Serve the public, not stockholders
The hand wringing these days in the news business focuses on the question of whether newspapers will survive. This question is asked endlessly in publications such as ours, in the general press and by those who play the stock market. The conventional wisdom is that newspapers as we know them in the United States are goners and that the big mainstream newspaper publishing companies are going to have to scamper to find an alternative means of survival.
That may be so, but there is a more worrisome problem facing the news business these days. Those working within the industry as well as its consumers think that it is not doing its job well enough. News organizations have been swallowed up by the likes of the Walt Disney Company, an entertainment behemoth; Sam Zell, a real estate magnate; Silvio Berlusconi, a power-hungry politician, and the Russian government under Vladimir Putin. That leads critics to fear they are abrogating their responsibility to keep the public informed.
People once viewed Rupert Murdoch as a worldwide predator waiting to pounce on newspapers. It was feared he would convert serious news organizations into sensational products. In today’s economic climate, he is viewed as someone who loves newspapers and is seeking ways of saving them from economic and technological extinction.
News organizations will have to do more than adapt to changing technology; they will have to solve their economic problems in a manner that will benefit their consumers.
It is necessary for the news business to come to terms with these problems. But there is another more serious problem that needs immediate attention. A new commitment to shining light into dark places is necessary—to accomplishing it with courage that is seldom seen these days except, surprisingly, in countries of the world where freedom of the press is not well organized. These days journalists in Russia and the other former republics of the totalitarian Soviet Union show that courage more than those here in the United States. Journalists such as Anna Politkovskaya and Anastasia Baburova in Russia or Lasantha Wickramatunga and Puniyamoorthy Sathiyamoorthy in Sri Lanka, to name only two countries, point the way. They were among scores of journalists killed or murdered in the past 20 years for simply doing their jobs.
The point here is not that journalists should be endangering life and limb to get a story. It is rather that mainstream journalism—the part of the business suffering so much—has not been doing an aggressive job. That could be the reason many consumers are turning away. In the past few days I have been reading Dirty Secrets, Dirty War: The Exile of Editor Robert J. Cox (Buenos Aires, Argenitna: 1976-1983). This is a book written by Cox’s son David. He writes about how his father edited an English language newspaper in Argentina during the time a junta of generals ruled. The dirty secrets were that in a supposed war with terrorists, the people of Argentina were the victims of their government. To maintain power, the generals kidnapped, tortured, murdered and caused the disappearance of thousands of Argentineans thought to be disloyal, oppositionist or insurgent. The story relates how Cox assumed the responsibility for writing about these abuses when no other paper in Argentina regularly did. He did it despite warnings that he would suffer severe consequences, and he quit and took his family out of the country only after it became obvious that he was about to “disappear.”
While reading about Cox, I listened to Chris Hedges, a former New York Times war correspondent who visited the Missouri School of Journalism. He spoke passionately about how wrong the war in Iraq was and how the United States was waging it corruptly.
Cox and Hedges are not pioneers. There is a history of this kind of journalism in the United States that goes back to the late 19th century muckrakers and continues throughout the 20th century. This is the kind of journalism that democratic countries, the “Free World” as we call it, need more of.
As the news business struggles to reinvent itself, it should not forget that it is the protector of democracy in countries treasuring it. That means that it owes a bigger responsibility to its consumers—the public—than it does to its owners or to the institutions it monitors and writes about. That could well be the most important aspect of the current crisis and conventional thinking in the news business has not focused on it.
STUART H. LOORY is the first Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies at the Missouri School of Journalism. He is also editor of Global Journalist, the magazine for the international news business, as well as the moderator of the "Global Journalist" weekly radio show for KBIA-FM.
In 2004, Loory served as a visiting professor at Moscow State University as part of the Missouri/Moscow State Curriculum Reform Project. In 2003, he served as a visiting professor in the Missouri London Program.
Before coming to the School in 1997, Loory spent 17 years working for TBS/CNN in various capacities, including vice president, Washington managing editor, Moscow correspondent and executive producer, among others. He is also a 28-year veteran of the newspaper business. Among Loory's positions were Moscow bureau chief for the New York Herald Tribune and White House correspondent for the Los Angeles Times during parts of the Johnson and Nixon administrations. As a Los Angeles Times correspondent, Loory was included on Nixon's "enemies list" of political opponents. He later served as managing editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, where he supervised several award-winning investigative reporting series. From 1973 to 1975, Loory was the first Kiplinger Professor of Public Affairs Reporting at Ohio State University.
With David Kraslow, Loory co-authored The Secret Search for Peace in Vietnam, a prize-winning investigation of President Johnson's efforts to settle the Vietnam War through negotiation. He also wrote Defeated: Inside America's Military Machine, published in 1973.