Killing the watchdogs.

December 10, 2007 New York Times

The Media Equation

Muckraking Pays, Just Not in Profit


Last Friday, the city of Chicago agreed to pay out $20 million to settle lawsuits filed by four former death-row inmates who said they had been tortured by police officers and subsequently wrongly convicted. The four men were among dozens of black men who said they were tortured, beaten with phone books and suffocated with plastic typewriter covers while in police custody in the 1970s and 1980s, according to special prosecutors.

The stories of three of those four men, who were pardoned by former Gov. George Ryan in 2003, were first told by John Conroy, a veteran reporter for The Chicago Reader, an alternative weekly. On Friday, Mr. Conroy received a note from Jo Ann Patterson, whose son had been nearly suffocated in police custody in the process of obtaining a confession that proved to be false.

“My son, Aaron Patterson, tortured by the Chicago Police Department, would not be alive today, I believe, without your articles about police torture in the City of Chicago. You documented and wrote the realization of police torture, of which we will never forget. You help save my son’s life for which I thank you.”

Mr. Conroy was busy dealing with a flurry of e-mail messages that day because on Thursday, he had been laid off. The Chicago Reader, which had published his work for over 20 years, decided it could no longer afford to support his reporting. Citing declining revenue and a need to trim costs, Alison True, the editor of the paper, laid off four of its most experienced reporters, including Mr. Conroy. The Washington City Paper, another newsweekly owned by the same company, announced five newsroom layoffs as well.

In a week of media retrenchment — rumors of further cutbacks in network news, continuing layoffs at regional dailies and a “temporary” pay cut at an Illinois daily that became permanent — nine newsroom layoffs don’t seem significant. But of course, that all depends on whose ox is being gored, and in this instance, I felt a bit of the splatter.

At the end of the 1990s, I was editor of The Washington City Paper, a weekly with a history of excellence built by Jack Shafer (now the press critic for Slate), and owned by a group of college friends turned businessmen who also owned The Chicago Reader. In the time I worked for them, I was impressed by their constancy and their willingness to support good work in the belief that if you produced quality journalism, the business would look after itself.

In the case of The Reader, it seems like that turned out not to be true. The owners in Chicago sold out last summer to an unfortunately named outfit, Creative Loafing from Atlanta, which has mandated cuts across the organization. It is as if Creative Loafing executives bought a shiny new doll and then once they got their hands on it, felt compelled to tear its head off.

Ben Eason, chief executive of Creative Loafing, said, “We are not trying to make any other statement here other than it is a competitive world out there and we are doing what we can to make sure we are putting out an excellent paper in the communities we serve.”

Investigative reporting can expose corruption, create accountability and occasionally save lives, but it will never be a business unto itself. Reporters frequently spend months on various lines of inquiry, some of which do not pan out, and even when one does, it is not the kind of coverage that draws advertisers.

Serious reporting used to be baked into the business, but under pressure from the public markets or their private equity owners, newsrooms have been cutting foreign bureaus, Washington reporters and investigative capacity. Under this model, the newsroom is no longer the core purpose of media, it’s just overhead.

At the same time, the consumer is feeling more empowered, with Google, Digg and all manner of RSS feeds pushing current data to their desktops. But Google and Digg never made a phone call, never asked hard questions of public officials, never got an innocent man out of jail.

The smartest Web robot in the world is going to come back dumb if there is nothing out there to crawl across. Thousands of bloggers could type for a millennium and not come up with the kind of deeply reported story that freed innocent men — an effort that takes years of inquiry, deep sources and a touch for making unholy secrets knowable.

There have been attempts to fill in the gaps in investigative journalism, most notably in ProPublica, an independent, nonprofit newsroom led by Paul Steiger, the former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal. Another nonprofit, Mother Jones, which has a history of both aggressive reporting and left-leaning politics, recently opened a seven-person Washington bureau dedicated to investigative journalism to fill what its editors see as a vacuum in political and government reporting.

But enterprises like these will never be a substitute for a vital newspaper industry, which has historically used a distributed model of reporting to hold government, business and the broader culture to account.

There is a chance that historians will examine this period in American history and wonder if journalism left the field. With a lack of real-time annotation, wholesale business swindles and rogue actions by sitting governments will go uncovered.

In part, it is the triumph of the spinners, top to bottom. Since the media reached the height of its powers in the 1970s, there has been a pervasive effort to gain custody of public information in both the public and private sector. A working reporter cannot walk into a Gap store in a mall, let alone a police station, and ask a question without being swarmed by bureaucracy.

If the watchdog role is threatened by immediate financial pressures, I’m beginning to think that in the long run it can still flourish. Last week, this paper reported that the Central Intelligence Agency destroyed videotapes documenting the harsh interrogation of detainees that some believe constitutes torture.

The New York Times and other New York newspapers reported that a New York detective might have perjured himself when he said he had not interrogated a murder suspect, a suspect who was recording him all the while on an MP3 player in his pocket. And readers also learned that any bailout of the consumers caught in the subprime mess will be largely dictated by the industry that created it.

And lest you think that I’m just waving around the pompoms to keep my team in the game, keep in mind that later this week, Rupert Murdoch, the most successful of the modern media titans, is taking over The Wall Street Journal. He has made it clear that he will invest in the business newspaper to turn it into a source of general news. If the future of news were really so grim, would Mr. Murdoch be interested?

If Mr. Murdoch’s opinion of news (or that of The Times) isn’t to your liking, consider the view of Ms. Patterson, whose son was freed due in part to Mr. Conroy’s reporting.

“Without John Conroy’s stories, the public would have never believed what happened to my son,” she said in a phone call. “It is so important to have a reporter who knew the whole story, who did the reporting, and told people, over and over, what was really going on.”

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About Jay Babcock

I am an independent writer and editor based in Tucson, Arizona. In 2023: I publish an email newsletter called LANDLINE = Previously: I co-founded and edited Arthur Magazine (2002-2008, 2012-13) and curated the three Arthur music festival events (Arthurfest, ArthurBall, and Arthur Nights) (2005-6). Prior to that I was a district office staffer for Congressman Henry A. Waxman, a DJ at Silver Lake pirate radio station KBLT, a copy editor at Larry Flynt Publications, an editor at Mean magazine, and a freelance journalist contributing work to LAWeekly, Mojo, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Vibe, Rap Pages, Grand Royal and many other print and online outlets. An extended piece I wrote on Fela Kuti was selected for the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 anthology. In 2006, I was somehow listed in the Music section of Los Angeles Magazine's annual "Power" issue. In 2007-8, I produced a blog called "Nature Trumps," about the L.A. River. From 2010 to 2021, I lived in rural wilderness in Joshua Tree, Ca.

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