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Going off half-Coxed 

All the news that fits the AJC's spin, it prints

Memo to: Mike King, Public (RELATIONS) Editor, Atlanta Journal-Constitution
From: A reader
RE: Why we need press critics

A few weeks back, Mike, when we opined on the value of having a true, independent, critically thinking ombudsman -- as opposed to an in-house publicist -- you came back with a big harrumph. "Many readers believe that independence enables such critics to speak freely about the shortcomings of the news organizations they cover," you wrote. "We chose not to go that route here when we established the job three years ago. Among other things, it greatly limits the public editor's ability to explain what goes on inside a news organization if you aren't there to hear how the story develops."

Mikey, Mikey, do you really think your readers are morons? You aren't free, you push no envelopes, and never, ever do you bite the hand that feeds you. More important, real media critics do know what goes on inside the newsrooms they cover -- it's called good journalism. By your logic, the only person who could cover Coca-Cola would be a Coke flak.

Anyway, Mike, maybe it's just a problem with holes in your education about media history. Let's return to those golden days of yesteryear, when, over at Atlanta's then two daily newspapers, men were men, women wrote for the society page and people of color emptied the garbage cans. It was a time when airbrush artists took a few years off of photographs of Anne Cox Chambers, absolutely no one criticized Rich's (at least if they wanted to keep their job), and even the decidedly Democratic family that ran the papers could occasionally get down, and I mean down, with Republicans.

We're talking about 1972, when Richard Nixon was running for re-election. It also was a time when newspaper chains -- such as Cox -- were trying to consolidate monopolies.

The problem was that newspapers had been dying, and those that survived aspired to blandness. No one wanted to offend The Establishment because no one wanted to risk a dime of advertising. True, the press' catechism is that it's society's watchdog -- in reality, that's a good way to obfuscate that in cities such as Atlanta, the newspaper is a cornerstone of the status quo.

I mean, think about it. Each of the Cox sisters is now worth $11.3 billion, according to Forbes. That's "b" not "m." So they have a lot in common with, say, Arthur Blank ($5 billion), but they hardly exist on the same astral plane as the poor masses who live in, say, southwest Atlanta. Thus, they know that for Art to get a return on his half-billion-dollar investment in the Falcons, he's going to need a lot of new (i.e., taxpayer) money, probably in the form of a new stadium, to be announced in a few years. They also know how unpopular that would be while the team is in the dumps. That's why the Cox family, pecuniary kin to the Blanks, publishes fanciful nonsense like Maria Saporta's assertion last week that Blank "is not, and I repeat not, going to abandon the Georgia Dome for a new suburban stadium for at least 15 years, if ever."

What I'm getting at is that to understand what the AJC is up to, you have to examine the motives of the owners of the AJC -- and wayyyyyyyy down on that list is "putting out a damn good newspaper that comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable."

Keep that in mind as we flip back to 1972. Not only were papers dying, publishers were aghast as circulation plummeted. A generation earlier, it was common for daily newspapers to reach 70, 80, even 90 percent of the homes in a community. Due to advent of TV, not to mention newspapers' increasing tepidness, those percentages were plunging well below the 50 mark.

The wily publishers realized that one great way to make bucks was to go cheap on news. The problem was that in towns with only one newspaper owner, there was always the chance that the shoddy news product would invite competition.

Many cities already were essentially one-newspaper towns. But many others still had a second paper. Ironically, removing the second paper wouldn't decrease competition. Rather, the failure of a weak daily could invite a rush of new style competition -- suburban dailies, community weeklies -- even a feisty, down-and-dirty metro daily.

The publishers couldn't have that. So they concocted a law called the Newspaper Preservation Bill. It was actually the Reparations for Billionaires Act. It allowed competing newspapers to form joint operating agreements -- legalized monopolies that squashed any real competition.

Nixon's administration didn't like the law in 1969. But there was an election on the way, and publishers had a mighty tool -- endorsements.

Ben Bagdikian, the dean of newspaper ombudsmen, uncovered a sensational letter from Richard Berlin, president of Hearst newspapers. Berlin had written Nixon that his publications and "many other important publishers and friends of your administration" favored the monopolistic legislation. That was a real big wink, and Nixon took the hint.

Bagdikian, in his book The Media Monopoly reported that in the 1972 election Nixon enjoyed "the highest percentage of newspaper endorsements of any candidate in modern times." That included support by every paper in the Hearst, Cox and Scripps-Howard chains, which were the chief beneficiaries of the act, Bagdikian noted.

Did you note the mention of "Cox" there? To enforce its editorial page bartering, the owners had to bludgeon their best journalists to endorse the truly loathsome Nixon. With Cox, it turned into a bloodbath. Two of the company's rising stars, Gregory Favre at The Palm Beach Post and Sylvan Meyer of The Miami News, quit or were fired after refusing to let their names appear on an endorsement of Nixon.

The Miami News was itself part of a joint operating arrangement with the Knight-Ridder-owned Miami Herald. The idea piously intoned by the newspaper publishers in lobbying for the "preservation" law was to retain multiple media voices in communities. But 16 years after Nixon's re-election, the Cox family decided to give up the charade and show its true colors -- green, as in greenback. Screw the many voices crap, Cox and Knight-Ridder said. Cox exercised a peculiar option and collected $300 million by shutting down the highly regarded News.

Mike, I've got to tell you. I found some barebones reports on the demise of the News in the AJC archives -- but absolutely nothing about Bagdikian and his book, or anything that explains how Nixon got the endorsement of the Cox papers.

You think maybe that was just a slight oversight -- or a reason why in this era of ever-accelerating media consolidation we need real media critics -- not puffery artistes?

Which is what we got Jan. 12 in your column, Mike. Answering a reader question about how broad the AJC's circulation is, you never once managed to mention just how many papers shoot off your presses each day.

I was just downright flummoxed by your omission. It was sort of like the AJC reporting that "Legislators pass state budget" and not telling us how much of our money will be stuffed into cronies' pockets.

Then the epiphany smashed down on me: I betcha ol' Mikey doesn't want us to know something about the AJC's circulation.

Before the recent final glopping together of the Journal and Constitution -- whereby the J's corpse and the C's progressive soul were ignominiously entombed -- the combined daily circulation was about 395,000. A decade ago, the two papers had a combined daily circulation of 475,000. That's a loss of 17 percent of the AJC's subscribers in a mere 10 years.

It gets worse. During the same period, the metro area had soared from a little less than 3 million people to about 4.1 million. So, with a million more fish in Atlanta's barrel to shoot at, the Cox corporate marksmen not only haven't been scoring more hits, they've been wildly missing every target except their own feet.

There's more. In the past, the dailies could count as "paid" circulation papers sold at discounts up to 50 percent. Now they can knock 75 percent off the price of a paper, and still call it fully "paid." You can move a lot of almost any crap at fire-sale prices.

Did the AJC tell us that America's dailies are offering bargain-basement discounts to move papers? Well, sort of. It printed in March a brief item worded in bureaucratese gobbledegook cleverly crafted to conceal what really happened. Like your recent column on circulation, Mike, the actual numbers involved were omitted.

But I guess telling half the story is nothing new for the AJC.

Senior Editor John Sugg's disclaimers: Cox holds a minority stake in CL's parent company. Sugg, too, is an investor in Creative Loafing Inc. ("I've yet to see a dime return on my investment") and he has written critically of the company ("The AJC guys aren't alone in being able to shoot themselves in the foot"). Sugg can be reached at 404-614-1241.

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