June 27, 2006

Journalism 101

One of  the more interesting, and troubling, things about this whole arena debate has been watching The Courier-Journal become part of the story rather than reporting it.Back when Gannett bought The Courier-Journal and Times in 1986, the company tried to spin the dissolution of the Times by pimping the slogan “One Great Newspaper.” That, of course, lent itself to a bit of wordplay by contrarian wags who spun it into “Once Great Newspaper.”The point is, once upon a time The C-J was nationally known and respected. It was a great newspaper, one that attracted up and coming journalists who wanted to come to Louisville and work.But things have changed. We’ve all heard plenty about how Gannett — a public company beholden only to shareholders — has contributed to the dumbing down of journalism. The formula is rather simple: When you need X on the bottom line and you can only generate Y in revenue, the equation comes out right only if you cut expenses. For the record, Gannett expects its papers to turn profits in excess of 30 percent.And boy, have they cut expenses. Earlier this year, The C-J closed all but one of its state bureaus. You can’t make money by having a few reporters out in the hinterlands. That costs money, so out they go.This is just one example; there are more than we can count. But the end result is, fewer reporters and editors means fewer in-depth stories (and lots more superficial dreck). True, there are still some committed old-schoolers at The C-J, and they are the saving grace. The community is filled with ex-C-J staffers who hated to leave a place they once felt passionate about. But they had to, to retain any sense of self-respect. You can only have your soul sucked out for so long.Which leads us to the present day. Ed Manassah, who has since retired as publisher of The C-J, was the first person to suggest building the arena at the LG&E site at Second and Main. That was a bit unusual but not so much.What has been more unusual is how the paper has reported the story from that point on. One canard The C-J likes to trumpet is that neither its business side nor its editorial board influences what goes into the newspaper’s new sections. But just look at the paper’s reporting on the arena since Mr. Manassah got involved. Do you think there’s really separation? Clearly, they’re all singing from the same songbook. Rather than look at the issue in depth — it’s called basic reporting, or Journalism 101 — C-J reporters have taken the info they’ve been spoon-fed and pretty much put it in the paper. Newspaper reporters are supposed to be skeptical when they run across silver-tongued self-promoters like Jim Host, but The C-J has done very little critical analysis on the financial projections being used to sell the arena. And during press conferences, C-J reporters’ lines of questioning clearly expose their sympathies. They’ve made up their minds.LEO, of course, has stuck its neck out to say, “Wait a minute. Some of this arena stuff isn’t adding up.” We’ve had Billy Reed, a former C-J guy, writing about this issue. Billy hasn’t figured out what’s really behind this story, but he’s posited some theories. He’s also filed an open records request to prompt the Arena Authority to turn over records showing how it’s conducted business since Gov. Ernie Fletcher put Jim Host in charge more than a year ago. But these people are artful; they haven’t really operated in the open, and the only way LEO might be able get a look at the actual paper trail would be by taking the operative parties to court. (For the record, LEO favors a downtown arena, but agrees with one informed observer that the LG&E site will become the “Nightmare on Main Street.” The site, after all, is bordered by a bridge, a planned floodwall, a one-way street and a narrow two-way street.)That brings us to an editorial The C-J ran last Thursday, which basically belittled anyone who thinks there may be more to this story than we’ve seen. It’s incredible that the daily newspaper — the paper of record, the outfit that a community expects to do the heavy journalistic lifting — would stoop not only to making fun of LEO (without actually naming us) but also to suggesting it’s really our job to do this investigative work. Please.Journalism 101 teaches us that it’s the big organizations that should be the public watchdog. Hence, it’s The C-J that should be pushing this issue. It’s The C-J that has the financial and human resources to push a court case on principle. Instead, The C-J has climbed in bed with the power structure and suspended any and all critical analysis.Some of us have been around long enough to recall when The C-J knew all about the airport expansion but sat on it till the powers that be were ready for it to see the light of day. This may be a more troubling abdication.One important thing to note: Some of the gasbags at The C-J used to work with our gasbag, Billy Reed. Billy’s a maverick and he’s burned about every bridge he’s crossed. Maybe he’s a real ass. But no one questions his journalistic integrity; he simply could never exist in a vacuous corporate structure like Gannett’s because he can’t help but speak truth to power.One reason for The C-J’s especially nasty tone toward Billy (they courageously run unsigned editorials) is that its editorial writers realize he sees right through them. They drank the Kool-Aid long ago. He didn’t. So they transfer their own self-loathing onto Billy. He’s a pretty easy target.So, yes, we’re disgusted, saddened and maddened by the actions of a Once Great Newspaper. I grew up idolizing The C-J and Times. Even post-Gannett, I have been a longtime C-J defender, but increasingly I can see why people have lost faith in them.Six or seven years from now, if I’m wrong and I’m still around here, I’ll admit it. But if the news comes out that the arena is a white elephant, will anyone at The C-J do the same?Probably not, because another tenet of GannettWorld is that longtime employees who earn high salaries are prime candidates for “early retirement.” The bean counters will surely work their magic soon enough, and these folks will be long gone before we know how this one turns out. Contact the writer at cstemle@leoweekly.com