ABOUT A THIRD of the way into their fine new book on whatís wrong with the media, Leonard Downie Jr. and Robert G. Kaiser offer a startling anecdote about the realities of "shareholder value." In 1998, they report, a Merrill Lynch analyst by the name of Lauren Rich assured investors that the media company Knight Ridder Inc., or KRI, had finally gotten its priorities straight. "KRIís historic culture has been one of producing Pulitzer Prizes instead of profits," Rich wrote, "and while we think that culture is hard to change, it does seem to be happening."
And verily, the good news Rich proclaimed on that day came to pass. Once-excellent Knight Ridder papers such as the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Miami Herald were drastically downsized, the better to bolster share prices. Jay Harris, the publisher of the San Jose Mercury News and one of the news industryís highest-ranking African-Americans, quit last spring and spoke out against Knight Ridder CEO Tony Ridderís insistence on profit margins of 20 percent, even 30 percent.
Thus, when it comes to shareholder value, Knight Ridder finally gets it. Unfortunately, as Downie and Kaiser observe, fatter profit margins and higher stock prices were made possible only by a sustained, frontal assault on journalistic quality.
Len Downie and Bob Kaiserís The News About the News: American Journalism in Peril (Knopf, 292 pages, $25) is a heavyweight entry in what has become a surprisingly crowded sweepstakes of media-criticism books. Bernard Goldbergís simple-minded Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News (Regnery) is at the top of the bestseller lists (see "Donít Quote Me," News and Features, January 18). Former network-news correspondent Marvin Kalb, now with Harvardís Kennedy School of Government, took the media to task several months ago with One Scandalous Story: Clinton, Lewinsky, and Thirteen Days That Tarnished American Journalism (Free Press). (Kalbís book is not a favorite of Kaiserís; see "A Conversation with Bob Kaiser," at right). Also making the talk-show rounds these days is William McGowan, the author of Coloring the News: How Crusading for Diversity Has Corrupted American Journalism (Encounter).
The News About the News may prove to be the most influential of the bunch, as much because of who wrote it as because of what Downie and Kaiser have to say. It is a stolid, earnest book by stolid, earnest pillars of mainstream journalism. Downie is the executive editor of the Washington Post (he succeeded Ben Bradlee, of Watergate fame, in 1991), and is perhaps best known for his eccentric refusal to vote, lest it compromise his objectivity. Kaiser, a former managing editor at the Post, is now an associate editor and reporter-at-large for the paper. Many of their anecdotes about whatís right with the news media come straight from the Post newsroom, a conceit that can be excused given the Postís status as one of our best newspapers.
FOR ANYONE who has been reading media criticism over the years, there is little in The News About the News that is really, well, news. Book publishers, it seems, canít resist tomes on whatís ailing the news media and how to fix it.
Notable contributions include James Fallowsís Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy (1996), a wide-ranging study thatís most valuable for its assault on the evil axis of media big shots, shouting-head TV talk shows, and the lucrative corporate speaking gigs those talk-show appearances generate, and Jay Rosenís What Are Journalists For? (1999), a plea for so-called civic journalism, in which news organizations become involved in community life in ways that make traditionalists such as Downie and Kaiser cringe.
In particular, the corporate-ownership critique embraced by Downie and Kaiser is well established, having been laid out most thoroughly in Ben Bagdikianís The Media Monopoly (first published in 1983 and regularly updated every few years) and Robert McChesneyís Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times (University of Illinois Press, 1999).
But neither Downie nor Kaiser is a retired editor and J-school dean (as is Bagdikian) or an iconoclastic academic (as is McChesney). Rather, they are two of the more powerful and influential people working in the mainstream media today. And they come from the same world of corporate media that they criticize, even if the Washington Post Companyís brand of ownership is more benign than that of Knight Ridder, or Gannett, or General Electric (the parent company of NBC News, donít you know). As such, there is reason to hope that their critique will be read more widely ó and taken more seriously ó than its predecessors.
Letís hope so, for there is more to The News About the News than the usual commentary on the evils of corporate journalism. Much of it reads like a good college textbook, with Downie and Kaiser offering journalism case studies for better (a Post investigation of the trigger-happy Washington police that led to a new training regimen and, if the statistics are any indication, fewer civilian deaths) and worse (the Postís ó and the rest of the mediaís ó failure to expose the Iran-contra affair until one of Oliver Northís secret planes crashed in Nicaragua in 1986).
They also offer a fascinating inside look at the Postís decision not to publish a story about a long-ended romantic affair involving presidential candidate Bob Dole that the Post learned about in the closing days of the 1996 campaign. What I found particularly disturbing was how many Post journalists wanted to go with the story, Bob Woodward included. Downie, with the energetic support of political columnist David Broder and publisher Donald Graham, ended up quashing it. But the very fact that there was so much internal pressure to publish was a sign that the political rightís obsession with Bill Clintonís sex life, even preĖMonica Lewinsky, had so infected the media that some of the Postís best journalists came to believe they also had to rake Dole through the mud in order to be evenhanded.
Downie and Kaiser also tell the stories of papers destroyed and papers on the upswing. The Asbury Park Press, a once-enterprising daily, fell into Gannettís money-grubbing clutches and embarked on an orgy of cost-cutting, community boosterism, and pandering to advertisers. On the other hand, the McClatchy chainís Raleigh News & Observer bucked prevailing trends in the 1990s by beefing up its staff and covering decidedly non-feel-good news, such as the low regard in which public-school educators held their African-American students.
There is something of a Stations of the Cross quality to The News About the News, with pain and woe at each stop on the road to Calvary. Downie and Kaiserís discussion of the unhappy newspaper industry is followed by a look at network news (including interviews with anchors Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, and Peter Jennings), in which we learn ó or, rather, are reminded ó that corporate demands for higher profits have led to the closing of foreign bureaus and lighter, more feature-laden newscasts. That, in turn, is followed by an examination of local TV newscasts, with their (yes) emphasis on fantastically high profit margins of 50 percent or more and their mind-numbing mix of crime, irrelevant live shots, and sensationalism. (Bostonís WBZ-TV/Channel 4 and New England Cable News are singled out as exceptions to this depressing trend.) Nor is the Internet credited with offering much in the way of an alternative.