View From Lodi, CA: The Putrefaction Of Print Journalism (With Joenotes To VDARE.COM Readers)
April 30, 2004, 05:00 AM
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After USA Today fabricator extraordinaire Jack Kelley destroyed the newspaper's reputation, senior management assembled a team of its own reporters and group of prominent outside journalists to dig into the unpleasant facts.

The outside panel of Bill Hilliard, John Seigenthaler and Bill Kovach concluded in its final report to USA Today publisher Craig Moon that it hoped some good would evolve from the Kelley incident.

The closing paragraphs included this comment:

"A press enterprise based on the free exercise of conscience within a diverse staff, one that welcomes debate, is the best hope for a successful journalistic institution that fulfills the obligation to the public envisioned by those who drafted the protections granted the press under the First Amendment to the Constitution."

But I caution you against getting your hopes up that journalism standards will be improving anytime soon.

I'm skeptical because during the seven weeks that Kelley was under investigation, some of the worst reporting in newspaper history was being churned out by the very same major dailies that should have been on high alert.

Among the many guilty newspapers were the New York Times (of Jayson Blair infamy), the San Francisco Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times and the Kansas City Star.

The issue was the Sierra Club and its recent Board election. Among the candidates for the five seats were three—Richard Lamm, Dave Pimental and Frank Morris—who wanted the club to take a more realistic stand on federal immigration policy especially as it pertains to population growth.

This is reasonable request. If you calculate that for the last three decades, one million legal immigrants and an additional one million illegal immigrants enter the country annually that means 60 million people have been added to the population through immigration alone. That total does not include their children.

And if the Sierra Club can be concerned about the environmental impact of over-population in Cambodia, as it claims it is, then it is logical to assume that the club should have the same concerns about the United States.

But unfortunately, the debate about immigration policy never got off the ground. The reporters, instead of insisting that their sources stay on topic, allowed themselves to get drawn into a pointless—and inaccurate—debate about whether the candidates are motivated by racism.

No reporter made even the most elementary challenge to Sierra Club president Carl Pope's repeated and ugly charges of racism.

For example, why not ask Pope how anyone can seriously suggest that Lamm, the former three-term liberal Democratic Governor from Colorado, is racist? Lamm's first job out of the University of California law school was as a civil rights lawyer. And while at Berkeley, Lamm helped establish a local N.A.A.C.P. chapter.

Amazingly, while reporters covering the Sierra Club election were obsessed with the racism angle, they missed a huge story that was staring them right in the face.

According to I.R.S. records, the Sierra Club received over $100 million in anonymous donations during 2000 and 2001. And it spent $250,000 to defeat the so-called "outsiders." Pressing Pope on the nature of those donations or the wisdom of such excessive spending would be a real story.

If I were a V.I.P. at one of those self-congratulatory journalism organizations like the Committee for Concerned Journalists (where Kovach is chairman), the Society of Professional Journalists or the American Society of Newspaper Editors, I would be concerned about two things:

  1. No one in America is surprised that Kelley, Blair and others have gotten away with bold-faced lies for years. We expect very little professional reporting and little is what we get

  1. Such is the disdain for mainstream media coverage that many readers are gleeful when bad reporters and editors are outed.

Look at how few people read newspapers. In his 20,000-word article titled "My Times" in the May 2004 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, Howell Raines, the former New York Times executive editor fired for his complicity in the Blair scandal, wrote that internal marketing surveys taken at the Times indicate that potential readership is 80 million. Yet the circulation is only 1.2 million.

If the Times expects to sell more papers, it should put out a better product.

The newspaper industry faces a long tough road to rebuild credibility. And it will take more commitment than writing a string of platitudes in a summary report of one of the darkest chapters in journalism history.

In the meantime, more and more readers get their news from the Internet.

By the time print journalists get their act together, they may have lost their audience for good.

JOENOTE # 1 to VDARE.COM readers:

I asked our own Brenda Walker, who was vilified by the mainstream media and the Sierra Club why the media treated the Sierra election the way it did.

Replied Walker:

"Many reporters like their stereotypes to be uncomplicated and seem to resent someone who doesn't fall easily into their liberal good-evil categories. They become irked at someone like Dick Lamm, who has an exemplary lifetime record on civil rights and also recognizes the threat of immigration run amok. It's so much simpler for reporters to write easy condemnations of imaginary racists."

JOENOTE #2 to VDARE.COM readers:

USA Today relied heavily on former New York Times Washington Bureau Chief Bill Kovach during its investigation of Kelley. Kovach is the Chairman of the Committee for Concerned Journalists (www.journalism.org).

Kovach is a deluxe phony. He doubtless has concerns but they are not about fairness and balance in immigration stories. I spent the better part of the summer of 2000 trying to contact him to discuss the findings of my Media Standards Report for NumbersUSA's Education and Research Foundation. I even traveled to his Washington, D.C. office.

But, guess what, Kovach was never available. He was hosting seminars at newspapers throughout the country, preaching on the very subject I wanted to talk about—how to construct a good news story.

How can you respect anyone—or his profession—when they speak out of both sides of their mouth?

Joe Guzzardi [email him], an instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly column since 1988. It currently appears in the Lodi News-Sentinel.