The News Business Is in Decline

The news business is in decline. The evidence is the current emphasis on individual crime stories and stories about the entertainment industry.

Now, the funny thing about that declining statement is that it isn’t new. The news business, like every other human institution, is cyclical. It has high points and low points. Right now it’s in decline because too much of the business is in the hands of corporate conglomerates that don’t give a hoot about the news — or the country, for that matter.

Thomas Jefferson, who once said he’d prefer a free press and no government to a government without a free press, soured on the institution after the Federalist newspapers worked him over so incessantly.

In a letter to a friend, Jefferson complained: "It is a melancholy truth, that a suppression of the press could not more completely deprive the nation of its benefits, than is done by its abandoned prostitution to falsehood. Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle."

In 1941, H.L. Mencken, himself a newspaperman most of his life, wrote: "To the best of my knowledge and belief, the average American newspaper, even of the so-called better sort, is not only quite as bad as Upton Sinclair says it is, but 10 times worse — 10 times as ignorant, 10 times as unfair and tyrannical, 10 times as complaisant and pusillanimous, and 10 times as devious, hypocritical, disingenuous, deceitful, pharisaical, Pecksniffian, fraudulent, slippery, unscrupulous, perfidious, lewd and dishonest."

As you can see, today’s liberals complaining that the press is conservative and the conservatives complaining that it is too liberal are Sunday-schoolers compared with some of the real critics of the press.

I confess to a prejudice against the corporate conversion. I was lucky to enter the business at the tail end of its blue-collar era, when city rooms were full of smoke, drunks and profanity. There were even occasionally fistfights. And there were lots of characters.

One of my early editors drank scotch out of an iced-tea glass with no water in it. One afternoon, when I returned from the beat, I asked him if he’d like a cup of coffee.

"Listen, Reese, I just spent $15 getting a buzz on, and I ain’t about to ruin it with no (expletive deleted) 10-cent cup of coffee," he growled. That was in the days when you could buy coffee for a dime and a shot of whiskey for 50 cents.

One of the men I worked with was an alcoholic who rode a big Indian motorcycle to work, rain or shine, summer or winter. He was in his 60s and had a purple nose. He hid his bottle of vodka in the men’s room, and he was so expert in timing his nips that he would write his last headline and drink his last swallow at the same time. He could ride that motorcycle even when he was too drunk to walk. I saw him do it.

The occasion was a going-away party for me when I was recalled to active duty in the Army. It spread from a regular bar to an all-night bottle club. About 5 a.m., when we finally quit, this guy fell on his face in the parking lot. We tried to get him into the car, but he fought us off, so being the kind of guys we were, we said, "Have it your way — ride your motorcycle." He crawled over to it, got on it and rode away. We followed in the car in case he landed in a bayou, but he drove it perfectly straight all way to his house, where he, and his motorcycle, keeled over and passed out on the front lawn.

Today’s newsroom resembles a Prudential Insurance office. Smoking is forbidden, and there is only the faint clatter of computer-keyboard keys. I knew the business was doomed when they put a salad bar in the lunchroom. Today’s journalists tend to be salad-eaters and joggers, and those who smoke don’t smoke tobacco.

But have faith. Like everything else, the business will change, and maybe for the better.

Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years. Write to Charley Reese at P.O. Box 2446, Orlando, FL 32802.