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“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
– Thomas Jefferson
By Glynn Wilson –
WASHINGTON, D.C. — When Thomas Jefferson said that, newspapers were the only means of communicating with citizens about government. Radio, television and the internet had not been invented.
Jefferson would later lambast newspapers, but that’s a story for another day. Our mission is to communicate with the public to explode the false myths and build a better press online to foster American democracy and save the planet from environmental destruction. Everything else is simply clickbait.
There is plenty of reporting on corruption in government these days by what’s left of the newspapers, news websites, public radio and on cable television and broadcast news.
But where is the reporting on corruption in the press and media, including newspapers?
The Columbia Journalism Review acts as something of a critic, but not on this level. It is an Ivy League publication that is in on the score.
If eliminating corruption is critical to the success of a democratic society, and an honest, free press is critical to exposing corruption, should we not be able to count on an incorruptible press?
The New York Times has long set the standard for the press in the United States, going back to 1896 when Adolph Ochs moved from Chattanooga, Tennessee to New York and started practicing his brand of “objective” journalism.
Unbeknownst to everybody apparently, including everybody who writes for The New York Times today and every journalism historian teaching at every American university journalism program, he used the term “fake news” on the front page in 1896, along with “freak news,” to criticize the press at the time.
In what later came to be called “Yellow Journalism,” newspapers owned by the likes of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst in the 19th century were basically like the sensational tabloids of the 20th century, running salacious stories about kids born with two heads and other circus characters, and titillating stories about crime. Newspapers were paid for in large part by political parties, along with snake oil ads, as well as street sales by hawkers, newsboys or newsies promoting the sensational headlines out in the streets selling newspapers for a penny in those days.
Ochs set out to cover news with a scientific basis, and refused to run horoscopes, which he considered pseudo science, or snake oil ads, which were clearly just booze wrapped up in a healing label. They cured nothing, but made people feel better for a little while, until the hangover set in.
Ochs hired the first science writers, and conducted investigative journalism, although he remained non-partisan and tried to be “fair” about it. Other publications practiced more aggressive investigative journalism in the first quarter of the 20th century, which later came to be called “Muckraking,” thanks to Teddy Roosevelt.
But when Ochs died in the 1930s, the Sulzberger family took over the Times. While they tried to continue in the “objective” tradition — for the profit not democracy in the era of the Great Depression — problems arose over the years.
Thanks to a couple of new books — and reporting by the Times itself — we now know of one major conflict of interest by a star science writer for the Times in the early days of the Atomic bomb.
We now learn that William L. Laurence, a reporter for Times known as ‘Atomic Bill,’ “became an apologist for the American military and a serial defier of journalism’s (ethical) mores,” according to William J. Broad, a Times science writer I worked with some when I lived in New Orleans and did reporting for the Times myself about 20 years ago.
This is fairly scary stuff, and when radio became a major player in covering news, then television, the Times and reporters for other newspapers were still the primary sources of information read on the radio and TV news. This is still the case.
Consider this example.
Shortly after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Maj. Gen. Leslie R. Groves of the U.S. Army, who directed the making of the weapons, told Congress that succumbing to the radiation was “a very pleasant way to die.”
His aide in misinforming America was Laurence, who the paper passed off as an “objective” reporter.
At the general’s invitation, the writer entered a maze of secret cities in Tennessee, Washington and New Mexico, providing the paper with profitable exclusive reports on the Manhattan Project. According to Broad, this “helped shape postwar opinion on the bomb and atomic energy.”
That’s corruption at the highest level, a type of framing the news which screws up public opinion over time. This is a big problem, and we have one big example of this in recent years, when The Washington Post screwed up the very first story on “fake news” in 2016 (more on that later).
Working with and effectively for the War Department during the bomb project, Broad reports, Laurence witnessed the test explosion of the world’s first nuclear device (and covered it up) and flew on the Nagasaki bombing run. He won his second Pulitzer for his firsthand account of the atomic strike as well as subsequent articles on the bomb’s making and significance.
Broad’s reporting is designed to head off criticism now that a pair of books report on this, one recently published and one forthcoming, which “tell how the superstar became not only an apologist for the American military but also a serial defier of journalism’s (ethical) mores.”
“He flourished during a freewheeling, rough-and-tumble era both as a Times newsman and, it turns out, a bold accumulator of outside pay from the government agencies he covered.”
“By today’s standards, to get the scoop of the century, Mr. Laurence and The Times engaged in a rash of troubling deals and alliances,” Broad reports.
Restricted Data: The History of Nuclear Secrecy in the United States, published in April, tells how Laurence came to promote Washington’s “official line” in a respected newspaper used as a major source of information not just by the public, but by other newspapers, wire services and heads of state.
The Times has long been called America’s “newspaper of record,” and it used to promote itself as a paper read by world leaders around the globe.
But over the years, while the paper has produced an amazing amount of brave and credible journalism — perhaps most notably its coverage of civil rights in the Jim Crow era South while local newspapers failed to cover it, the Pentagon Papers case, and Watergate — there have been problems from time to time. Hey, nobody is perfect, and we are all human and make mistakes. We try to do the best we can.
I won’t say much more about it here, but the Times editorial management escalated the career of a young, black reporter named Jayson Blair 20 years ago too soon, and ended up paying a terrible price in loss of credibility. I lived through that scandal, and tried my best to help The New York Times get the stories “right”. Sometimes that was greatly appreciated. At other times, it was scoffed at.
But in the case of Laurence, he was “willingly complicit in the government’s propaganda project,” said Alex Wellerstein, the book’s author and a nuclear historian at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J.
His reporting, it turns out, teemed with financial conflicts.
Vincent Kiernan, author of a Laurence biography to be published next year by Cornell University Press, shows that, during the war, Laurence augmented his Times salary with supplementary pay from not only the Manhattan Project but also the Army surgeon general and, toward the end of his career, from Robert Moses, the master builder of New York City.
The newsman, Dr. Kiernan said in an interview, “made decisions based on what was best for him, not necessarily on what was in the best interest of the public. He was primarily interested in building his own brand.”
To that end, Dr. Kiernan added, over 34 years at The Times, “he had a track record of ethically fraught behavior.”
Truth be told, the paper probably didn’t pay the reporter a living wage, making him turn to his sources to make a better living. Newspapers have a long history of that, in spite of the great fortunes they made in the 20th century.
I have some direct experience with that myself.
Laurence joined the Times in 1930. If glory beckoned, the pay did not, Broad reports. “Newspapermen were exploited,” Laurence told an oral historian at Columbia University late in his life. “They worked unconscionable hours.”
He said reporters at The World and The Times put in roughly 70 hours a week and “had no redress” if a day off was suddenly canceled. “They got no overtime.”
When Laurence died in 1977 at age 89, the Times began his heroic obituary on the front page and said he had conceived of his beat as “the universe.”
But Broad says the newspaper seems to have been aware of Laurence’s financial conflicts, at least in outline.
“It tightened its ethical guidelines repeatedly in the decades following his retirement, often in reaction to scandals,” Broad reports.
I have some experience with that too, but it’s a story I will save for another day.
In retirement, Laurence’s star dimmed, according to Broad. The Times basically “canceled” him, in today’s jargon, or “disappeared” him, no longer taking notice of him and his wife on the society pages. They moved to Majorca, a Spanish isle in the Mediterranean, and disappeared, like a discredited politician.
You can read all the details of this case of corruption in the Times itself, which at least reports on its own mistakes. Most newspapers do not.
The Birmingham News
While the Times was making its fortune and pioneering objective journalism in the 20th century, other newspapers took up the “objective” mantle, and not really to help the American people but to make the owner-publishers rich.
This was the case of the Newhouse chain, which I know something about since they dominated the news coverage in my native state of Alabama after taking over the local newspapers in the state’s largest urban areas, Mobile, Birmingham and Huntsville. They also owned the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, and the Cleveland Plain Dealer in Ohio, where I worked briefly in the Washington bureau in 2004.
I talk more about this more in my book Jump On The Bus: Make Democracy Work Again, but I want readers to understand how this works here. It is important, and the online news outlet al dot com is not going to tell you this story. This is corruption.
For many years, The Birmingham News had a reporter on the payroll named Dennis Washburn. Among other things, he wrote restaurant reviews. You could not really call him a food critic, because he never saw a meal he didn’t like, probably because he made arrangements with the restaurants he wrote about for free meals.
That might be considered a minor ethical lapse, and the News management had to know about it, but they turned a blind eye as long as no one noticed. It got them in with restaurants, which sometimes bought ads in the paper, and they didn’t even have to pay an expense invoice for Washburn’s meals.
It all came crashing down, however, when Washburn turned up his unethical financial arrangements — and got caught.
At some point in looking for more ways to fatten up the ad pages in the paper and make even more money, The Birmingham News added a section on Automobiles. This gave them an entire section to make money from car and truck ads. Nothing necessarily wrong with that, except that it has nothing to do with the newspapers’ special rights under the First Amendment.
Washburn helped out by filling the section with stories, including new car reviews. The problem was, he made an arrangement to get the auto companies to provide him for free a leased new car every year, which of course was never revealed in the newspaper.
Probably in jealousy, The Wall Street Journal found about it, however, and wrote a story about it, finally bringing an end to Washburn’s career at The Birmingham News. No one who knew about the arrangement in management paid the price. They just fired Washburn, probably refusing to pay his retirement.
Newspaper publishers tend to be a greedy lot.
I witnessed other corruption when working for The Decater Daily in North Alabama, and for Gulf Coast Newspapers along the Gulf Coast. Those stories are also in my book. I free-lanced for years for the old UPI wire service, which I found out later was full of freelancers for the CIA.
I was made aware once by an anonymous source with UPI in DC that the CIA had a file on me, in which the agent assigned to evaluate me concluded that I was “incorruptible.”
“He cannot be bought,” the file supposedly said.
So certain players in the news business do not want to work with me, because the news business since the founding of this republic has been wrapped up in intelligence gathering, in the name of promoting democracy.
My point here is not to simply bash important American institutions. It is just to point out to readers that the news business is not all its cracked up to be in the mythology of the press in this country.
My goal is to strive for building a better, more honest and ethical press online. But just like the newspapers of old, it will take more of a budget to do it right.
Even Adolph Ochs promoted the idea that the paper had to make a healthy profit to afford to be able to cover the important news right.
To see the story on how The Washington Post started the “fake news” phenomenon and screwed up the story, read this.
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