Editor sued by publisher says journalism “under siege”

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Yesterday I summarized one section of a 160,000 word report titled, the State of the News Media 2007. Today I had planned to do a second summary, focusing on the section that surveyed the attitudes of mass media journalists.

But this morning I woke up and said, “Fuck it!”. What could a white paper tell me about the sad state of professional journalism that I didn’t learn first hand last night when I attended a fundraiser to support newspaper editor Jerry Roberts.

I’ll assume you’ve at least heard how Wendy McCaw, owner of the Santa Barabara News-Press, went to war with her own staff — led by Roberts, the paper’s editor – when he tried to enforce the quaint journalistic notion that publishers should make money and not meddle in the news. (For details of the affair read the American Journalism Review article ”Santa Barabara Smackdown“.) Somewhere along the way McCaw sued Roberts for $25 million. I’m not sure of the precise nature of her cause of action. I’m guessing it was something along the lines of: “How dare you, I own this paper!”

In any event, me and a couple of hundred other people who revere and respect Roberts showed up last night for an event that turned out to be quite a pisser. It was a chance for old friends to reconnect, almost like a wake in that regard except that it was either happier — as Jerry (shown above) ain’t dead yet — or sadder, because you can see him being crushed to death by McCaw’s legal bullying.

So this morning, dutiful blogger that I am, I put on my reading glasses and read from the section of the report on journalistic sentiment:

“There are also signs that the economic influences on the news business have become more pernicious . . .  a third of local journalists say they have felt such pressure, most notably from either advertisers or from corporate owners. In other words, one of the most dearly held principles of journalism-the independence of the newsroom about editorial decision-making-increasingly is being breached.”

And I took off my glasses and said to myself, “Oh, you think?”

The party for Jerry Roberts was as warm and gracious as the man himself, and all the more sweet because it took its tone from his own humorous style. And last night, even with his back to the wall, facing legal bills and health problems and the stress and fear of being overmatched in a fight, he leaned on his old friend, laughter.

“How come I spent 35 years in journalism and nobody paid attention till I stopped,” he quipped when he addressed the smiling circle of supporters. Several years back, as managing editor of the San Francisco Chronicle where I worked for him, Roberts was renowned for doing “Top 10 lists” at going away parties and, of course, he came prepared with all the reasons why, in retrospect, taking the job at Santa Barbara turned out to be a goof.

Of course these are all inside jokes, and everybody in the room knew that Roberts had been pushed out of the Chronicle after it was acquired by the Hearst Corporation. So it drew a laugh when he said one of his reasons for taking the Santa Barabara spot was: “I’m done working for newspaper chains; the future of this industry is in responsible local ownership.” When Jerry had run down the rest of the list he shrugged and recited reason number one he had gone to work for Wendy McCaw: “What’s she gonna do? Sue me!”

That’s not so funny when the name on the lawsuit is yours, when it is designed to bleed you white with legal fees, and your friends are people like me (I slipped out during the silent auction because I didn’t have the money to buy anything and knew that if I hung around I’d feel pressured into getting something I neither needed nor could afford.)

But I don’t want to whine, not about me, not about Jerry, not even about the State of the News Media. Instead I want to think about one section of the survey on the attitudes of journalists that went into great detail on whether or not they tilt liberal, or conservative or libertarian, or whether they are satisfied with national media coverage of President Bush. There is a great deal on this in the survey and I understand why: various segments of the public, especially people in politics are preoccupied with identifying and expunging media bias.

Okay, I understand, and I do not dismiss the likelihood nor the consternation over such perceived biases. But surveys of political bias miss a much larger point: mass media journalists are fearful. I’ve addressed this point before in a posting called Nervous Watchdogs. Because when you’re worried about layoffs — or in the case of Jerry Roberts, worse – that must affect the nature and character of the news.

You think?  

(Meanwhle send your best wishes and your loose change to Jerry Roberts and Friends.)