't just Mussolini's fascism that Oriana Fallaci detested but every other variety-national or racial, Italian or German, or, in her last years, Islamic. She tore into each as it appeared on history's chaotic stage - not only with her untamable words but her Florentine flair. Custom could not wither nor age stale the infinite variety of her invective. Or dim her glamor. All her life, she lured the powerful and celebrated like a Venus flytrap, and the aspiring Machiavellis of the world were her natural prey.

Signorina Fallaci saw through the practitioners of Realpolitik as if they were made of glass, brittle glass. After reading her, one could never again think of them in the same way. She had an unmatched talent for drawing attention to the specks of blood on their well-tailored cuffs, and the human groans behind their professorial talk about the balance of power and the correlation of forces. (Henry Kissinger said his interview with Fallaci "was the most disastrous conversation I ever had with a member of the press.")

There's nothing wrong with American journalism that couldn't be cured by a few more publishers who take their responsibility personally - the way William Allen White did - and a few more tough old broads who can not only write but think - a la Oriana Fallaci.

Or Florence King. Instead we get snappy neo-McCarthyites like Ann Coulter on one side and fashionables like Maureen Dowd on the other, for whom the adjective precious might have been invented. (You can take the girl out of the Upper East Side, but not the Upper East Side out of the girl.)

Oh, for another Oriana Fallaci, whose unflinching words survive her, and more publishers like the kind who brought her thoughts, and soaring spirit, to us.