Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Watchdog’s Deathwatch: American journalism’s decline has big repercussions in Illinois

It is common knowledge now that the newspaper, along with an enormous chunk of journalism, is on a deathwatch. How much time it has left is the subject of rancorous debate.

The latest estimations give the newspaper industry about eight years before nobody is reading, and that’s a best-case estimate based on an annual readership decline of seven percent. But the rate actually is increasing, so it might only take six years. These are the predictions of John Nichols, The Nation’s Washington correspondent and associate editor of The Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin, and Dr. Bob McChesney, the Gutgsell Endowed Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in their latest book “The Death and Life of American Journalism,” published last month. There will be more about Nichols’ and McChesney’s latest book in a future entry.
The statistics about the ones who really deliver the news, journalists, are even more disheartening. Nichols and McChesney write that in 2008, the McClatchy Company slashed a third of its workforce, despite a 21 percent profit margin. The Gannett chain of newspapers got rid of 3,000 employees, despite an overall profit margin of 21 percent. Paper Cuts, a blog tracking losses in the nation’s newspapers, counted more than 14,800 reporters let go in 2009. In 2008, the figure was more than 15,900.

In shedding journalists, it’s most often the expensive and seasoned who get axed, meaning political coverage and investigative journalism is hurting the most. In 2009, there were 355 full-time reporters covering statehouses in the US, according to an American Journalism Review tally, a 32 percent drop from six years ago.

In Illinois, where of six the past 14 elected governors were charged with crimes (three of whom served prison sentences, with one more likely on the way), six of 10 papers with capital bureaus made cuts. Three papers shuttered their capital bureaus entirely.
With fewer people covering the essential beats, it’s bound to happen that critical stories slip by the watchdog. This happened in a very, very big way in Illinois on Tuesday, February 4, when the arrest record of the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor became front-page, top-of-the-fold fodder.

What actually emerged, and only after Scott Lee Cohen won the Democratic primary for the lieutenant governor’s spot, was that in October 2005 Cohen was accused of putting a knife to the throat of his 24 year-old prostitute girlfriend. Later, the press informed the public of his anabolic steroid use, and the fact that despite using $2 million of his own cash, Cohen fell behind on child support payments.

It’s interesting to note that as recently as February 3, Cohen was described in one Chicago Tribune story as “a little-known candidate who financed much of the campaign with his own fortune.” The same story goes on to mention Cohen “will have to answer questions during the general election race about a 2005 misdemeanor domestic battery charge.” The story didn’t actually ask the questions, or provide readers with the background to make Cohen more than a “little-known” candidate.

Coverage of Cohen’s sordid past only garnered the press’ attention after the Democratic primary was over. And after the scandal broke, the press was less than apologetic in editorials about its lapse in coverage.

Springfield’s State Journal-Register blamed others in the Democratic Party, writing “HAD THEY DONE minimal research, the Hynes and Quinn campaigns would have found that Cohen’s admission about his arrest didn’t quite tell the whole story.”

Others, including the Trib’s Eric Zorn, downplayed the importance of the office. “The so-called “lite gov” position is so unimportant that, when it comes vacant, as it did a year ago when then-Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn stepped in to replace the ousted Gov. Rod Blagojevich, it stays vacant until the next election. And no one notices,” he wrote.

But other pundits contend that the Lt. Gov’s position does, in fact, matter. Avid Springfield political blogger Will Reynolds, the vice chair of the Sangamon Valley Group of the Sierra Club, noted that the Lt. Gov’s job duties include chairing the Illinois River Coordinating Council and the Governor’s Rural Affairs Council. The Lt. Gov also chairs the Illinois Delegation to the Great Lakes Commission, the Illinois Main Street Advisory Council, the Illinois Green Government Coordinating Council and the Broadband Deployment Council.
And, of course, the lieutenant governor is the second-highest executive in the state of Illinois, and the next in line to the governorship. And, also, the people of Illinois pay the lieutenant governor’s $115,300 salary.

The position is not without importance.

Reynolds wrote a series of blogs critical of the press’ handling of the Cohen affair, holding that cuts to budgets and staff show the corporate press’ preference to profit over journalism. With the current debacle as exhibit A, he posited that the news business chooses to take advertising money from candidates instead of investing in coverage of those candidates.

“We officially reached the point when reading blogs and the alternative press is the only way for the average person to make an informed decision on election day,” Reynolds wrote.

Cohen spent more than $105,000 in advertisements between July 2009 and December 2009, a search of his campaign expenses reveals. The reports do not indicate the media outlets Cohen advertised on, only that the advertisements were contracted through the public relations firm Grainger Terry, Inc.

Few presses recognized their implication in the event, their constitutionally-recognized roles or responsibilities. The Daily Herald, in Arlington Heights, came close, but spread the responsibility among all possible constituencies. “The truth is, Scott Lee Cohen won the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor because almost nobody paid attention to the race,” the editorial board wrote. “Shame on us. Shame on the electorate. Shame on the news media. Shame on the politicians.”

Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown used his column-inches for a colorful reminiscence about his first encounter with the pawn-broker-turned-politician. Only at the end of his story did he concede “I think Cohen’s biggest problem is that we in the news media failed the voters by missing the story, and now we can’t let up until we have atoned for our sins by pounding him into submission.

There was just one paper in Illinois that seemed to understand the role the press played in the Cohen debacle. “All I can say is mea culpa. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa,” wrote Denise Crosby of Aurora’s Beacon-News.

“We in the media, after all, are staking our future on that noble mission of providing readers all the information they must have to make wise and informed decisions,” she wrote. “Scott Cohen, I’m thinking, does not reflect a wise and informed decision.”

On the night of February 7, at the Hop Haus tavern on Chicago’s far-north side, Cohen announced “For the good of the people… I will resign.” But the damage to the credibility of the press in Illinois couldn’t be as easily reversed.

Given the state of journalism, such a lapse can only be expected, and such lapses should not be taken lightly. Questions about how the American press became so weak will be answered in future entries. But for now, there are two enormous questions to consider when a person such as Cohen makes his way to the number-two spot in the state’s executive branch. How long will it be until someone even more questionable makes it to the number-one spot? And how well can a democracy function without a functioning press?