Tell ‘Em What to Think

The Tribune’s hard-hitting coverage of Dick Durbin’s notorious “gulag” speech was rich in opinion, short on fact. In these desperate times opinion might be the only thing a newspaper can safely publish that readers haven’t already gotten from somewhere else. But facts still belong in the paper.

“Dick Durbin’s passion ignites foes’ ire” was the story splashed across the front page of the Friday, June 17, Tribune. On page two columnist John Kass added his voice: “Senator, you should apologize to the nation.” The editorial page piled on: “Durbin’s comparison of U.S. interrogators to governments that together killed millions of people makes him look desperate for attention. Well, he’s created a lot of discussion about Dick Durbin. We suspect that was the goal all along.”

The speech that made everyone so testy had been given in the Senate the previous Tuesday, on the eve of a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the Guantanamo prison. When they happened, the Tribune ignored the speech and barely mentioned the hearing, so the big Friday story was playing catch-up. “Durbin read aloud from an FBI agent’s detailed e-mail complaining about the mis-treatment of an Al Qaeda prisoner,” the Tribune reported. The senator then told the Senate: “If I read this to you, and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags or some mad regime–Pol Pot or others–that had no concern for human beings.”

“Reprehensible,” said White House spokesman Scott McClellan. Rush Limbaugh thundered, “This is the kind of thing that ought to force him to resign in disgrace.”

Readers who believe what they’re told to believe would have been foaming. But other readers like to make up their own minds, and they must have noticed the missing fact–namely, what the FBI agent had said in the e-mail Durbin read to the Senate. The Tribune didn’t report that. (On Saturday it would get around to it.) Here’s the entire passage:

“On a couple of occasions, I entered interview rooms to find a detainee chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor, with no chair, food or water. Most times they urinated or defecated on themselves, and had been left there for 18-24 hours or more. On one occasion, the air conditioning had been turned down so far and the temperature was so cold in the room, that the barefooted detainee was shaking with cold. . . . On another occasion, the [air conditioner] had been turned off, making the temperature in the unventilated room well over 100 degrees. The detainee was almost unconscious on the floor, with a pile of hair next to him. He had apparently been literally pulling his hair out throughout the night. On another occasion, not only was the temperature unbearably hot, but extremely loud rap music was being played in the room, and had been since the day before, with the detainee chained hand and foot in the fetal position on the tile floor.”

When Durbin said this sounded like the work of totalitarians, it’s curious that no senator stood up to tell him, “Don’t be silly. The rap music’s the giveaway. Only freedom-loving Americans torture like that.”

Citizen Kane, Meet Citizen Joe Blow

The Tribune Company’s troubles make me think of Rome and Gibbon. Its media empire isn’t the first or the biggest, but it might be the most presumptuous. Anticipating that the Federal Communications Commission would change its cross-ownership rules, the company collected an assortment of newspapers and TV and radio stations it wasn’t entitled to, and now that the federal courts have left the old rules intact, it’s in a mess. It could have to sell off properties in New York, Los Angeles, Connecticut, and southern Florida–a momentous decline and fall.

Should we care? Chain ownership so completely dominates the media that criticism is probably a waste of breath. Jeff Jarvis, a former Tribune writer and editor who now runs a blog called BuzzMachine, advises sympathy. “In many cases,” he writes, “consolidation is the act of dinosaurs huddling to stay warm in the face of their coming ice age.”

This terrifying ice age helps explain journalism’s latest big idea–do-it-yourself news gathering that’s dressily called citizen journalism. The point of citizen journalism, I think, is to deal with a generation of wayward readers the same way sheriffs dealt with wayward gunslingers in the Wild West: deputize them, and put them to work for the good guys. The idea is to exploit the technology that’s seducing the public away from mass media, using it to turn anybody who wants to be a reporter into one.

This assumes of course that everybody who really wants to be one isn’t already. The other day Britain’s Guardian marveled at American bloggers, explaining that “A-list” bloggers such as Jarvis are “capable of setting the news agenda because they are habitually referred to by journalists in the mass media who rely on them to break stories.”

But citizen journalism aims to develop a B list–or is it a C list or a D list? There’s a new cable-TV operation in San Francisco called Current that Al Gore is behind, and though the San Francisco Chronicle didn’t make the concept very clear in a recent article, in broad strokes here it is: the public submits videos, watches excerpts on a Web site, and votes on which ones to broadcast. “Citizen journalism,” said the Chronicle, “is based on the idea of average people dictating news coverage by creating news reports themselves or helping choose the content.”

Michael Kinsley, the new chief of the editorial pages of the Los Angeles Times–a Tribune Company paper–is making changes so wacky they may be brilliant. Or not. He called one idea “wikitorial,” the model being the reader-edited online encyclopedia Wikipedia. Kinsley told the New York Times, “We’ll have some editorials where you can go online and edit an editorial to your satisfaction.” Wikitorial lasted from June 19 to June 21, when it was shut down to halt the flow of obscene photographs. Another newly launched Kinsley idea is “Thinking Out Loud.” According to the New York Times, readers get to join editorial writers and guest columnists in hammering out the paper’s stand on big issues. (The idea of a newspaper simply telling readers where it stands is so last century.)

According to a recent Editor & Publisher article exploring the phenomenon, the duty of the citizen editor is “to encourage community members to submit their information and news; to educate them on what kind of content they can contribute and why they would want to; and to watch community news and happenings and recruit participants to submit words or images covering them.” It’s a golden opportunity. High school coaches, for example, have been calling in the scores of Friday night football games for decades. As citizen reporters they’ll get to describe the game in all its blood and thunder and even grade the cheerleaders.

But if hyperlocalism is the future, in the here and now the chains get bigger and no newspaper anywhere proudly calls itself the Daily Autonomous. When the Tribune Company bought the Los Angeles Times a few years ago, Times journalists felt colonized, even though they knew their paper was a mess. One former staffer launched a blog he called Take Back the Times. But who besides sullen employees will care who owns the Times once it becomes as cool as Kinsley wants it to be? It won’t matter to the UPS delivery man/philosopher king of this brave new world whether the editor who gave him his opportunity reports to bean counters in LA, Chicago, or London.

James Weinstein, 1926-2005

As a young man James Weinstein joined and broke with the Communist Party. He gave Julius Rosenberg a lift once, and for his trouble wound up with a 2,000-page FBI file. He went on to write several books, and in 1976 he came to Chicago and launched In These Times, which he hoped would become the magazine of choice for sensible leftists.

Weinstein, who died last week at the age of 78, inherited serious money, but obviously not quite enough. His underwriting saw the magazine through every financial storm, but whenever I talked to him our conversations came around to how broke it was. “We’ve had paychecks bouncing going back to 1977. That’s just been our way of life,” he told me in 1991. That was when In These Times signed a contract with the National Writers Union–how could it not, being left-wing and prolabor?–and then the union came after the magazine for back wages. “The writers are the only people you can screw without getting the paper shut down,” Weinstein explained. “So regardless of our intentions, that’s what happens to them.”

In 2000 Bob Burnett, a Silicon Valley megamillionaire, took over as publisher of In These Times, raised everyone’s pay, upgraded the computer system, and launched a “Secret Plan X” to reach hundreds of thousands of new readers. A Tribune reporter chronicling this miracle sensed misgivings on Weinstein’s part. “One starts to wonder,” she wrote, “if Weinstein derives a measure of satisfaction from the obscurity of his magazine.” Weinstein probably knew the good times wouldn’t last. The stock that was the backbone of Burnett’s fortune tumbled two-thirds in value, and he soon disappeared.

But the Tribune reporter had a point. Weinstein was always a little more ironic about his magazine’s troubles than he might have been. When he made Claudia Morris assistant publisher in 1994 he told her, “We weren’t going to hire you, but the person we were going to hire wouldn’t do the job for what we were willing to pay.” When Paul Obis succeeded him as publisher in 1997, Weinstein offered this endorsement: “He’s not better than I hoped for, but he’s better than I expected to find.” Obis didn’t work out, and Weinstein became publisher again. “I’m back to being a beggar,” he said.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robb Kendrick/Aurora/Getty Images.