In 1960 Reporter / Author Gene Fowler Saw The Impending Danger of Who Decided What’s News In Newspapers
Gene Fowler wrote the following in 1960:
…the besetting evils of a haywire economy, as well as the reprisals exacted by ferocious minorities against anyone who prints unpleasant truths, has taken much of the do-and-dare spirit out of the makers of newspaper policies. When appeasement supplants editorial enterprise, and silences the outspoken criticism of evil men, the newspaper forfeits its character, loses its influence—and eventually its life. Public servants become public masters. All freedoms are endangered when that of the press is assailed.
We continue looking inside Gene Fowler’s book Skyline a reporter’s reminiscences of the 20’s (Viking) published in 1961 a year after Fowler’s death. Fowler makes several prescient observations about the newspaper business. His commentary is astute and he recognized the shifting danger of publishers, rather than editors controlling what gets reported. Fowler witnessed the trend of electronic media (radio & TV at the time) making newspapers irrelevant as the news cycle became hourly. (Now it is instantaneous.)
As more newspapers are controlled by publishers who have an agenda, publishing what is really news has become a very blurred subject.
You’ll hear the term “the liberal media,” “conservative media” or “the mainstream media” thrown about in policy and political discussions. We all know one thing for sure, there are many forms of media bias. But who really sets editorial policy for newspapers?
Whether it’s the agenda of the right or left is not the issue. It’s as if we forget that most newspapers and media are controlled by large corporations. Don’t think for one second that newspaper editorial boards are not given directives by their publisher. What we end up getting is someone’s agenda who heads a corporation. That agenda may not reflect large scale issues that have an impact on most people. The result is that the greater public good is being abandoned for special interests.
How are newspapers covering and exposing: a crumbling infrastructure; the overwhelming complexity of the income tax code; an abused and broken medicare and social security system; foreign governments stealing U.S. technology and patents; a multi-billion dollar U.S. trade deficit; corporations fleeing the U.S. for lower tax rates; American jobs not being created, but going to foreign lands?
Those are a few of the truly important economic issues that affect the majority of Americans. Newspapers should be taking our representatives to task for their failure to remedy these and other issues. The corporations and wealthy individuals who own newspapers are playing a shell game with the public. They divert our attention away from real problems to hammer away at social problems and non-issues.
Instead we are fed “news” about doping in sports, Caitlyn Jenner, religious zealots who believe creationism should be taught in public schools, carbon footprints, unhealthy soda, the dangers of plastic bags to the environment, who can use a bathroom, the preposterous Noah’s Ark in Kentucky and other “important” issues.
This passage which we partially excerpted to lead off this story is reprinted completely below. Remember, Fowler wrote this 56 years ago. His thoughts apply now more than ever.
Forty years ago (1920) the newspaper was the world’s information booth, the most immediate agency of public reference. This should be kept in mind when one thinks of the newspaper’s place in the scheme of the 1920s. The great change in the character of the news reflected the change in men’s thoughts and deeds, and recorded their growing worship of the machine.
The newspaper lost its spark of immediacy when radio and television preempted the headlines. Now the spot news comes piecemeal every hour or less over the air. It is like eating between meals; by the time the newspaper arrives at the table your appetite has been spoiled.
Other problems harass the newspaper, some of them self-induced. A newspaper must stay free of obligation to anyone other than the public, but it also must be solvent to survive. With rising costs, as well as the intrusions by other media—the news magazines, for example—the wonder is not that the press sometimes falters in its mission, or that daily papers fail, or merge to keep in business, but that the Fourth Estate still has a voice.
It has become more and more a publisher’s voice, however. In other days the editor was in command. Editors, for the most part, were one-purpose men. They tried to reflect the public interest, to defend the public’s right to know. The old-time editor had an austere disdain for the complaints of the business office. This independence still obtains in the outstanding newspapers, but the besetting evils of a haywire economy, as well as the reprisals exacted by ferocious minorities against anyone who prints unpleasant truths, has taken much of the do-and-dare spirit out of the makers of newspaper policies. When appeasement supplants editorial enterprise, and silences the outspoken criticism of evil men, the newspaper forfeits its character, loses its influence—and eventually its life. Public servants become public masters. All freedoms are endangered when that of the press is assailed.