February 14, 2006

This little piggy sat on the story: When a daily newspaper has a monopoly, news becomes a commodity

“All pigs are equal, but some pigs are more equal than others.”—George Orwell, “Animal Farm”Long ago, when there were two daily newspapers in Louisville, editors at either who were inclined to “sit on a story” or otherwise try to manage the news did so at the risk of losing their reputations and jobs. Competition kept the editors honest. Nobody wanted to be “scooped,” so as soon as a story could be confirmed, it was printed.   All that changed after the Gannett Corp. bought The Courier-Journal in 1986 and shortly thereafter killed The Louisville Times. For the first time since well before the Civil War, Louisville became, in effect, a one-newspaper town. It became a monopoly instead of what Judge Robert Worth Bingham characterized as a “public trust.”   There is a difference, you know.   When a newspaper is a public trust, the people’s right to know always comes first. Publishers and editors go to any lengths to stay out of bed with politicians and business leaders. The newspaper is an independent voice that tries to shed light into the dark corners. Its integrity can’t be bought with money, power or influence. It thrives on competition.   But when a newspaper becomes a monopoly, it gets a license to sacrifice high journalistic principles in favor of the bottom line. It’s free to cook up deals behind the scenes with business and government that will enhance its own business prospects. It has no competition to keep it honest, and it’s accountable only to itself.   Which brings us to the two monster projects that are being planned for Louisville’s downtown waterfront — the $380 million Museum Plaza skyscraper development that was announced last week and the $450 million arena/hotel complex that has evolved into a political nightmare.   Virtually lost in the justified excitement over the Museum Plaza project was the fact that The Courier-Journal was on the inside, reporting on the story for months, but did not publish a story until the owners, builders, developers and architects were ready to go public with it. As we learned Sunday, a C-J reporter even accompanied the development team on trips.   (Bruce Linn reported on the Museum Plaza for LEO last fall but was rebuffed by the developers and later a public relations firm hired to manage the story.)   Try to imagine that happening in, say, New York, one of the few American cities where there’s still legitimate newspaper competition. Let’s say George Steinbrenner decided to build a new Yankee Stadium on the upper West Side, but wanted only The New York Times to have the story.   How long would he and The Times be able to keep that secret before The Daily News, The Post or Newsday found out about it? About as long as it takes to say “Johnny Damon,” that’s how long. In New York, you see, the papers still operate under the quaint notion that the public has a right to know the news when it happens and as it develops, not when a politician or developer decides to release it.   At least in the case of the Museum Plaza, The C-J was dealing with a project that will be privately funded, for the most part. That doesn’t make its complicity acceptable, of course, but it’s not as outrageous as when a lot of public money is involved and the project is being operated by a quasi-governmental agency.   It’s different with the arena project, which will be funded largely with $100 million from Mayor Jerry Abramson, $75 million from Gov. Ernie Fletcher (if approved by the Jefferson County legislative delegation), various revenue streams tied to the project and millions in new taxes on services and goods purchased in the area around the arena.   Virtually from the day last summer when former C-J publisher Ed Manassah floated the idea of building the arena at the LG&E site on Main Street, only a few blocks removed from the Museum Plaza site, The C-J has pushed for that site as hard as it has ever pushed for a capital construction project in Louisville.   As soon as the LG&E site came into play, The C-J became the catalyst for the movement to zap the other possibilities — the old Water Company site, the silos near the U of L campus and the State Fairgrounds on Crittenden Drive — into the twilight zone.   But what we don’t know, because Manassah and The C-J refuse to tell us, is what the newspaper knows about the LG&E site and when it knew it. Obviously, The C-J has no qualms about managing news. We learned that years ago during the airport expansion controversy, and we are now reminded by the newspaper’s role in the Museum Plaza project.   So what isn’t The C-J telling us about the behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing on behalf of the LG&E site? Will the editors give us the full story AFTER the fact, as they did with the Museum Plaza story? This is a classic example of what can happen when a “public trust” becomes a monopoly and when arrogance trumps accountability.   Like everyone else who’s pushing the LG&E site, The C-J has a hidden agenda. The challenge is figuring out what it is (see “Arena Scorecard,” right). The Museum Plaza project will house U of L’s Master’s of Fine Arts program, which could plausibly explain why Ramsey switched his support from the silos site for the arena. He can now tell his Board of Trustees that U of L will have a significant presence in both projects. (Since June 2004, Museum Plaza developer Steve Poe has also been on U of L’s Board of Trustees.—Ed.)   Less clear is why Abramson, as a member of the Arena Task Force, cast his vote in favor of the LG&E site instead of the old Water Company site that he originally supported — even when John Schnatter warned that the numbers projected for the LG&E site were bogus. (Schnatter was proved right when the cost jumped from $299 million to $349 million and the number of anticipated events dropped from 158 to 113.)   It could be that the mayor thought that, together, the Museum Plaza and the arena at the LG&E site could burnish his image as a leader, enhance his legacy and give him even more of an advantage in his race against Kelly Downard. (Anybody seen Downard lately? Just how far out of the loop has he been on both the Museum Plaza and the LG&E site?)   Schnatter and David Jones, the co-founder of Humana, have hired a consultant to do a comparative study of the LG&E site and the old Water Company site. But even if the consultant concludes that an arena at the old Water Company site would be considerably less expensive and more viable for downtown connectivity, The C-J will discredit it — as it already has ridiculed Schnatter and Jones — and continue to bully the Jefferson County legislative delegation into voting for the LG&E site.  The bottom line — and it always comes to that when you’re discussing The C-J of Gannett — is that the arena battle has underscored how Louisville’s power structure works: with no transparency. Joe and Jane Public are important to The C-J and its lodge brethren only as objects to be manipulated. (And also for Gannett “points,” when you see average citizens’ mugshots with sidebars to news stories, as a way of including “man-on-the-street” comments.)  Obviously, in Louisville 2006, some pigs are more equal than others.   When a newspaper has a monopoly and exploits that monopoly to suppress news, twist facts and bully its critics, it abuses the freedoms guaranteed it by the First Amendment. When a newspaper ceases to be the public’s watchdog and becomes the power structure’s lapdog, it abdicates its responsibilities, compromises its integrity and surrenders its natural adversarial relationship with newsmakers.  The next time you read a C-J editorial about the arena, you should remember what George Orwell once said of rhetoric: “Political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”