I've been a news junkie as long as I can remember. In college, I worked part time as a copy boy for the Associated Press. I assume that job has become extinct in the digital age, since its essential task was ripping stories off clattering machines and routing them to writers and editors. A few computer keystrokes now accomplish the work of my racing feet.
The AP was then located on an upper floor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the most fun of that job, besides operating the "futuristic" pneumatic tube system, was getting to know reporters and columnists, who often read the stories I wrote for school and gave me advice. I most remember repeatedly hearing that many of the subjects that interested me, drawn from the so-called counter culture, would never fly at a daily newspaper.
A professor of mine, a former AJC staffer himself, discounted that argument, accusing my mentors of projecting their own discomfort with the counter culture. But he later reversed his opinion. He sometimes took students' stories to the AJC for consideration for publication. When I wrote an in-depth article about the city's radical alternative weekly, the Great Speckled Bird, he was sure the AJC would publish it. Instead, it was instantly rejected since, he explained, the Bird so often criticized the AJC.
Staff at the Bird and the AP both patted me on the back and commiserated. I got the icky feeling that both factions felt this was the right decision.
I continued throughout my career to have similar experiences. For example, while on assignment at Heritage USA, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker's PTL theme park outside Charlotte, N.C., I came across the story of the televangelists' hypocrisy and financial shenanigans. But my editor refused to print it, insisting I turn it into a less condemning portrait of Tammy Faye.
My original story languished in the AJC files for about two years. Then, a CNN reporter got wind of it and asked for permission to read it. Stupidly, I did not think he would actually steal the story, which I had meanwhile sold to another magazine for a much larger than usual fee. But I was wrong. The CNN reporter scooped me with my own story and I lost the magazine contract.
I have half a dozen similar stories with other publications that assigned me stories and then, when I came across sensational information, backed down, usually paying me my full fee with a nervous apology. Most of the stories eventually got reported a year or two later by someone else. One of the funnier ones that didn't was about a major developer whose vaunted "genius for success" turned out to have more to do with income from the large-scale sale of cocaine than business innovation.
Eventually I bailed from full-time work in media and went to grad school for degrees in psychology. But I've remained a news junkie fascinated with the working of the media ever since.
In the last few weeks I've been repeatedly reminded of the way print journalism has degenerated. Last Wednesday, the Washington Post reported the shocking story that the CIA is operating a gulag of secret prisons around the world. There is good reason to believe prisoners are subjected to torture in the facilities, where detainees have utterly no rights.
Typically, because this was a scoop, other major newspapers did not report it initially or gave it scant mention, since doing so would require attribution to the Post. This is a common way important news gets underplayed. I could not even find the story on the AJC's site Thursday. But the front page of the site did include links to stories about a missing boy, yet another missing white woman and the story of a man who killed a deer with his bare hands.
Meanwhile, the New York Times, America's alleged "paper of record," continued to shoot itself in the foot. After its wacky "star reporter" Judith Miller published a nonsensical account of her role in the Valerie Plame scandal, the paper's editor admitted in print that he'd been misled by Miller. Now, Miller, who took an extended leave of absence, says she's returning to work right away. That's right: The reporter who served as a White House mouthpiece in the campaign for the Iraq invasion and refused to cooperate with her editors and colleagues in the story of her absurd 85-day jail term, is likely going back to work at the Times.
And, worst of all, the unraveling story of the White House leak of Valerie Plame's name reveals the widespread collusion between the administration and reporters. Miller and at least two other news people, including Tim Russert of "Meet the Press," knew that Scooter Libby was using the media to take revenge on Joe Wilson for disputing the administration's rationale for the Iraq invasion. But they remained silent.
So much for the myth of the unbiased media. And anyone who still thinks the bias is liberal needs to wake the hell up. What's most needed in American reporting these days is hard reporting on the media itself.
Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology.
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