Back in the 1980s, I wasn't too worried about much of anything. I was living in Washington, D.C., working by day as a legal assistant for a huge broadcast corporation and, by night, in a club as a deejay. I had my day lookchic Reagan-era girl suits with matching pumpsand by night, I teased my hair up high and popped on my stirrup pants and started spinning records.
I had dropped out of law school there, and knew I sure would like to write, but for much of the '80s, I was too busy working on my 20-something it-girl image to work very hard at my creative craft. Sure, by day, I was working for a company that wanted to monopolize the cable, TV and radio worlds and was willing to do what it took to have the right. But I didn't really stop to think about what that meant; I was too busy planning my next Madonna look and counting beats per minute. I was caught up in the trivial, even as deep inside I really did want to change the world. But all that had to wait.
It was the wild and crazy '80s, after all. It was a time of greed, Gordon Gecko and the "me" generation, in a city where business-suited coke-heads bashed welfare mothers for sport and votes, not to mention any attempt to regulate the markets or corporations. And in D.C., it was a time when anything went, especially if it meant that the powerful got more powerful, and corporations got the deregulation they wanted at any cost.
As fashion and pop culture all around us today takes an ironic wink at the '80sand we're all forced to pay the price for all that deregulationI can't help but think about how silly and selfish it all was then. And it reminds me how easy it is for the powerful to put one over on all us little people while we're busy trying to get past the velvet ropes at Limelight or thinking a little bit too much about just which tights would look best under our cutoffs.
It was in the 1980s, for instance, when huge media conglomerates started doing a number on communities across the countrygobbling up locally owned newspapers and TV stations in a brash move to dominate advertising markets and squelch competition by any means necessary. It must have seemed harmless then, and maybe even positiveyou know, like all the people who love Walmart because a block of cheese costs 10 cents less.
Looking back now, though, it is easy to see when the death of the daily newspaper era really started, and it wasn't with the massive growth of the Internet in the second half of the 1990s. The death march began when corporations like Gannett went on its march to the sea, burning across the U.S. buying up newspapers and turning them into superficial ad rags that pander to large advertisers instead of being instruments of true community news-gathering and civic progress.
In Jackson, Gannett bought The Clarion-Ledger and the Jackson Daily News in 1982. These two papers, of course, were historically two of the most racist publications in the country, with the Daily News once running a 12-page special section dedicated to the Citizens Council, back when the papers were owned by the Hedermans of old. The Clarion-Ledger had a brief stint as a good paper in the early '80s under Rea Hederman, one of the enlightened younger generation.
But good Ledger days were short-lived once Gannett stomped into town with its USA Today approach to vapid news reporting.
What's happened since then in Jackson mirrors communities across the country as corporate media have bought up local media. They now are beholden to shareholders and stock pricesmeaning that during the up years when the corporate media thing was profitable, the papers could hamstring their own news franchises and still keep stock value high. They laid off investigative reporters (or kept ones who wouldn't rock corporate boats, a la Ledger). They shrunk the "news hole"the space devoted to storiesand hired editors who went with the corporate program rather than fight for good news coverage at any cost.
The newspapers that were historically supposed to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable suddenly were comforting the comfortable and ignoring the afflicted. The reporting and the writing became something that not even young journalism graduates were eager to do. Why work for a daily paper when you can put better writing and reporting on your own blog? Most people go into journalism in the first place to use the power of words and stories to make a difference in people's lives. Or, at least they used to.
As a result of this short-sighted corporatization of local mediawhich has also extended into TV and radiocommunities have paid dearly. Right here in Jackson, so many stories have gone untold, or have been told in a way to please people perceived to be powerful. Just look at The Clarion-Ledger's skewed and inaccurate coverage of tort reform and now the Kemper County "clean" coal plant; their cover-up of Frank Melton's "complicated" history and their endorsement of him for mayor despite it; their tardiness in reporting the Ridgeway Street duplex attack; their extremely slanted coverage of the Paul Minor/Oliver Diaz trials and the U.S. attorney's role in them; their twisting of Jackson crime statistics to promote sensationalism over accuracy; their vicious and unfounded "perception" attacks on then-Mayor Johnson and Chief Robert Moore; their unquestioning devotion to the pie-in-the-sky Two Lakes scheme; their tardiness in promoting and publicizing Jackson's renaissance (they're scrambling to catch up now); their endorsement of Bush's second term; and all the water they've carried for Haley Barbour over the years, no matter what he does (will they ever report that four of the five prisoners he let go had killed wives or girlfriends!?!).
These failures have hurt our city.
When I'm out and about in the city, there is always some meme I hear repeatedly. Right now, I hear people say again and again that the Ledger has "given up its news franchise to the Free Press." But here's the thing: They didn't give it up to us. They gave it up when Gannett bought the papers, closed one of them, and spread the corporate fear of offending an advertiser or a powerful governor. The JFP just stepped into a void that needed to be filled.
Following the tenets of good journalism, we don't throw punches just to be throwing them, and we don't pull a punch that needs to be landed, whether against an advertiser, a Republican, a Democrat or even a strong supporter. As a result, we have built a trusting relationship with our readership and advertisers, and you respond. Nothing makes me prouder than the fact that our issues with 7,000-word cover stories (like Ronni Mott's last week on Heather Spencer) are our most popular.
So don't buy the hype or excuses: Journalism is not dead. Or, at least not real journalism. As for the corporate media that dug its own grave: May it rest in peace.
I really enjoyed this column and couldn't agree more. The proof is in the fact that most newspapers are still profitable. Or at least, they would be if they weren't loaded down with the debt used to buy them, if sociopathic publishers hadn't destroyed their newsrooms to satisfy Wall Street.
I also appreciated the list of the Clarion-Ledger's crimes. I thought of Goliath earlier in the week when I saw that USA Today's circulation is down, such that it's lost the top spot to the Wall Street Journal. Although its editorial board needs some quality time in a rubber room, the WSJ otherwise provides real journalism, the old-fashioned way. The Gannett media model is a dead end. As the Gannetts and Sam Zells of this world wreck corporate media, it opens the door for real journalism. The sooner Goliath dies, the sooner new shoots can sprout. Amen.
- Brian C Johnson
Am I the only person having problems with submitting blogs? I just lost my last entry on this thread. I did the preview deal and that worked fine, but, once I pressed the submit button, it was OVER-EATEN.
Jess- the preview deal has never worked for me, everytime I time try to use it, I get an error or my post disappears.