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The [Thursday] Papers

It wasn't news to those of us who have been paying attention, but Bill Moyers' Buying the War on PBS last night was still enough to make me want to ring up Tony Peraica and lead a drunken midnight march on the Tribune, Sun-Times, and the local television stations for their role in leading this country to a historically tragic war. They have blood on their hands.

And they still haven't owned up.

The show was mostly about the national media's sickening performance in the run-up to the war, but its themes hold true locally. The Sun-Times was the war's biggest local cheerleader, perhaps egged on by corporate director Richard Perle, certainly following the wishes of Conrad Black and David Radler, and at the impetus most importantly of Michael Cooke, who remains the paper's Editor-in-Chief, and John Cruickshank, then Cooke's co-editor but now the publisher.

The paper's pimped-out patriotism was the most vile sort of opportunistic pandering, stuffing the news columns with fantastical claims about Saddam Hussein's weapons programs that never came to be (nor did corrections or apologies for doing so), pushing the administration's case for war even as those in the know - as Moyers' program shows - were aghast at the absurdities of the propaganda so easily placed in the press, and pretending that supporting the troops was to blindly send them to war to die even as the paper was unwilling itself to even embed a single reporter in even the safest military unit. Cruickshank at the time defended that decision by saying the war was best covered from Washington, D.C.

Cooke thought nothing of topping wire stories with the bylines of Sun-Times reporters to give readers the impression the paper was actually producing its own work, and then-city editor Don Hayner, now the managing editor, explained the sudden presence of the American flag on the paper's front page, now just as suddenly gone as it's no longer much useful, as the standard Chicago response to a nation at war.

These are the geniuses running your Sun-Times. Do any of them feel any responsibility?

The Tribune was only better by its blander, colder and more professional presentation of the same pack of lies. Its editorial page continues its contortions justifying the war rather than admitting it was schooled. They should be ashamed of themselves.

Moyers' report isn't only about the past, though. It's about whether the media will learn any lessons - chiefly, how to be journalists. There isn't much indication they will. Both papers are still filled with the pundits who were most forcefully wrong about the war - hell, Charles Krauthammer, among the worst of them, is the favorite columnist of new Tribune Company owner Sam Zell - and independent reporting is becoming increasingly rare as the deadly combination of budget cuts and market research turn our press corps into shopping and fitness experts.

Worse, the Tribune Company is consolidating its foreign and national reporting just as Moyers shows how important it is to have as many different reporters working these stories as possible. Tribune Company prefers a future in which we all get the same single report, invariably from a reporter like Judith Miller. What corporate wankers see as redundancy is instead a basic necessity of doing even a minimal baseline of standard reporting about governments deciding issues with the most deadliest of consequences. Fewer national and foreign reporters equals more dead American kids.

It's no wonder the oldstream news is no longer perceived as an authoritative source, particularly among young people. The old media companies have eroded their brands - not to survive, but to maintain obscene profit levels - at just the time when brand authority is the most valuable marketing tool available to organizations trying to break through the media clutter.

The best business move any news company can make is to invest in real journalists with backbone who are too busy studying documents and talking to sources to make it to all the right cocktail parties or back home to their suburban estates in time for Desperate Housewives. Perhaps the central irony is that committing real journalism is actually good business. Oh, and it also saves lives.

And So It Goes
We're still learning, after all these years, the truths behind the Pat Tillman and Jessica Lynch stories. Like the continued revelations of the U.S. attorneys firings fiasco, those stories teach an important lesson I was taught 20 years ago as a young reporter: Keep going. The truth is 10 times worse than you think it is.

While that isn't always literally true, the approach is the point.

It's an approach I assumed the Chicago press corps would have when I moved here 15 years ago. I was astoundingly wrong. All this nonsense about Mike Royko, City News Bureau, the Billy Goat . . . do you see any evidence in your papers that, as a general principle, Chicago's press corps knows what any of it is supposed to stand for? The flimsiest of journalists in this town worship at the ghost of Royko even as they cower at the shadow of the mayor and other powers that be. They are like gentrifiers - they know there's something happening in Royko's neighborhood, but they don't know what it is. They just know they want it to reflect on them somehow. So they kill it even as they think they are honoring it.

And so you get Richard M. Daley, the World's Greatest Mayor; Barack Obama, the Lincoln-like rock star; and all the rest. What you don't get is journalism. Nobody seems to even remember what that is anymore.

In Today's Reporter
* What Obama doesn't want you to know about his fundraising.

* Scott Buckner is back watching TV, and if you're not reading his reports you're missing out.

* From the archives: The Great American Jobs Machine.

EDITOR'S NOTE: If you liked today's column, send it to as many people as you can think of. If you didn't, maybe I'll be in a better mood tomorrow. Either way, watch the Moyers' program. It should be required viewing in every newsroom (and boardroom) in America.

Comments? Use the Tip Line. You must provide a real name to be considered for publication - or a good reason why you can't.

1. From Tim Howe:

. . . and high school civics classes.

Well put, but the editorial role taken by the S-T, Trib, et al, is nothing new. There are some who say that Hearst single-handedly started the Spanish-American War. Certainly he played a much larger role in leading the country into that conflict than today's media did with Iraq, though their complicity is unquestionable.

And nationally, there have been significant voices in opposition: Moyers, Krugman and others. They tend to get drowned out though, particularly when the aforementioned players are helping the government stir up a wounded nation's thirst for blood.

If your point is that individual reporters in Chicago today can't hold a candle to their predecessors, you'll get no argument here. But were there ever legions of truly intrepid, strong-voiced journalists in Chicago? Or is it that among those that practiced their trade here were such giants that the rest of the gang got by on reflected reputation?

There are still a few who do the dirty work, like Carol Marin, and who speak truth to power, like John Kass (though I continue to believe that he goes over the line enough that it blunts the good points he does make).

But who's paying attention? Who's reading the papers? Or even watching on TV? You can make the argument that the poor product has pushed people away from reading the daily paper, but readership would be down significantly - just as viewership is down for local TV news - due to fragmentation and the proliferation of alternatives for our attention anyway. The degree to which you apportion that decline can be debated ad nauseum.

Anyway. Your voice on the specific issue of the war is appreciated, and your efforts to prod the Chicago press to do a better job are important. Keep it up.

2. From Rick Kaempfer:

I was getting bad flashbacks watching the Bill Moyers special the other night. He captured the mood of this country leading up to war perfectly. I was John Landecker's producer at the time on WJMK 104.3. We used to start the show every morning after 9/11 with the National Anthem. It was a beautiful version of the song sung by the Dixie Chicks at the Super Bowl. After Natalie Maines said what she did, the program director ordered us to stop playing it. That's right. He ordered us to stop playing the National Anthem. I told him to put that in writing. He wouldn't do it - but he threatened to fire us if we continued playing it. We actually considered allowing him to fire us for that, but we didn't think this was a war (no pun intended) worth fighting. Ironically, we were fired anyway a few months later.

3. Reader's programming note:

It looks like WTTW is rerunning this program only once. So if you're a night owl or have a TIVO/DVR, you can catch it next Sunday, April 29th, at 3:30 a.m.

4. Reader's programming note:

Also, if you have sufficient bandwidth, you can watch the show online here.

5. From Marilyn Ferdinand:

Your column today, like the Moyers report last night, made me feel incredibly sad. I wanted to become a journalist not because of Woodward and Bernstein, but because of the great newspaper tradition Chicago had when I was young. My heart is broken.

I saw that Oprah show Moyers excerpted, and wrote her the one and only time in my life to tell her I was absolutely appalled at her jingoism and slanted show, knowing full well her enormous influence on people, particularly women, who were opposed to the war in large numbers at that time. To her credit, she ran another show a couple of weeks later that showed the skeptics, including Anna Quindlen.

Maybe the media have blood on their hands, but so do many Americans who didn't demand that their news organizations tell them the truth. Vengeance was moving a nation - not just a media that was in bed with the neocons. If newspapers die, it will be suicide, not Internet murder.


Posted on April 26, 2007

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