It’s the readers stupid

March 21, 2021

It was a sign of the times so to speak.  A picture in my Twitter feed showing workers removing the lettering from the Kansas City Star building that is now up for sale.

The caption was poignant:  Workers removing the lettering from the @KCStar building that’s for sale.  Heartbreaking to see such a local institution being erased right in front of our eyes.

My reply was immediate:

“They did it to themselves, so did Wichita Eagle.  They forgot Hussman’s rule that a newspaper’s success starts with putting the reader first.  Bias and constant “we know best” editorials ran off half the population.  Mom just got her bill for Eagle and it’s beyond unreasonable.  Canceling.”

That reply may seem harsh to some, but it reflects over half a century of being up close and personal with every newspaper in every town I’ve ever lived.  And it expresses the sorrow of watching year by year as said industry inches ever closer to the abyss of putting politics before objectivity.

The Murrow’s, Cronkite’s, Russert’s, Huntley and Brinkley’s are gone.  And with them, the separation between opinion and journalism that is critical to the public’s trust.

And so, I was not surprised when on Monday the Washington Post printed this:

Correction: Two months after publication of this story, the Georgia secretary of state released an audio recording of President Donald Trump’s December phone call with the state’s top elections investigator. The recording revealed that The Post misquoted Trump’s comments on the call, based on information provided by a source. Trump did not tell the investigator to “find the fraud” or say she would be “a national hero” if she did so. Instead, Trump urged the investigator to scrutinize ballots in Fulton County, Ga., asserting she would find “dishonesty”

The correction was a follow up to a March 11th Post story by Amy Gardner where she writes that “Officials located the recording on a trash folder on Watson’s device while responding to a public records request, according to a person familiar with the situation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the internal process.” (Watson, is Frances Watson the person on the other end of the line with then President Trump.)

Oh, the irony. A story correcting a story using the same “anonymous source” method that sank the first one.

But it gets worse.

Writing in the Washington Examiner, Becket Adams notes that it wasn’t just the Post that that got it wrong.  NBC News, USA Today, ABC News, PBS NewsHour and CNN also got in on the fun with their own “confirmed” reports via their own “sources”.

On the now regularly accepted practice he asks, “how many of these anonymously sourced stories have enjoyed the backing of supposed independent corroboration when, in fact, newsrooms most likely talked to the same person or people?”

How many?  Far too many.

But it’s not just the sources.  All too often it’s the writers and editors themselves.

Take this March 12th AP story “Top Dems call on Cuomo to resign amid harassment allegations”

The headline clearly states the topic, yet just three paragraphs in there’s this tidbit:

“The escalating political crisis has spawned an impeachment inquiry in an overwhelmingly Democratic state and threatens to cast a cloud over President Joe Biden’s early days in office. Republicans have seized on the scandal to try to distract from Biden’s success tackling the coronavirus pandemic and challenge his party’s well-established advantage with female voters.”

“Republicans have seized…distract from Biden’s success”?  The entire story is over 900 words, all on point and topical except for that one sentence. So just what, if not blatant editorializing, is the line even doing there?

That an AP “journalist” felt the need to write it is one thing, that the editor didn’t red line it immediately is yet another.  A flat out two wrongs, making an even bigger one.

And that “Hussman” in my tweet?

A reference to Walter E Hussman Jr., publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette relaying his pioneering father, Hussman Sr. publishing philosophy:

 “A newspaper has a number of constituencies. Among those are readers, advertisers, employees, creditors, and stockholders. If a newspaper and its publisher always keep those constituencies in that order: readers first, advertisers second, employees third, creditors fourth, and shareholders last, then the newspaper will do well journalistically and financially, and the interests of all constituencies will be well served.”

You can blame big tech, you can blame the internet, you can blame anyone and anything.  But in the end, when a paper fails it’s for no more complicated reason than it abandoned its readers.

Lose them and there’s nothing left.  A lesson that the Wichita Eagle and the Kansas City Star and far too many other outlets have yet to learn.

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