There must be some nostalgia at CBS News for the good old days, when the network was roundly hated and people at the political extremes longed to see it fail. Now that it is failing (it is a laggard in the ratings), nobody seems to care. Gone are the conservatives, who wanted to buy the network to sanitize it and rout out alleged liberal journalists. Also gone are the political lefties, who believed that CBS was the captive of its advertisers.
In media, to be hated is an affirmation that you are succeeding.
At The Radio & Television Correspondents’ Association annual dinner this week, the happiest people were at the Fox News tables. Roger Ailes, the principal architect of Fox’s huge success as a news network, and his star host, Bill O’Reilly, were beaming—well aware that most people in the room believe that the Fox cable channel has degraded broadcast news.
It is not just CBS that is hurting, but also other traditional media as well—most especially newspapers. Marylanders used to hate The Baltimore Sun. Now they worry that their venerable newspaper is on the ropes, and may be sold to quite the wrong kind of person.
They used to say in newsrooms, “If you aren’t hated, you’re not doing this job right.” Unfortunately, the quality of hatred that most news organizations face is sadly watered down. Generalized attacks on the “liberal media” and the “mainstream media” just don’t pack much of a wallop. They tell us more about the attacker than the attacked.
Happily, two newspapers—maybe two of the three best newspapers in the country—can still agitate those who believe in media conspiracies. These are The New York Times and The Washington Post. The third is The Wall Street Journal, which has never raised the same kind of intense feeling as the other two. Its editorial page is so predictable that even liberals cannot get mad at it. And its news coverage is pretty faultless.
The two big East Coast newspapers can really get the critics going. The New York Times, through a series of terrible blunders, has opened itself up to particularly virulent criticism. The Washington Post, which sells five times as many newspapers as its nearest competitor, The Washington Times, unerringly gets the brickbats. Civil rights groups accuse it of racial insensitivity. And radio talk show hosts like to refer to it as “The Washington Compost.” Even so, the paper has just bagged six Pulitzer prizes. Particularly, it showed the whole world last year that it could still deliver great journalism by revealing the scandalous treatment of veterans at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Both The New York Times and The Washington Post have the resources to do the job right. Although The Times is in a slump, and appears to be in desperate need of an editor who has a vision and a publisher who is competent, it still triumphs on solid, day-to-day coverage of big continuing stories. Its coverage of the subprime mortgage crisis and its on-the-ground reporting out of Iraq are excellent.
Michael Wolff, the media critic of Vanity Fair, is in full pursuit of The New York Times in his May column. Wolff catalogs the humiliations the newspaper has suffered in recent times (including the Jayson Blair fictions, Judith Miller’s partisanship, and the insinuation that John McCain was having an affair with a lobbyist) and speculates on the possibility that the special voting stock, which gives the Sulzberger family control of the paper, may be under attack.
It may be very difficult to change the bylaws of the company, but Wolff thinks that angry shareholders could force the sale issue; or that the Sulzberger family, like the Bancroft family that used to own The Wall Street Journal, can simply be bought off. One way or the other, Wolff sees dissident shareholders changing the corporate structure of the paper.
At the same time, with a similar stock arrangement, the Graham family, greatly assisted by Warren Buffet, is firmly in control of its newspaper.
Yet, neither the Sulzbergers nor the Grahams have had huge financial successes with the properties they inherited. Both have had considerable editorial successes by lavishing resources on the papers. But as publishing ventures, the families have been timid and sometimes foolish. They profited from near monopolies, but mostly failed in diversification. Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, the father of the present publisher of The New York Times, confounded the publishing industry when he bought The Boston Globe. Analysts warned that two newspapers in the same advertising market would hurt more than a different kind of diversification. But the man who got it right in launching a national edition of The New York Times got it very wrong in Boston. The Globe is losing money and is a drain on The New York Times Company.
Katherine Graham, the late publisher of The Washington Post, who is revered in newspaper circles, did some pretty odd things herself. She clung to Newsweek, when it could have been sold profitably; invested in newspapers in New Jersey and Washington state; and nibbled at small publishing ventures in Washington, D.C. It can be argued that it wasn’t until Buffet came onto the scene with his steadying hand—he is a large shareholder and director of the company—that The Post started hedging the risk of newspaper publishing. In particular, it bought Stanley H. Kaplan Educational Centers, which has turned out to be a cash cow and is now more profitable than The Post.
Unlike The New York Times, The Washington Post had a clear idea of what to do with its Web pages, which are now in profit–as is Slate, the online magazine that The Post bought from Microsoft.
Nobody knows the future of newspapers. But we do know that the well-being of a democracy depends on them. Both The New York Times and The Washington Post are still making a profit, though not as much as in years past. And the public still has the energy and good sense to hate them.