By Chris Freind
A Jerry Maguire-like treatise for how to resurrect the media’s credibility
Famed political strategist James Carville once referred to Pennsylvania as two major cities with Alabama in between. What an insult to Alabama.
The folks in the nation’s fifth-largest state --- all of them --- are the backwards ones, the sad result of refusing to hold their leaders accountable for broken campaign promises and abject failures. All the while, their neighboring states --- AKA “the competition” --- continue to make gains at Pennsylvania’s expense.
Ohio and West Virginia are successfully courting natural gas and oil companies, which are beginning to exit Pennsylvania. Indiana is thriving after enacting comprehensive statewide school choice and becoming a Right To Work state, where compulsory unionism is no required as a condition of employment.
New Jersey (yes, Jersey!) can woo companies across the river because of faith that a real leader, Chris Christie, is righting the ship. Everyone else on the planet can buy liquor easier and cheaper than Pennsylvanians. And corruption, both criminal and institutionalized, remains rampant, killing optimism and trampling the hope that you can beat City Hall.
From Ed Rendell to Tom Corbett (is there a difference?), a lack of leadership has left Pennsylvania on the precipice, its citizens staring into the abyss of permanent mediocrity, paralyzed by fear to take the risks necessary to forge ahead. Such a malaise is anathema to employers looking for economic stability, a less hostile atmosphere and a better educational system.
While that lack of leadership is inexcusable, there is another, even more important factor as to why the state finds itself in such a precarious situation: a media that has sold its soul, forsaking its most basic mission of holding everyone accountable, with a “no sacred cows” approach. For far too long, stories that needed to be told were relegated to the dustbin. And unsavory politicians and business leaders counted on that. Without an aggressive press, it was, and remains, the Wild West where bad guys operate with impunity.
There is no better example of the media’s fall from grace than that of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Once a paper of national significance that took a bulldog approach to its reporting, it has since become a shell of its former self, an also-ran full of AP feeds and local fluff stories of virtually no interest.
The Inky really jumped the tracks was when it was “led” by Brian Tierney, who, along with investors, paid over half a billion for the paper (and the Daily News) in 2006.
Mired in debt, Tierney did the unthinkable --- he approached then-Governor Rendell for a taxpayer-funded bailout to keep the papers afloat in 2009, a story that Freindly Fire broke ( http://freindlyfirezone.com/home/item/43-possible-inquirer-bailout-draws-ire ) and was picked up by the Wall Street Journal in its harshly-worded editorial “Bad News In Philadelphia --- The Worst Bailout Idea So Far: Newspapers.”
Predictably, Rendell was ready and willing to lend that helping hand. But as negative fallout for the bailout plan grew, the deal fell apart and the papers filed for bankruptcy.
Despite what common sense unquestionably tells us --- that a taxpayer-funded newspaper would in fact be an “adjunct of the state,” as the WSJ so adroitly described it --- the players in that ill-fated bailout attempt saw nothing wrong with their actions.
Thankfully, Tierney is out of the picture, having lost the papers to an investor group who held much of the original debt. But incomprehensibly, the situation has come full circle. Now the current owners want out, and it has been reported that none other than Ed Rendell has been approached to put together an investor group to possibly buy the papers.
Really? Ed Rendell? How is that even remotely possible?
Where is the journalistic integrity in working with the very man who stood cocked, ready to unleash millions in taxpayer funds to bail out an “independent” media entity? It’s no secret that it has become increasingly difficult for papers to make a profit in the age of The New Media, but having Rendell as your “Go-To” man underscores just how desperate the situation has become.
Taking marching orders from elected officials destroys the very essence of being a journalist and jeopardizes the unique constitutional protections afforded to media members. Sure, Ed Rendell is a private citizen now, but his mentality --- how he sees the role of the government working hand-in-hand with the media --- has undoubtedly not changed.
But the behavior of the Inquirer’s ownership should come as no surprise, given that it recently accepted a $2.9 million loan from the City of Philadelphia to assist the company move to a new headquarters. Yes, the same city, the same Mayor and the same City Council that the newspapers are supposed to be objectively covering. Is nothing scared anymore?
The last thing the region needs is an investor group led by political insiders and ideologically-supercharged individuals with aggressive personal agendas. As painful as it would be for the thousands of hard-working folks at the those newspapers, it would be better for the entire entity to close its doors than be associated with folks who may, at any given time, make a pitch for public financing.
And while past performance is not indicative of future results, it’s a damn good bet.
Better to have no paper at all than one that prostrates itself at the feet of the very people it purports to objectively cover. And since the Philadelphia newspapers have been anything but a watchdog over the last six years, churning out less than a handful of quality investigations, the bad guys would see virtually no difference, since they’re not exactly sweating investigative reporters knocking on their doors.
Where The Media Went Wrong
The sad reality is that The Fourth Estate has abdicated its sacred responsibility of keeping American institutions honest and true. No longer respected as the entity which holds feet to the fire and follows investigations wherever they may lead, the American media has instead become part and parcel of the Establishment. Too many journalists play the “go-along, get-along” game --- some because it’s easy, others because they want to be liked, still others who are afraid they will lose “access” if they ask the tough questions.
These people have forgotten that their profession does not lend itself to having “friends,” since nothing and no one should ever be off the table. The result of these close alliances is blatant conflicts of interest, both personal and professional. Once that line is crossed, it is nearly impossible to return.
No medium is immune from this malady. Those in television, radio, newspaper and internet are all complicit. As an entity, the media has fallen down on its most basic journalistic responsibilities, losing its integrity, and ultimately its credibility, along the way.
Consequently, the public’s view of the media is at an historic low. And while complaints abound that the media is biased, which to a certain extent it is, this is but a symptom of a much greater illness. A slant towards liberalism or conservatism is wrong, to be sure, but inherent laziness and, by extension, incompetence, are the first problems that must be rectified. Competence and vision will trump bias every time.
Resurrecting the media's image is a Herculean task. And when the free press reaches the point where it is no longer believed, it stands on the edge of becoming completely irrelevant.
Whether it is nauseating nonstop coverage of Anna Nicole Smith's funeral procession or feel-good fluff stories in our nation's pre-eminent newspapers, the lack of hard-hitting investigative reporting and aggressive interviews with top national and international leaders is appalling. Producers and editors are constantly looking over their shoulders at the competition, choosing to push out content to be like “every other station,” passing on golden opportunities to be different, to be journalists --- to be leaders.
These people spend more time trying to keep their jobs than actually doing them.
There is a certain irony here. If media executives produced the quality work that the American people expect, their ratings would skyrocket, and advertisers would pay a premium. The biggest myth being propagated about the bankruptcy of media companies is that they are victims of the economy. Nothing could be further from the truth.
They are victims of their own ineptitude.
Americans still have an unquenchable thirst for the news, but they are increasingly tuning out the mainstream media because the content is utterly lacking of substance.
The solution is simple --- it's just not easy. Nothing and no one should be off the table. Not politicians, government officials, businessmen, media personalities, sports stars, nor celebrities. With no agenda except the truth, the media should pursue stories with no boundaries and no restrictions.
Americans don’t gravitate to question marks, but exclamation points. It’s time to put the exclamation point back in the American press, not through new technologies and gimmicks, but by pursuing the only thing that matters: the truth.
As the voice in the classic baseball movie Field Of Dreams commanded, “Build it and they will come.” In the same way, if the media gets off its duff and starts producing content worthy of the world’s best press, readers and viewers will come --- in unprecedented numbers.
Unfortunately, if Ed Rendell takes over Philadelphia’s newspapers, the ballpark will be empty before the new game even begins.
An accredited member of the media, Chris Freind is an independent columnist, television/radio commentator, and investigative reporter who operates his own news bureau, www.FreindlyFireZone.com His self-syndicated model has earned him the largest cumulative media voice in Pennsylvania. He can be reached at CF@FreindlyFireZone.com