American Media’s Lethal, Self-Inflicted Wounds

Perhaps it still does, but 40-odd years ago the US Information Agency would take reporters newly arrived from overseas on little junkets to show how America worked. The Wall had yet to fall, the Cold War continued and Washington wished to put the benefits of democracy and free enterprise on display. I went on only one such trip, in early 1980, which is some time ago, so if what I recall of our stop at the Los Angeles Times is fogged by the years, please forgive a memory perhaps a little blurred at the edges. What I do recall is being herded, our troupe of international freeloaders — black faces, white and asian, the only genders then on offer, plus some colourful headgear and a robe or two — through a vast acreage of newsrooms until finally, having also inspected loading bays and presses, we were assembled before the vacant desk of the editor-in-chief. A tall, athletic man with a beaky countenance arrived, sat down, delivered some pro forma remarks on the First Amendment, Fourth Estate and the vital role his newspaper played in the lives of Los Angelos and, indeed, the nation and world. The chap with the kente cloth cap asked why Africa received so little attention, and there were questions about November’s presidential election, Carter vs Reagan, and how it would be covered. This is the bit that remains crystal sharp.

“Without fear or favour and in pursuit of the facts,” said the LA Times/Mirror group’s supreme editor, Otis Chandler, the fourth generation of the family that had owned and run the LA Times for more than a century. Like Katherine Graham at the Washington Post, his was a hands-on clan. After the rote boilerplate about the sacred duty of the press, the force of Chandler’s conviction in pledging a thorough, unbiased eye on the looming presidential contest was, well, memorable. The details escape me, except that he went on at some length about the dollar investment that would go into the election coverage, a sum I remember as being in the astonishing multi-millions. The LA Times‘ reputation and that of the Chandlers were as one and worth protecting. Indeed, it was also matter of redemption. Before Otis, the LA Times had been a nakedly biased, right-wing denouncer of all things Democrat, especially unions, which made it the target of a 1910 bombing that left almost two dozen dead.

Being right wing is one thing; refusing even to publish the name of the Democrat running for governor (it was Pat Brown, Jerry’s dad) was spiteful and silly. To his immense credit Otis changed  that. Unlike his forebears, he wanted a newspaper that was more than a partisan and parochial thunderer; indeed, he aspired for the LA Times to join the New York Times and Washington Post in an exalted trinity and invested tens of millions of dollars to make that happen.

That Otis left such an enduring impression on me might have had a tad to do with the company I’d been keeping in those first months, an innocent in Gotham. The contrast was marked with the crew that gathered at a midtown bar called Costello’s, which had something of a literary heritage and boasted James Thurber originals on its walls. By 1980 it was no longer a New Yorker haunt but a News Ltd one. You’d find the great Steve Dunleavy there from time to time, and others who deserve to be footnoted should anyone write a history of Rupert Murdoch’s US invasion and the newsroom shock troops who established his first beachheads. There was short, round and bald ex-Darwin bookie Peter Blake, the master sub who formerly co-edited the Kings Cross Whisper and would have made a fine Friar Truck. Sydney cartoonist Ray Rigby, Piers Akerman,  plus the Poms and Kiwis that Murdoch quite literally airlifted into New York to launch gossip weekly Star and, after 1978, to remake the newly acquired New York Post. They were a raffish crew, perhaps best illustrated by just one of the many stories, all more or less true, of Dunleavy’s exploits, this one playing out in the New York hospital where a survivor of Son of Sam’s latest attack was being treated. Having ‘borrowed’ a white coat, Dunleavy, introduced himself as a medico and rebuked the press corps for their clamourous insensitivity in harassing nurses and the victim’s family. Ordering the press out of the emergency room and back onto the street, Dunleavy had the victim and kin to himself and bagged his front-page ‘exclusive’.

These were the twin skeins of US journalism — Otis Chandler’s sober, self-aggrandizing focus on  Pulitzers and winning the acclaim of peers and journalism professors, and the buccaneering, Front Page antics of the sneeringly dismissed gutter press, a descriptor Dunleavy et al wore as a badge of honour. So how have they fared, these two at-odds schools of US journalism?

Come the dawn of the present century, Otis was dying, the paper had been sold and the LA Times, in one of those ironic one-eighty turnabouts, had re-embraced its days of madly partisan assaults on the ideas, politics and people its editorial staffers don’t like. But now, instead of expecting a Red under every bed, its pages whine with an endless and aggressively multi-faceted woke inanity. As Quadrant‘s John O’Sullivan put it, ‘Any organization not explicitly and constitutionally right-wing will sooner or later become left-wing’. Well that has been the LA Times‘ devolutionary path. We can never know what Otis Chandler would have made of the story whose headline and artwork are reproduced below, other than concluding it is emblematic of the aggrieved and histrionic drek the paper has been serving in ever-larger dollops for at least the last 20 years.

The above appeared on January 6 of this year. Ten days later, the newsroom walked out on strike to protest the latest in decade-long rounds of layoffs. It was unfair! The public had a right to know its journalists’ opinions! It was censorship! Gutting the paper could only help Donald Trump!Unmoved by staffers putting Onan to shame with their poor-me displays of passionate self-regard, former readers haven’t returned. Last year the LA Times lost an uncomfortable $50 million and saw its reach — ink-and-paper as well as online — shrink by half. The newsroom strike, the first in the paper’s history, achieved nothing. Back at their desks, 115 staffers learned their jobs were being wiped along with entire sections — sports and business desks, city room, features — all gutted or gone altogether. Here is a newspaper that once boasted bureaus from Rio to Tokyo and all over Europe. Now it can’t afford to send a sports jock to the Stanley Cup ice hockey playoffs in Florida.


ON THE OTHER side of the country, the Washington Post, which somehow maintains, at least to its own satisfaction, that it remains one of the world’s great mastheads, is in even more trouble, with annual losses running to well over $124 (Aust) million, ad sales charting a Himalayan free fall and readership numbers declining by the month. There is, though, a big difference in the way the two papers have approached their collision with commercial realities. In Los Angeles, current owner Patrick Soon-Shiong’s latest layoffs have left survivors painfully aware they may well be next out the door of a media property so stripped of talent and mired in red ink that no one will take it off the current proprietor’s hands. In Washington, Post owner Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos may well be planning to put the paper on the block. If so, his strategy isn’t going well.

The general view in Washington is that Bezos bought the Post from the Graham family in 2013 as a $250 million insurance policy. What better way to buy a little cooperation from the meddlers on Capitol Hill, not to mention protection from their regulators, than to own Washington’s hometown newspaper? If that was indeed his plan, it worked, as it was only late last year that the Federal Trade Commission finally launched an anti-trust action against Amazon. A cynic might well say that, with the feds now on his case, Bezos reasons the Post has been as useful as it might be and the time has now come to find the greater fool. A second reason, no doubt, is that Bezos would prefer not to be blowing all those tens of millions — a notion that appears never to have occurred to Post staffers, who still seem to believe he is under some sort of moral obligation to underwrite their assaults on the patriarchy, Trump, carbon dioxide, Trump, Republicans in general, Trump and whatever other and latest crusade happens to be occupying woke frontal lobes at any given moment. A Slate columnist, Justin Peters, captured the Posties’ presumption with the argument that Bezos is so rich he could set up a Guardian-style trust to fund the reporters and their passions until the end of time.

To this end, Bezos in January hired a new CEO/publisher Will Lewis and, a week or two ago, announced that a new editor, Fleet Streeter Robert Winnett, had been recruited from The Telegraph and would start after November’s elections. Both men are Brits and neither won the approval of the editorial floor, where reporters and editors had done pretty much as they pleased under the indulgent editorship of the fired Sally Buzbee and her predecessors.

It need hardly be said that reporters are a port-canted lot for the most part, so Donald Trump’s 2016 victory received the full activism-as-journalism treatment. Russia! Russia! Russia! — the Post didn’t doubt for a moment that Trump was Putin’s servant, then dropped its fixation without even the decency to blush when it emerged that Hillary Clinton’s campaign machine had cooked up the entire hoax. One could cite many examples, but let one speak for the Post‘s selective targeting: no sooner had Trump taken the presidential oath than the paper began keeping a running daily tally of his “lies”. The list had had grown to exceed 30,000 entries when Joe Biden triumphed in 2020, at which point the Post lost all interest in holding a Commander in Chief’s feet to the fire of truth. Without explanation the column vanished — pffft! just like that — and Biden was free to retail his whoppers in unremarked job lots.  Democrat friends don’t beat up Democrat friends, don’t you know! Bezos’ appointments were aimed at pushing the post’s bias-o-meter, if not into the Republican red zone, certainly from deepest Democratic blue into a more reasonably balanced purple. So far it has been a losing strategy, which some might see as Bezos reaping the whirlwind he has sown by leaving his reporters and editors to do their worst for 11 barely supervised years.

The vulnerability Lewis and Winnett share, what made them such easy targets, was the Fleet Street connection. While there is no evidence directly linking either to the phone-hacking scandals of 20 years ago, enough circumstantial associations exist to implicate them on its periphery. Each has done sterling work since — it was Winnett who caught MPs charging taxpayers to clean their moats and other rorts, and the Wall Street Journal grew during Lewis’ tenure. But the Fleet Street taint was all the mutineers needed. Denials were of no use, and the Post very soon was filling pages of adverse reporting on their CEO and man who had agreed to be their editor. The New York Times, which shared 2018 Pulitzers with the Post for their ludicrously flawed “reporting” of the Russiagate hoax and has lacked the basic decency to return them, weighed in with more dark and deep reservations about the danger of contaminating America’s newsrooms — morally pristine enclaves, apparently, all imbued with the highest ethical aspirations — with Fleet Street mores and methods. A wise man, Willett withdrew his acceptance and announced he would be staying at The Telegraph. Having long ago discarded a commitment to straight-bat reporting, the Post has now shunned the precisely the sort of leader it desperately needs.


IT’S A PITY Costello’s bar is long gone and most of its patrons with it, because they would have laughed themselves silly at the preciousness of the Post‘s hutch of grumble bunnies. As Willis told the newsroom when announcing Willett’s appointment, the paper simply could not continue shedding subscribers and revenue, so new blood and a sweeping reorganisation are needed. “We are going to turn this thing around, but let’s not sugarcoat it. It needs turning around. We are losing large amounts of money. Your audience has halved in recent years. People are not reading your stuff,” he told them. The response from the assembled hacks — I kid you not — were questions about future hiring policies giving sufficient preference “to diversity and journalists of colour”. The other-worldliness is stunning. There will be no jobs for anyone, black, white or green with purple spots, if the Post can’t pay its way.

And there will be no reforms unless Bezos finds the resolve to tell his employees that it is his paper not theirs and they are welcome to resign if that isn’t to their liking. Readers appalled by the Post‘s sympathy for Hamas would welcome a winnowing of the foreign desk, where the independent Washington Free Beacon reports at least half a dozen editors are Al Jezeera veterans. And it’s not just a contempt for “Zionists” that needs flushing. Consider the thoughts of the Spectator‘s US columnist Cockburn, a nom de plume inspired by the British general who burnt the White House to the ground in the War of 1812

…perhaps [Lewis and Winnett] were hired specifically to quash these petulant rebellions within their own establishments, obsessed with race-based coverage of every newsworthy event under the sun.

One thing remains, however, that until that day comes, these newsrooms will still be run like liberal arts college campuses. There might even be a few tent encampments in the main lobby of the buildings. If the worst thing … to be accused of is being out of touch with what their inmates demand, then perhaps the answer is not to cater, cave and apologize. Perhaps the answer is to stand firm — and tell them no.


IF JUST saying no is the advice taken up by America’s ailing media, it will need to be a chorus not a solo. At the New York Times the subscriptions and online access they sold to Trump haters during his presidency withered after Biden ascended the Oval office. Time magazine is a shadow of what it was, so far removed from the fact-checked rigour of its former self that several years ago it included Evelyn Waugh in its list of the 100 most important women writers. BusinessWeek, which thought investors should be reading about diversity and equity, was sold to Bloomberg for $2 and assumption of liabilities. Sports Illustrated spat in its readers’ eyes by giving them what the woke editors thought they needed — in the case of its annual swimsuit issue, fat women and trannies. As of today, whether or not another edition is printed remains moot.

And then there is CNN, which started the whole cable-news thing and will host the Trump/Biden first presidential debate on Thursday. If standards have dropped elsewhere, they have fairly plummeted at the Atlanta-based network, where even the mere pretense of fairness has been enthusiastically discarded since 2016 in favour of 24/7 Trump-loathing.

When the curtain goes up on the big debate, the CNN moderators will be Jake Tapper, who has made a habit of likening Trump to Hitler, and colleague Dana Bash, who is married to one of the 51 “intelligence and national security veterans” who dismissed the Hunter Biden laptop story as Russian disinformation.

This might have been a moment, like Bezos’ attempt to install a new editor, for CNN to find two less tarnished debate interlocutors. They let that cup pass them by — just as, when the debate is over, viewers will vote with their eyeballs and get their news elsewhere.

UPDATE: Piers Akerman writes: A minor point — Dunleavy was not newly arrived at the time of Son of Sam. He was in our NY Bureau in the late 60s, well ensconced and a legend by the time I lobbed in the early 70s. Indeed, his first missus, Yvonne, had already penned The Happy Hooker with Xaviera [Hollander], and  was about to become father to a son by his later wife, Gloria. Both Steve and Gloria are now gone.

Quite a crew at the Costello’s in the Sky.

Thanks, Piers. My mistake and now corrected.


6 thoughts on “American Media’s Lethal, Self-Inflicted Wounds

  • Peter Smith says:

    Entertaining read Roger. The highest praise.

  • ianl says:

    From Roger F’s article:

    ” … colleague Dana Bash [Biden-Trump debate moderator] , who is married to one of the 51 “intelligence and national security veterans” who dismissed the Hunter Biden laptop story as Russian disinformation”

    That piece of information is worthy of a John Cleese bon mot. I can give no higher praise for satire, my most favoured form of humour.

    In short, I laughed out loud for quite a while. And then I grasped the point – it’s actually true.

  • Sindri says:

    Thanks Roger. The LA Times headline and similar absurdities can cumulatively give one the shakes. Laughing at it is a huge help.

  • Stephen Ireland says:

    Laughter is one of the better medicines; thanks Dr Franklin

  • Lapun Ozymandias says:

    It is worth bearing in mind that all these failing media enterprises are now substantially staffed by the products of the also-failing University system. The moral of the story is that if you want your business to fail and your media asset rendered worthless, then just staff it with people who are clutching shiny new degrees from modern universities. In doing this you can be sure that your staff have been fully enculturated in the irrationalities of the Absurdistans into which the universities have degraded. (The same goes for other university outputs – such as the training of professional medical staff – for which many U.S. universities are applying strict ‘diversity’ criteria at the expense of professional capability by quietly lowering competencies. In the end everyone wins the shiny new degree for which they have paid and can call themselves ‘Doctor’).

    • en passant says:

      One only has to look at the BudLite debacle (or a dozen other examples) to understand that edukation ain’t what we thought it used to be.

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