Of course it is difficult to find journalism more than an inch deep.
"In daily news, your job is deadline to deadline, day to day. T.S. Eliot calls it the 'ecstasy of the animlas.' Living in the eternal present. Reporters live in the eternal present." -- Dale Maharidge, The Nation, March 21, 2016.
And with the TV news shows, for example, MSNBC ("The Place for Politics" and ever multiplying drug commercials), deadlines are second by second, day and night 24/7, and the "reporting" reminds us of nurses in a fever ward barking out rectal temperature readings of candidates and the public. This epidemic of mind-altering fevers that afflicts the nation "whose vaunted 'exceptionalism' is totalitarian with an occasional liberal face" has rendered what remnant of thoughtful journalists left here raging, whimpering or simply babbling. We saw one young thing on CNN an hour ago say that "If you look at it historically ..." referring to campaign situation that has been fairly steady for a month. However, as the American political consumer is driven mad by intemperate utterance and negative ad campaigns, the danger of war grows alongside global warming and monopoly finance capitalism.
Not all journalists have lost either their minds or their jobs. Some are writing with more depth than ever. And when ejected from the newsrooms of the shrinking oligarchy of media owners, they continued to work from alternative bases and some even invented newsrooms of their own.
A world war has begun. Break the silence.
I have been filming in the Marshall Islands, which lie north of Australia, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Whenever I tell people where I have been, they ask, "Where is that?" If I offer a clue by referring to "Bikini", they say, "You mean the swimsuit."
Few seem aware that the bikini swimsuit was named to celebrate the nuclear explosions that destroyed Bikini island. Sixty-six nuclear devices were exploded by the United States in the Marshall Islands between 1946 and 1958 -- the equivalent of 1.6 Hiroshima bombs every day for twelve years.
Bikini is silent today, mutated and contaminated. Palm trees grow in a strange grid formation. Nothing moves. There are no birds. The headstones in the old cemetery are alive with radiation. My shoes registered "unsafe" on a Geiger counter.
Standing on the beach, I watched the emerald green of the Pacific fall away into a vast black hole. This was the crater left by the hydrogen bomb they called "Bravo". The explosion poisoned people and their environment for hundreds of miles, perhaps forever.
On my return journey, I stopped at Honolulu airport and noticed an American magazine called Women's Health. On the cover was a smiling woman in a bikini swimsuit, and the headline: "You, too, can have a bikini body." A few days earlier, in the Marshall Islands, I had interviewed women who had very different "bikini bodies"; each had suffered thyroid cancer and other life-threatening cancers.
Unlike the smiling woman in the magazine, all of them were impoverished: the victims and guinea pigs of a rapacious superpower that is today more dangerous than ever.
I relate this experience as a warning and to interrupt a distraction that has consumed so many of us. The founder of modern propaganda, Edward Bernays, described this phenomenon as "the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the habits and opinions" of democratic societies. He called it an "invisible government".
How many people are aware that a world war has begun? At present, it is a war of propaganda, of lies and distraction, but this can change instantaneously with the first mistaken order, the first missile.
In 2009, President Obama stood before an adoring crowd in the centre of Prague, in the heart of Europe. He pledged himself to make "the world free from nuclear weapons". People cheered and some cried. A torrent of platitudes flowed from the media. Obama was subsequently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
It was all fake. He was lying.
The Obama administration has built more nuclear weapons, more nuclear warheads, more nuclear delivery systems, more nuclear factories. Nuclear warhead spending alone rose higher under Obama than under any American president. The cost over thirty years is more than $1 trillion.
A mini nuclear bomb is planned. It is known as the B61 Model 12. There has never been anything like it. General James Cartwright, a former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said, "Going smaller [makes using this nuclear] weapon more thinkable."
In the last eighteen months, the greatest build-up of military forces since World War Two -- led by the United States -- is taking place along Russia's western frontier. Not since Hitler invaded the Soviet Union have foreign troops presented such a demonstrable threat to Russia.
Ukraine - once part of the Soviet Union - has become a CIA theme park. Having orchestrated a coup in Kiev, Washington effectively controls a regime that is next door and hostile to Russia: a regime rotten with Nazis, literally. Prominent parliamentary figures in Ukraine are the political descendants of the notorious OUN and UPA fascists. They openly praise Hitler and call for the persecution and expulsion of the Russian speaking minority.
This is seldom news in the West, or it is inverted to suppress the truth.
In Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia -- next door to Russia - the US military is deploying combat troops, tanks, heavy weapons. This extreme provocation of the world's second nuclear power is met with silence in the West.
What makes the prospect of nuclear war even more dangerous is a parallel campaign against China.
Seldom a day passes when China is not elevated to the status of a "threat". According to Admiral Harry Harris, the US Pacific commander, China is "building a great wall of sand in the South China Sea".
What he is referring to is China building airstrips in the Spratly Islands, which are the subject of a dispute with the Philippines - a dispute without priority until Washington pressured and bribed the government in Manila and the Pentagon launched a propaganda campaign called "freedom of navigation".
What does this really mean? It means freedom for American warships to patrol and dominate the coastal waters of China. Try to imagine the American reaction if Chinese warships did the same off the coast of California.
I made a film called The War You Don't See, in which I interviewed distinguished journalists in America and Britain: reporters such as Dan Rather of CBS, Rageh Omar of the BBC, David Rose of the Observer.
All of them said that had journalists and broadcasters done their job and questioned the propaganda that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction; had the lies of George W. Bush and Tony Blair not been amplified and echoed by journalists, the 2003 invasion of Iraq might not have happened, and hundreds of thousands of men, women and children would be alive today.
The propaganda laying the ground for a war against Russia and/or China is no different in principle. To my knowledge, no journalist in the Western "mainstream" -- a Dan Rather equivalent, say --asks why China is building airstrips in the South China Sea.
The answer ought to be glaringly obvious. The United States is encircling China with a network of bases, with ballistic missiles, battle groups, nuclear -armed bombers.
This lethal arc extends from Australia to the islands of the Pacific, the Marianas and the Marshalls and Guam, to the Philippines, Thailand, Okinawa, Korea and across Eurasia to Afghanistan and India. America has hung a noose around the neck of China. This is not news. Silence by media; war by media.
In 2015, in high secrecy, the US and Australia staged the biggest single air-sea military exercise in recent history, known as Talisman Sabre. Its aim was to rehearse an Air-Sea Battle Plan, blocking sea lanes, such as the Straits of Malacca and the Lombok Straits, that cut off China's access to oil, gas and other vital raw materials from the Middle East and Africa.
In the circus known as the American presidential campaign, Donald Trump is being presented as a lunatic, a fascist. He is certainly odious; but he is also a media hate figure. That alone should arouse our scepticism.
Trump's views on migration are grotesque, but no more grotesque than those of David Cameron. It is not Trump who is the Great Deporter from the United States, but the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Barack Obama.
According to one prodigious liberal commentator, Trump is "unleashing the dark forces of violence" in the United States. Unleashing them?
This is the country where toddlers shoot their mothers and the police wage a murderous war against black Americans. This is the country that has attacked and sought to overthrow more than 50 governments, many of them democracies, and bombed from Asia to the Middle East, causing the deaths and dispossession of millions of people.
No country can equal this systemic record of violence. Most of America's wars (almost all of them against defenceless countries) have been launched not by Republican presidents but by liberal Democrats: Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, Clinton, Obama.
In 1947, a series of National Security Council directives described the paramount aim of American foreign policy as "a world substantially made over in [America's] own image". The ideology was messianic Americanism. We were all Americans. Or else. Heretics would be converted, subverted, bribed, smeared or crushed.
Donald Trump is a symptom of this, but he is also a maverick. He says the invasion of Iraq was a crime; he doesn't want to go to war with Russia and China. The danger to the rest of us is not Trump, but Hillary Clinton. She is no maverick. She embodies the resilience and violence of a system whose vaunted "exceptionalism" is totalitarian with an occasional liberal face.
As presidential election day draws near, Clinton will be hailed as the first female president, regardless of her crimes and lies - just as Barack Obama was lauded as the first black president and liberals swallowed his nonsense about "hope". And the drool goes on.
Described by the Guardian columnist Owen Jones as "funny, charming, with a coolness that eludes practically every other politician", Obama the other day sent drones to slaughter 150 people in Somalia. He kills people usually on Tuesdays, according to the New York Times, when he is handed a list of candidates for death by drone. So cool.
In the 2008 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton threatened to "totally obliterate" Iran with nuclear weapons. As Secretary of State under Obama, she participated in the overthrow of the democratic government of Honduras. Her contribution to the destruction of Libya in 2011 was almost gleeful. When the Libyan leader, Colonel Gaddafi, was publicly sodomised with a knife - a murder made possible by American logistics - Clinton gloated over his death: "We came, we saw, he died."
One of Clinton's closest allies is Madeleine Albright, the former secretary of State, who has attacked young women for not supporting "Hillary". This is the same Madeleine Albright who infamously celebrated on TV the death of half a million Iraqi children as "worth it".
Among Clinton's biggest backers are the Israel lobby and the arms companies that fuel the violence in the Middle East. She and her husband have received a fortune from Wall Street. And yet, she is about to be ordained the women's candidate, to see off the evil Trump, the official demon. Her supporters include distinguished feminists: the likes of Gloria Steinem in the US and Anne Summers in Australia.
A generation ago, a post-modern cult now known as "identity politics" stopped many intelligent, liberal-minded people examining the causes and individuals they supported -- such as the fakery of Obama and Clinton; such as bogus progressive movements like Syriza in Greece, which betrayed the people of that country and allied with their enemies.
Self absorption, a kind of "me-ism", became the new zeitgeist in privileged western societies and signaled the demise of great collective movements against war, social injustice, inequality, racism and sexism.
Today, the long sleep may be over. The young are stirring again. Gradually. The thousands in Britain who supported Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader are part of this awakening - as are those who rallied to support Senator Bernie Sanders.
In Britain last week, Jeremy Corbyn's closest ally, his shadow treasurer John McDonnell, committed a Labour government to pay off the debts of piratical banks and, in effect, to continue so-called austerity.
In the US, Bernie Sanders has promised to support Clinton if or when she's nominated. He, too, has voted for America's use of violence against countries when he thinks it's "right". He says Obama has done "a great job".
In Australia, there is a kind of mortuary politics, in which tedious parliamentary games are played out in the media while refugees and Indigenous people are persecuted and inequality grows, along with the danger of war. The government of Malcolm Turnbull has just announced a so-called defence budget of $195 billion that is a drive to war. There was no debate. Silence.
What has happened to the great tradition of popular direct action, unfettered to parties? Where is the courage, imagination and commitment required to begin the long journey to a better, just and peaceful world? Where are the dissidents in art, film, the theatre, literature?
Where are those who will shatter the silence? Or do we wait until the first nuclear missile is fired?
A Crazy Establishment Demands ‘Sanity’
Exclusive: As support grows for anti-Establishment candidates Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, a frantic Establishment is demanding that Americans “stay sane” and vote for one of its approved candidates. But is it sane to follow advice that has led to endless wars and a disappearing middle class, asks Robert Parry.
By Robert Parry
With ever-growing hysteria, the Establishment is begging, cajoling and warning American voters not to elect a rogue President from the Right or the Left, neither Donald Trump nor Bernie Sanders, but to accept instead one of the “sane” mainstream options. Yet, the unspoken truth is that the American Establishment has been off its rocker for decades.
It was, after all, Official Washington’s Establishment led by the neoconservatives and their sidekicks, the liberal interventionists that embraced President George W. Bush’s catastrophic invasion of Iraq in 2003. However, as costly as that decision was in terms of blood and money and cascading chaos now destabilizing Europe the Wise Men and Women imposed virtually zero accountability on themselves or other chief culprits.
Indeed, many of the same neocons who architected the Iraq disaster are listed as top foreign policy advisers to the “sane” candidates, such as Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush. And Hillary Clinton not only voted for the Iraq War but seemed to learn no lessons from what she only grudgingly acknowledged was a “mistake.” As Secretary of State, she sided with Democratic “liberal interventionists” to engineer another “regime change” in Libya that has led to another failed state, further spreading chaos across the region.
A “sane” Establishment, one that truly cared about the interests of the American people, would have undertaken a serious self-examination after the Iraq War. Yet, there was none. Rather than cleaning house and banishing the neocons and liberal interventionists to the farthest reaches of national power, the Establishment rewarded these warmongers, ceding to them near-total control of American foreign policy thinking.
If anything, the neocons and liberal hawks consolidated their power after the Iraq War. By contrast, the foreign policy “realists” and anti-war progressives who warned against the invasion were the ones cast out of any positions of influence. How crazy is that!
It was as if supporting the Iraq War was the new initiation rite to join the Establishment’s elite fraternity of worthies, a kind of upside-down application of rewards and punishments that would only make sense at the Mad Hatter’s tea party in Alice’s Wonderland.
In a sane world, the publishers of The New York Times and The Washington Post would have purged their lead editorial writers who had advocated for the catastrophe. Instead, the Post retained its neocon editorial page editor Fred Hiatt and nearly all of its pro-war columnists and the Times even promoted liberal interventionist Bill Keller to the top job of executive editor after it became clear that he had been snookered about Iraq’s WMD.
Similar patterns were followed across the board, from The New Yorker on the Left to The Wall Street Journal on the Right. Pro-Iraq War writers and commentators continued on as if nothing untoward had happened. They remained the media big shots, rewarded with book contracts and TV appearances.
The same held true for the major think tanks. Instead of dumping neocons, the center-left Brookings Institution went off in search of neocon A-listers to sign, like Robert Kagan, a co-founder of the Project for the New American Century. The ultra-Establishment Council on Foreign Relations recruited its own neocon “stars,” Max Boot and Elliott Abrams.
And what did this year’s “sane” presidential candidates do as the deadly and dangerous consequences of neocon thinking spread from the Middle East into Europe? They pledged fealty to more neocon strategies. For instance, Establishment favorite, Sen. Marco Rubio, is advocating more “regime change” tough talk and more expansion of U.S. military power.
Nevertheless, when New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks urges Americans to “stay sane,” he is calling on them to support the likes of Rubio and reject the likes of Sen. Bernie Sanders, who had the sanity to vote against the Iraq War, and billionaire Donald Trump, who also questioned the wisdom of the war.
Brooks lamented that his favorite Rubio had resorted to some populist rhetoric of his own recently, but added: “Marco Rubio has had a bad month, darkening his tone and trying to sound like a cut-rate version of Trump and [Ted] Cruz. Before too long Rubio will realize his first task is to rally the voters who detest or fear those men. That means running as an optimistic American nationalist with specific proposals to reform Washington and lift the working class.”Yet Rubio led the parade of dancing candidates who performed at the so-called “Adelson primary,” seeking to win the favors of gambling billionaire Sheldon Adelson by vowing to fully sync U.S. policies in the Middle East with positions favored by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (whereas Trump refused to toe that line). And Rubio’s warmed-over right-wing, trickle-down economic orthodoxy is sure to do little to help working- and middle-class Americans.
Brooks offers some dubious history, too, writing “In every recent presidential election American voters have selected the candidate with the most secure pair of hands. They’ve elected the person who would be a stable presence and companion for the next four years. I believe they’re going to do that again.”
It’s unclear how far back in time Brooks is going. Is he acknowledging that the American voters actually favored Al Gore in Election 2000 although the Republican majority on the U.S. Supreme Court decided to give the White House to the untested and unreliable George W. Bush? Is Brooks saying that Bill Clinton had more “secure” hands than George H.W. Bush in 1992 and that the radical right-winger Ronald Reagan was more “stable” than Jimmy Carter in 1980?
Indeed, the rapid divide of the United States into a land of haves and have-nots can be traced back, in large part, to Reagan’s economic policies of massive tax cuts primarily favoring the rich and thus incentivizing greed and his disparaging the role of democratic governance, which is the only force that can truly counter the power of the wealthy elites.
Since Reagan’s presidency, Republican orthodoxy has been to enact ever more generous tax cuts for the rich while freeing them from government regulation or “red tape.” Republicans along with Establishment Democrats most notably President Bill Clinton also favored “free trade” that led major corporations to shift their industrial jobs to Third World low-wage countries.
This combination of tax cuts for the rich, “free trade” for multinational corporations and disdain for “big government” intervention to protect average citizens along with technological advances has savaged the Great American Middle Class, which was largely created by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs and the major infrastructure investments after World War II. Under President Dwight Eisenhower, the top marginal tax rate for the richest Americans was 90 percent, essentially enforcing an American egalitarianism.
The abandonment of those hard-earned lessons from the Great Depression — a reversal accomplished primarily by Reagan, Clinton and George W. Bush — returned U.S. income inequality to levels not seen since the Wall Street Crash of 1929.
The Trump phenomenon can only be understood by factoring in the frustration and fear of the white working class that has shifted Republican since the 1960s because of anger over the Democrats supporting equal rights for blacks and other minorities. But those working-class whites now sense that the GOP leadership is selling them out, too, by favoring the ultra-rich donor class and willing to sacrifice their sons and daughters to implement unrealistic neocon foreign-policy schemes.
So these downwardly mobile white Americans are in rebellion and have embraced billionaire Trump, who rejects politics as usual and understands something of their blue-collar mindset because of his experience on popular reality TV shows.
Something similar is happening on the Democratic side through another imperfect vessel, Bernie Sanders. Democratic progressives see the consequences of a steady retreat by mainstream liberals on economic and foreign policy issues since Reagan’s election.
Rather than fight to convince the white working class about the need for democratic governance, Bill Clinton and other neo-liberals fashioned a strategy of catering to Wall Street and other rich donors by offering “free market” financial deregulation and “free trade” deals on manufacturing.
Sanders represents the first candidate for president in recent memory who has offered a full-throated defense of government as a necessary counter-balance to the power of the rich over both the economy and the electoral process (though President Obama has paid some lip service to those principles).
By contrast, Hillary Clinton represents a continuation of the cozy relations between the so-called New Democrats and the wealthy power centers of high finance and big corporations. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Clintons’ Paid-Speech Bonanza.”]
She also advocates foreign military interventions in line with what the neocons have sought as they demand U.S. fealty to Israeli interests. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Hillary Clinton Seeks Neocon Shelter.”]
As a senator, Clinton voted for the Iraq War and as Secretary of State, she sided with the neocons and their “liberal interventionist” allies in escalating the war in Afghanistan, in engineering a bloody “regime change” in Libya, and in pushing for a direct U.S. military intervention in the Syrian civil war (via the creation of so-called “safe zones”).
Though Sanders’s foreign policy positions can besomething of a muddle, he is generally more skeptical about U.S. military adventures than Clinton.
So, who are the crazy ones here? Does it make more sense to follow Hillary Clinton’s Establishment-friendly positions on issues from Wall Street regulation to Syrian military intervention or to support Bernie Sanders’s more aggressive strategy against income inequality and less aggressive approach toward foreign conflicts?
Similarly, on the Republican side, is it nuttier to back Rubio and other Establishment favorites who would effectively let Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu set U.S. policy in the region, even if that means invading Syria and accepting permanent warfare or Trump who suggests letting the Russians and Iranians share the burden of battling Islamic extremists?
Clearly, the Establishment would have a stronger case if it hadn’t led the United States into one catastrophe after another, while refusing to hold its own representatives accountable.
There is the old line about insanity being defined as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. What David Brooks and other Establishment figures are demanding is that the American voters keep electing the same system-approved neocon/neolib presidents again and again and expecting something better for the nation.
Is that “staying sane” or “staying insane”?
These Journalists Dedicated Their Lives to Telling Other People’s Stories. What Happens When No One Wants to Print Their Words Anymore?
As newsrooms disappear, veteran reporters are being forced from the profession. That’s bad for journalism—and democracy.
By Dale Maharidge
Arthur Miller’s classic 1949 Pulitzer Prize–winning play Death of a Salesmanopens with musical direction: “A melody is heard, played upon a flute. It is small and fine, telling of grass and trees and the horizon. The curtain rises.” The play follows Willy Loman, past 60, as his grasp on life crumbles amid job troubles. When, at the end of Act II, he reaches his beaten-down end, the melody soars again, this time a requiem. “Only the music of the flute,” writes Miller, “is left on the darkening stage….”
I heard this flute’s dirge throughout last summer and fall, as I made the rounds talking with downsized journalists—men and women who had gotten hooked on the profession as young, ink-stained idealists, only to find themselves cast out in mid- or later life. These veterans spoke of forced buyouts and failed job searches—of lost purpose, lost confidence, even lost homes. I had known of the decimation of my profession: I’d read the statistics, seen the news articles, watched old friends pushed from jobs as bureau chiefs, editors, senior reporters, into the free fall of freelance. But the texture of their Lomanesque despair surprised me. There were some grim moments.
Summer 2015, the West Coast: I’m chatting with a longtime friend, a great investigative reporter who was pushed out of a big-city daily. She’s managed to land a new, well-paying job—but it’s not in journalism. A mutual colleague told me that “it’s the most hated job she never wanted to do.” I insist that my friend needs to find a way back someday, because she has stunning reportorial talent. “I don’t remember that person,” she interrupts sharply.
Early fall 2015, a bar on the East Coast: An unemployed middle-aged writer whose work I’ve admired for decades agrees to meet for a drink. I buy the first round, he gets the second. In between we talk about editors and writers we know in common, about stories nailed and those that got away. Typical journo stuff. “So what do you want?” he asks finally. I explain that I’m seeking the human angle behind the news of thousands of downsized journalists. “Am I the lead to your story?” he asks, sizing me up, tensing. I feel that I’m losing him. Thus a Hail Mary: “Are you depressed?” His fast retort: “Are you trying to piss me off?” He walks out, leaving a full beer on the table.
“One thing I never contemplated was the end of newspapers. It’s like burying someone you love.” —Hilary Abramson
2009 to present, somewhere in the United States: An e-mail arrives with the subject “Journalist, with inquiry about homelessness.” The sender thanks me for my 1985 book on the traveling homeless—because he’s now one of them after losing a journalism job. “I’m riding my mt. bike west, temporarily camped out in Kingman [Arizona], and I have lived under many a bush and in a few hostels along the way. I am a homeless transient without any money. Three college degrees to boot…. So here I sit, at the public library computer, typing out my stories and thinking about what to do.” We keep in touch for a while. Recent attempts to contact him end in failure.
The term “seismic shift” is overused, but it applies to what’s happened to American newspapers. In 2007, there were 55,000 full-time journalists at nearly 1,400 daily papers; in 2015, there were 32,900, according to a census by the American Society of News Editors and the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Florida International University. That doesn’t include the buyouts and layoffs last fall, like those at the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and the New York Daily News, among others, and weeklies and magazines like National Geographic.
For most of the past century, journalists could rely on career stability. Newspapers were an intermediary between advertisers and the public; it was as if their presses printed money. The benefit of this near-monopoly was that newsrooms were heavily stocked with reporters and editors, most of them passionate about creating journalism that made a difference in their communities. It often meant union protection, lifetime employment, and pensions. Papers like the Sacramento Bee bragged to new hires in the 1980s that even during the Great Depression, the paper had never laid off journalists.
All of that is now yesterday’s birdcage lining. The sprawling lattice of local newsrooms is shrinking—105 newspapers closed in 2009 alone—whittled away by the rise of the Internet and decline of display ads, with the migration of classified advertising to Craigslist hitting particularly hard. Between 2000 and 2007, a thousand newspapers lost $5 billion to the free site, according to a 2013 study by Robert Seamans of New York University’s Stern School of Business and Feng Zhu of the Harvard Business School. Falling circulation numbers have also taken their toll.
And things may get a lot worse, according to former Los Angeles Times executive Nicco Mele. “If the next three years look like the last three years, I think we’re going to look at the 50 largest metropolitan papers in the country and expect somewhere between a third to a half of them to go out of business,” said Mele, now a professor at USC’s Annenberg School of Journalism, in an interview a few weeks ago with the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University.
Meanwhile, what remains of print journalism is shifting, morphing into a loose web of digital outfits populated by a corps of underpaid young freelancers and keyboard hustlers, Twitter fiends and social-media soothsayers. Gone are the packed newsrooms. And gone, in many cases, are the older journalists.
“Perhaps I’ve missed it, but has anyone done a story on how the newsroom layoffs of the past decade have been one of the greatest exercises in age discrimination in U.S. history?” asked R.G. Ratcliffe, who spent 33 years at papers ranging from the Houston Chronicle to The Florida Times-Union, in a 2012 comments thread on the media site JimRomenesko.com.
Some journalists have pursued age-discrimination lawsuits, but the cases are hard to make stick. In 2012, Connecticut Post reporter Anne Amato, then 64, argued that the paper wanted to “rid itself of its older reporters.” She lost in court. Last fall, a jury awarded $7.1 million to former Los Angeles Timescolumnist T.J. Simers, 66. But early this year, the award was thrown out on appeal.
Part of the stated explanation for the exodus of veterans is cultural. Old-school journalism was a trade, and legacy journalists find today’s brand of personality journalism, with its emphasis on churning out blog posts, aggregating the labor of others, and curating a constant social-media presence, to be simply foreign. And the higher-ups share the new bias. One editor of a major national publication, who himself is well over 40, confided to me that he’s reluctant to hire older journalists, that “they’re stuck in the mentality of doing one story a week” and not willing to use social media.
Older journalists cost more as well, often making them the first to be let go or offered buyouts.
But the shift is also deeper and more systemic. Like the story of Willy Loman, cast aside in his creeping middle age, the tale of today’s discarded journalists is, at its core, a parable of the way our economy, our whole American way of being, sucks people dry and throws them away as their cultural and economic currency wanes. Many older workers, not just journalists, are hurting. Amid the so-called recovery, some 45 percent of those seeking jobs over the age of 55 have been looking six months or longer, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But there’s one major difference between other workers and journalists—when the latter are laid off, the commonweal suffers. “You know who loves this new day of the lack of journalism? Politicians. Businessmen. Nobody’s watching them anymore,” says Russ Kendall, a lifelong photojournalist and editor who is now self-employed as a pizza maker.
There are still print newspapers—and news websites—producing heroic local journalism. But it’s clear that the loss of a combined several hundred thousand years of experience from newsrooms across the country is hurting American democracy. Less known is the impact on this lost generation of talent, people at the peak of their skills—in their 40s and beyond, ill equipped to navigate the changed landscape. Their lives are intertwined with the story of the public good.
Many have changed careers and are doing well enough—on paper. Talk to them, however, and many say they miss the newsroom. Others soldier on, freelancing in a market of falling rates. Some drive for Uber; others lurch into early retirement, wondering if they’ll make it.
Journalists often seek an emblematic person to illustrate a story. But sometimes there’s no single through-line character. Sometimes there are 22,000 of them. These are a few of their stories.
* * *
“I couldn’t get called back from places I wouldn’t have sneezed at when I was younger.” —John Koopman
In 1977, a small Ohio daily hired me at a weekly net pay of $90. In 1980, I drove to California seeking work. I lived out of my Datsun pickup, homeless, for three months, until The Sacramento Bee hired me. You could do that back then. In the newsroom, I was seated next to Hilary Abramson. She smoked little French cigars. Soon I was smoking cigars with her at our desks. You could also do that back then. I’d never met another reporter with so much energy: Abramson practically levitated.
Through the 1980s, I overheard Abramson as she reported on topics ranging from police abuse to a county poorhouse program that was declared unconstitutional by the California Supreme Court as a result of her exposé. She wrote the first major profile of Rush Limbaugh, then just a local radio personality. After the 1980s, she went on to be managing editor at the Pacific News Service, later a reporter funded by foundations. Then the money ran out. No one would hire her. She blames ageism. Like most of the journalists I interviewed, she said this was never spelled out, but rather implied. “I was told that I was ‘overqualified’ for a few editing jobs,” Abramson said when we sat down and talked last summer. “I considered that ageism at work. I would demand a realistic salary that younger journalists wouldn’t expect.”
Abramson, now 70, has freelanced. A magazine gave her an investigative assignment. When the contract came after months of work, it included a clause that “said absolutely all the liability was on me.” The editor said the new policy was driven by lawyers.
“I was dealing with a controversial subject that could incur the wrath of an entity with very deep pockets. I had to let it go. I worked for free,” she said. And the story never got told.
“I always knew right from the start I’d never be good working for myself. I’m not a businessperson—just let me do my work. Very few reporters I worked with were good on the business end. One thing I never contemplated was the end of newspapers. It’s like burying someone you love. It paralyzes me, angers me. I just haven’t found a way to go gently into the dark.”
The days, she said, could be very bleak. “We were not prepared—even us, who spent years listening to people pour their hearts out when bad things happened to them. We thought it would never happen to us. We had our bliss. What made us think it would go on forever?”
* * *
He’s 57 and worked for a 20,000-circulation daily in the Midwest for over 30 years. He was bought out last summer; over a quarter of the reporters, photographers, and editors there were let go. Like many downsized journalists, he asked to remain anonymous because he had to sign away his right to free speech to get 18 weeks of settlement pay.
“In 10 minutes, I was done,” he said of the meeting when he was told it was over. Being a pro, he worked the rest of the week to finish his assignments.
“I have a deep fear about what is happening to journalism. No one else is going to do what we do. In that way, we create a community. Television and radio only show up at the big things. They don’t show up at school-board meetings, the local drainage board. If your community is going to cut trash collection to every other week, television is not going to come.”
He wonders how long his former paper can survive, because the base of advertisers has shrunk.
“Who’s making money off the web? No one is going to pay $100 a week to get the newspaper—or whatever it costs, whatever advertising doesn’t pay. But if it goes away, America is going to go, ‘What the hell happened? We need that.’”
* * *
For most of the aughts, John Koopman reported gritty stories in the spirit of Charles Bukowski, written like good Hemingway, for the San Francisco Chronicle. He spent nearly a year riding in police cars for a series called “The Badge.” For “Skin,” he immersed himself in the city’s sex culture: strip joints, porn-film shoots, and clubs like Bondage A-Go-Go. He also embedded as a journalist with the US Marines in Iraq in three different years. He was nearly blown up twice, and saw a corporal 10 feet away from him shot dead by a sniper.
In 2009, the Chronicle dumped him, along with 30 other newsroom employees, on top of over 100 buyouts earlier that year. “I couldn’t get called back from places I wouldn’t have sneezed at when I was younger,” Koopman said of the ageism he encountered when looking for new journalism work.
“The people at the top don’t seem to be losing their jobs. But we are.” —Russ Kendall
He had a wife and teenage son and couldn’t move. “You do what you have to,” he recalled, “pull on the big-boy britches and get to work.” In 2011, he became the assistant general manager for the Hustler Club in San Francisco.
“I just wish I could’ve worked at the strip club before I became a journalist—I would have done a hell of a lot better job,” said Koopman, who is now 57. “You learn more things about human nature in that kind of environment than you’d ever learn with a notebook in your hand.”
His sense of social justice led him to make sure the women workers were treated with respect. He had to appear tough. Maybe it helped that he shaves his head bald. Fists were occasionally required when he threw out pimps and drug dealers. “I came to realize I was starting to have a really antisocial personality disorder,” he confessed. He told of a disruptive customer he eighty-sixed. The man demanded to finish his sandwich. “I thought, ‘What’s the worst thing I can say?’ So I said, ‘I’ll fuck your mother with that sandwich.’”
At the door, the man hurled the sandwich at Koopman, striking him in the leg. Had the customer not bolted, it would have been a “homicidal scene,” Koopman said. “I sat in the office afterward thinking, ‘My God, what the hell did I just do? I just told a guy I was gonna fuck his mother with his sandwich. Who am I? What kind of monster have I created here?’”
So he quit—it was 2013—and began driving for Uber.
“I had a lot of rage,” Koopman said of his initial frustration with the infamously bad Bay Area traffic. Perhaps there was also lingering anger toward theChronicle’s executives. “I guess the way karma works is that you have to live with yourself. I can’t be the one to bring justice to the karmic universe. But, God, I hope somebody does.”
Before long, though, Koopman found Zen behind the wheel. He drives from 30 to 50 hours a week. “Nowadays, I’m like, ‘Whatever.’ Traffic doesn’t bother me; it’s either heavy or it’s not. There’s nothing you can do about it. It’s almost like therapy.”
Between Uber and his wife’s income, “we make enough money to get by.” Someday “Koop,” as he’s known to former colleagues, wants to write a book about his days at the strip club. Another book idea is about gays in the military. But right now he’s ambivalent about the act of writing.
“I still love to tell stories. The way things have gone, I’m not sure how much I care if it gets out anymore. Sometimes life is more about what you do today—the relationships you have with people. Sometimes the story is just something you tell your son. Or it’s something that you publish. As long as you’re doing one of those things, it gets that beast expelled. I wish I were still working in a newspaper—I do. But at the same time, I might even be healthier today not doing it.”
* * *
Since 2012, when Lesley Guth earned a master’s degree in counseling psychology, she has spent her days sifting through other people’s joys and struggles, trying to help make sense of them. It’s a job that echoes her work in journalism, with its emphasis on listening, empathy, and interviewing people, but with one notable difference. “Being an older woman, my experience is valued as a therapist,” said Guth, 55. Not so in the newsroom, which she left in 2009 after taking a buyout from the San Francisco Chronicle. “Being older and a woman is not valued in journalism.”
Guth worked at 10 newspapers in her 20-plus years in the industry. At all of them, the majority of top editors “were older white men,” and many of them have remained despite the cuts. “Journalism never reached equality for women or minorities.”
Over the wide range of interviews I conducted, there was a strong sense that women are being downsized with greater frequency than men. “We have a lot of anecdotal information that indicates newspaper newsrooms have reverted back to older, whiter, and male-dominated,” said Melissa Nelson, director of collective bargaining for the Newspaper Guild, in an e-mail. But there are no hard numbers, she added.
A bit of quantification came from Frederick Kunkle, the cochair of the Washington-Baltimore News Guild, who is also a reporter at The Washington Post. As part of a grievance proceeding, the paper provided “limited” numbers in 2012 for some 313 employees—but even that “flawed” set of data showed a pattern of management undermining women, as well as people age 40 and older. The employees were ranked on a scale of one to five, with one being the worst. Fifty-four percent of the group was over 40, but they made up 64 percent of those who scored below three. “Within the older age bracket with rankings below 3.0, women are targeted disproportionately,” Kunkle said. “Fifteen women are ranked low, while 10 men are low-ranked.” Conversely, 22 of the 33 who ranked over four were men “in a newsroom that is predominantly female.”
One woman downsized from the Post told me that she “always got good reviews and often got raises” in all of her years at the paper. Then, suddenly, her rankings were one and two. The day after a manager told her she was being let go, she won a journalism award.
* * *
In 2012, when photo editor Russ Kendall left The Bellingham Herald in Washington State—the last of his many journalism jobs—he started an artisanal-pizza company, Gusto Wood-Fired Pizza Catering. With a traveling oven, he sells his wares at markets and weddings. “I’m making twice what I made as a newspaper photographer.”
And in 2014, Kendall founded a Facebook group called “What’s Your Plan B?” It’s “a site for journalists who have been laid off, haven’t been laid off yet—which is everybody else—and those who have gone on to create a successful Plan B,” he said. It now has over 6,200 members. “Somebody became a doctor. Somebody else started a coffee company in Washington, DC, that turns out to be one of Obama’s favorite places.”
Scrolling through posts on the site feels like an enormous group hug. Many members share a profound sense of lost purpose. Kendall described the attitude of many journos: “It’s not just what I do—it’s what I am. I certainly felt that way for a long time.”
He’s also irked by the greed of newspapers. For decades, Wall Street had unreasonable expectations. In the 1980s, the Gannett Company’s dozens of papers had net pretax profit margins of between 20 and 30 percent— a common range for newspapers in that era. “If you take a business class, you will learn pretty quickly that if you can pay the bills and make 10 percent profit, you’re a raging success,” Kendall said.
Top of Form
Bottom of Form
As recently as the early 2000s, newspapers could get away with obscene profits because they were regional monopolies. Even now, many newspapers “are just trying to mitigate the stock reduction by a few pennies,” Kendall said. “I was heartsick watching people I care about lose their jobs. I started getting the feeling like I’ve been fooled all these years. Yeah, we did some good work, but really the bean counters always ran the show.” And now the workers are paying the price: “The people at the top don’t seem to be losing their jobs. But we are.”
So Kendall turned his back on his old trade and started making pizzas, a gig that “seems more honorable to me than to be involved with what passes for journalism these days. I used to give free pizzas to any journalist who was laid off. I had to stop because there are so many of them now.”
* * *
By nature, many journalists are outsiders. The job rewards the thick-skinned and relentless, and those who don’t start out as lone-wolf hustlers often end up that way. “There’s a perpetual adolescence to being a reporter,” explained my colleague Bruce Shapiro, who heads the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University’s journalism school. “In daily news, your job is deadline to deadline, day to day. T.S. Eliot calls it the ‘ecstasy of the animals.’ Living in the eternal present. Reporters live in the eternal present.”
This lifestyle often isn’t good for any kind of personal relationship. The journalist’s lot would be an isolated existence save for the fact that a newsroom is a tribe for outsiders.
Maybe that’s why so many people I interviewed felt so untethered. The journalist cast out of a newsroom is spun into a lonely orbit. I ran this theory by Shapiro, whose work at the Dart Center helps prepare journalists to cover trauma (and also, journalist friends say, helps them cope with their own in the process).
“I think that being the outsider is part of the mythology,” Shapiro said. “And then suddenly it turns out that the tribe doesn’t protect you against the economy; it doesn’t protect you against the bosses.”
For many young journalists, this reality is the only one they’ve known. Some are coming of age in a freelance universe, where the newsroom is as alien as a Smith Corona. Yet even in web-focused newsrooms full of fresh faces, where “old” means a reporter over 30, they can feel alone. And while many may be up for the challenge at first, they’re paying the price in both lost support and lost mentorship, particularly as veteran talent is expelled from the field.
I told a young newspaper journalist in the intermountain West (who asked to remain anonymous) how much seasoned pros had guided me early in my career. “Exactly,” he said. “I’m 24, and I feel like I’m already one of the better journalists in the state. I absolutely should not feel that way, but it’s because the good older ones are dropping off. What I want more than anything is to be surrounded by people who could take my work and hack it up, show me all the ways it could be better.”
* * *
In 2009, Barbara Ehrenreich gave a graduation speech at the University of California at Berkeley’s journalism school. “How do you think it feels to be an autoworker right now?” she asked. “And I’ve spent time with plenty of laid-off paper-mill workers, construction workers and miners…. So let me be the first to say this to you: Welcome to the American working class.”
It was dark advice. But the times could at last be shifting. As digital journalism finds its place in the new-media landscape, helped by a crop of new web-only publications, younger journalists are beginning to demand the kind of work protections, decent wages, and newsroom solidarity that many of their older counterparts once enjoyed. In the past year, workers have voted to unionize at Gawker, Vice, Salon, and ThinkProgress, affiliating with the Writers Guild of America East, AFL-CIO. In January, The Huffington Post’s management voluntarily recognized the WGAE to represent 262 employees. The union negotiates “compensation, benefits, and job security” for its members.
The NewsGuild represents the digital newsrooms of The Guardian US and, until it folded last month, Al Jazeera America. (Since learning of the closing, a group of AJAM reporters have banded together to create a website and help one another find jobs.) People organizing at digital-media outlets are doing so for the same reasons that people did a generation ago, said Gabriel Arana, a former senior media editor at The Huffington Post, who was involved with the union drive. “A lot of these new-media companies feel like tech companies. But at a certain point, having free snacks at work means less than having a retirement account or a decent salary that you can raise a family on. Digital media is maturing. People in it want the stability to be able to make a career out of it.”
Still, some younger journalists worry about that distant day when they hit their 50s. “If so many talented career journos are leaving,” said the 24-year-old reporter in the intermountain West, “what do young ones like me have to look forward to?”
Clare Hollingworth: 104-year-old on being first UK correspondent to report on Germany's invasion of Poland
When she called the British embassy in Warsaw, a diplomat refused to believe her story
· Robert Fisk
When Suzanne and Helen opened the door of the cramped, box-like apartment in Albert Road, I didn’t even notice the small, huddled figure on the sofa. It was only when Helen, one of the two people who look after Clare Hollingworth in her Hong Kong home, stood aside that I saw the very elderly lady in a red cardigan with thin hair and jutting jaw and heavy spectacles and realised that I was looking at the reporter who wrote the greatest scoop of the Second World War.
Yes, in August of 1939, this crouched little woman – 104 years old, sightless now and moving only with the greatest difficulty around her tiny flat – boldly crossed the Polish-German frontier in a British diplomat’s car and saw General Gerd von Rundstedt’s Wehrmacht tanks, in their thousands, lined up to invade Poland.
There are some interviews that a journalist remembers – those that betray a politician’s cruelty, a soldier’s brutality, the courage of a doctor under fire, the kindness and dignity of a man or woman who have lost their family – but in this little home on the far side of the world, I was lost. How do you talk to a colleague who has been deprived of much of her memory, whose moments of extraordinary vision and bravery return only in occasional seconds of clarity and then bleakly disappear? Did she think, when she reported the German invasion of Poland, that the Nazis would win the war, I asked her? “No, I thought they’d lose the war,” she answers emphatically. “Because they didn’t care about people.” As good a description of all fascist dictatorships, I suppose.
But then she confuses her father with a family doctor called Anderson – “a handsome man” – and announces that she wrote her last report only the day before we meet – I know the feeling well! – and makes it clear that she still thinks she is a working correspondent. “I’ve been lucky so far,” she says. “I work hard.” Yes, maybe luck is what it is all about, surviving as a correspondent. And Clare Hollingworth has been very, very lucky. She reported from Poland, Germany, Algeria, Beirut, India, Israel and China. “I enjoy action,” she once told a radio interviewer. “I enjoy being in a plane when they’re bombing something.”
But her greatest scoop remains her first. She borrowed the British consul’s car, a Union flag fluttering on the bonnet, to drive over the still – just – peaceful frontier from Poland into Germany in August 1939, bought some batteries and wine at a local shop and, driving back, noticed that the wind lifted some vast hessian sacks in a valley below her – and revealed hundreds of Wehrmacht tanks lined up in battle order.
“The frontier is still closed to local traffic,” she wrote. “Everywhere I saw signs of the most intense military activity. In the two miles between Hindenburg and Gleiwitz, I was passed by 65 military dispatch riders on motorcycles. The only cars to be seen were those belonging to the military.”
“1,000 TANKS MASSED ON POLISH FRONTIER – TEN DIVISIONS REPORTED READY FOR SWIFT STROKE” was The Daily Telegraph’s headline next morning. By then, Clare was back in her Polish hotel in Katowice and saw the first German tanks moving past her window. When she called the British embassy in Warsaw, a diplomat refused to believe her story – so she held the telephone out of her bedroom window so he could hear the sound of German tank tracks.
When I ask her, all of 77 years later, whether the embassy really didn’t believe the Germans had invaded, she thinks for a while. “They knew,” she says. “Oh yes, they did.” But the Telegraph’s foreign desk was seemingly more sceptical. “They wanted London to be the place of power politics,” she remarks, by which I think she means – and this is the problem when you talk to such an elderly soul, there have to be assumptions – that the desk thought they knew better than she did. She has written, long ago, of her problems with her employers. But did she know she had written the biggest scoop of the century? “I had a pretty good idea,” the old lady beside me says. And she smiles and laughs a little and asks for a glass of wine.
Helen brings the wine – we have been joined by her great-nephew Patrick from Moscow and an American ex-journalist friend, Cathy Hilborn Feng – and gives the glass to her, half wine, half water, to sip. Patrick gestures to a grey filing cabinet by the window and pulls open one of the lower drawers. It is packed to the brim with unopened champagne bottles, gifts from the flock of journalists who have come, over the years, to celebrate Clare Hollingworth’s endless birthdays – champagne to be enjoyed, no doubt, over the birthdays to come. Patrick takes care that her passport remains up to date – part of Clare’s world in which a newspaper may still call on her for one final assignment.
Her greatest post-war scoop came in 1963 when she was working for The Guardian and based in Beirut – “I loved it, a place that was really home,” she tells me, “where you could go anywhere in a car and find your way, and I changed homes several times” – and heard that her colleague on The Economist and The Observer, Kim Philby, had defected to Moscow. His sudden absence from the Lebanon press corps had been noticed, but Clare prowled the harbour and was shown the Beirut port records which disclosed that a Soviet vessel had sailed without warning from Lebanon on the very day Philby disappeared. Frightened that they might be libelling Philby if they got the story wrong, The Guardian sat on the story – for three months!
On top of the champagne-filing cabinet, there is a photograph of Clare in a war correspondent’s uniform, sitting with a British officer in a lounge room in Beirut – it must have been taken during the Second World War, since most of her pictures at this time show her in uniform – and I recognise the same type of large Lebanese wooden panel doors which connect the rooms in my own Beirut apartment today.
The British invaded Lebanon in 1941, defeating French Vichy troops. Alan Moorhead, one of the other greats among the war’s correspondents, covered the same story. When I tell Clare that, at 104, she must have outlived all her colleagues – a world record for journalists – her memory reconnects perfectly. “It’s quite incredible for me – 104!” she says.
That memory zooms towards her like a satellite in outer space, brushing planet Earth and total recall. Ask her why she chose to become a journalist and, quick as a flash, she replies: “People asked me to. I enjoyed it. It’s good to be in charge of a lot of things. You get the point?”
Did she mean that she liked both writing history and being read? “Both.” And then the satellite swishes off to another planet and Clare is saying that she saw “the ruins” only yesterday – the ruins of 1939 Poland or the Roman ruins of Lebanon? – and that I’ll be able to read her latest story in the paper tomorrow. On the wall is an old copy of the front page of the South China Morning Post, recording one of her birthdays.
Her friends occasionally take her, in good weather, 100 yards down Albert Road to the fine old Foreign Correspondents’ Club – where she celebrated her 104th birthday in October – and where we later sit alone with Patrick and Cathy at “Clare’s table”, in a small corner dominated by photographs of the Vietnam war. Clare could sometimes misbehave a little, Cathy says, banging her cane on the floor for attention, shouting a little too loudly. But who can blame Clare? I spent our chat together, bellowing my questions into the veteran’s right ear. My wife tells her she looked very well, and she replies: “You’re flattering me.” And when told that she does indeed look good, she says: “I feel it.”
So there was only one question left for an Independent on Sundaycorrespondent. Did the future of newspapers lie in websites, in computers, I asked her? “Newspapers will all end up on computer,” she replies, but this was a bad thing. Why? She thought for several seconds. “You have to feel the paper,” she says.
I think about this as the plane taking me back from Hong Kong to Beirut via Paris soars over Siberia that same night, and I wonder whether “scoops” mattered on websites.
And then, some hours later, our flight captain announced that we would soon pass over the Polish-German border. Stalin moved the Polish borders west. But those roads which Clare Hollingworth travelled in 1939 still exist. And somewhere a few miles away, in the pre-dawn darkness below me, 77 years ago, was the very spot where Clare saw Von Runstedt’s legions about to launch the invasion that started the most titanic war in the history of the world. You can’t take a scoop like that away from anyone.