As its legion of critics cheer lustily, the newsgathering business continues to implode, with no end in sight. Perhaps it is time to take a brief interlude in the national pastime of press bashing to consider a democracy without a truly independent press, without a press with the financial muscle to insulate itself from those who would love nothing more than to control its content.
In an eerie confluence of headlines, the Tribune Company, the newspaper and television chain that publishes the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, filed for bankruptcy protection on the very day that the news agenda convulsed with news of the arrest of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich on allegations that he tried to sell President-elect Barack Obama's vacant Senate seat to the highest bidder.
Lost in the stunning saga of a governor allegedly engaged in a series of acts so reckless, so corrupt that they defy the imagination, was a less-publicized attempt to strong-armthe Chicago Tribune into firing editorial writers who were discussing the merits of his possible impeachment for other acts of corruption predating his Obama Senate seat auctioneering.
At one point, Blagojevich allegedly ordered his staff to tell the Tribune owner to “fire all those (expletive) people, get them the (expletive) out of there and get us some editorial support.”
Why, you might ask, was this tin-pot dictator in any position to speak in such authoritarian tones to Tribune management?
Investigators who secretly taped the governor's phone calls told The Associated Press that the recordings made clear that Blagojevich was demanding the firings as a condition of any state financial help with attempts by the newspaper's parent company to sell Wrigley Field in an attempt to meet pressing debt obligations.
The weakened Tribune Co. thus found itself seeking the assistance of an administration that was producing plenty of smoke by then, if not outright fire. To its credit, the newspaper’s editorial writers said they knew none of this was happening, and that editorials critical of the governor continued to run, even as Blagojevich was calling and demanding the heads of editorialists.
The craven attempt at controlling the press would be a footnote in the story, were it not for so many news organizations facing similar financial situations. Sensing an institution ripe for manipulation, who's to say that a mayor, or a city council, or another governor in another state, won’t stoop to similar tactics? Can it be said with certainty that such attempts will always fall on deaf ears?
The entanglements created by today’s multimedia conglomerates — with their holdings encompassing everything including newspapers, television stations, baseball clubs and the stadiums they play in — create situations ripe for exploitation. Broadcast networks beg the Federal Communications Commission for handouts in the form of unused spectrum space while ostensibly covering the federal government without fear or favor. The Tribune Co. editorializes about a corrupt governor while management negotiates a favorable tax deal with the administration. It’s little wonder that reporters – fewer of them on the job seemingly every day – feel that management of these highly diversified organizations consider reportage an expensive, time-consuming nuisance.
It’s also predictable that those in power would seek to control the watchdog the minute they sense the vulnerability that the economic crisis gripping journalism produces.
The federal complaint itself says it best: Blagojevich “corruptly solicited and demanded a thing of value, namely, the firing of certain Chicago Tribune editorial members.”
While it’s still a thing of value, we all should consider the climate of corruption arising from communities without a viable press. All those canards about Chicago politics will seem downright quaint if the watchdog is left to slowly starve.
Charles Davis is the executive director of the National Freedom of Information Center and an associate professor for the Missouri School of Journalism.