From The Archive
Thomas Frank
No. 11  June 1998

Triangulation Nation

Affirming mediocrity in a jaded age

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But there was more than civility on the panel. There was active goodwill. It was clear that we wished one another well. We wished the President well.

—Roger Rosenblatt, describing a 1998 TV appearance in Time magazine

Back to Normalcy II: The Theory

Upper-middle-class life still has its comforts, to be sure. If anything, the suburban piles are getting bigger, the SUVs more imperious, the hotel employees more servile, and the frequent-flier perks more lavish. But turn on the TV and revolution reigns. The old symbols are burning, the common folk are sneering. The middle class may have its luxuries, but it has lost its chorus of idealizers, the flatterers who once did so much to define American life. From Sabrina to Springer we’re roaring against the suburban way. We want to tell the world our version of Peyton Place, our beef with the middle-class horror. The great middle no longer believes, and in the things that once amused it so easily it believes least of all. Its crushing doubt coughs up South Park and The X Files, leads us to scoff at classic bits of uplift like the Modern Library’s Top One Hundred, and reduces even Gibraltars of middlebrow like Reader’s Digest to rubble. We are none of us surprised when the blow job is promoted from bathroom graffiti to national emblem, the republic for which it stands a place where interns and content-providers live to do little more than service the vain prerogatives of presidents and celebrities.

For others, though, this cultural moonscape of the always-already muckraked is hardly a happy one. From old right-wing plaints about “heroes” and the lack thereof there has arisen an elaborate new social theory, a dream of “civil society,” a middle-class utopia of order and quiet respectfulness. Think tanks convene; foundations grant; op-ed writers solemnify. The deeds and deaths of astronauts, the anniversaries of battles, the syndication of TV shows from a more naive time are all occasions for ruminating on the nature and disappearance of civility.

The mendacity of the press is so well understood that it no longer requires any elaboration before being introduced as a plot device in sitcom and film.

Nowhere has the weight of public doubt been felt more heavily than in journalism, where the collapse of the old middlebrow formulas has precipitated a nasty legitimacy crisis, a sense of lost authority that has in turn inspired a towering mass of wordy self-examinations and confessions. The news legitimacy crisis can be described in any number of statistical or metaphorical ways, depending on the reporter’s requirements: Circulation is declining; Generation X is scoffing; other media are encroaching on the turf of network and newspaper; and journalists themselves are blundering wherever one turns, their negligence further opening the floodgates of public doubt. Then there is the nightmare statistic, that mounting tidal wave of public disgust with the press that is reflected by poll after poll, popularity contests that journalists seem always to lose—whether it’s to politicians, salesmen, phone solicitors, TV preachers, dogcatchers, prison guards, Mafia chieftains, computer moguls, second-story men, you name it. Journalists are sensationalists, distorters, and liars, Americans now seem to believe, as universally corrupt and untrustworthy as the elected officials with whom they’re supposed to be perpetually at war. Their social position no longer secure, their power to shape public discourse no longer irresistible, and their traditional prerogatives now the right of any drudge who speaks html or knows how to run a photocopier, journalists are in danger of being demoted altogether, of embarking on that long slide from profession back to mere job.

To make matters worse, news-debunking now rivals news-writing as a legitimate occupation, as a booming shadow industry of media columnists, watchdog magazines, radio hosts, online commentators, and freebooting critics set out to undistort the media’s distortions for the misinformed masses. The mendacity of the press is so well understood that it no longer requires any elaboration before being introduced as a plot device in sitcom and film. It has given every city its own media columnist, churning out news stories about news stories that were themselves about news stories. Even advertisements for Fox News, possibly the most degraded of news programs, announce that network news has gone too far, but that this network, by God, still believes in the consent of the governed: “We Report. You Decide.”

For as long as there has been a fourth estate, journalists have suffered the slings and arrows of public outrage—mob action, duels, dynamite, death squads. But to have their own weapons of skepticism and doubt turned on them … that really hurts, man. Other industries close to the great middle have discovered ways to manage the collapse of faith—think of the auto industry, which routinely transforms our disgust with its high-handed self into new reasons to buy cars; or magazine writing, locked these days into a sort of arms race of attitude; or advertising, where hip campaigns have for years acknowledged public distrust as a way of distinguishing the claims of one brand from another. Journalists, however, look out at the great statistical monolith of public doubt and see doomsday.

And they are penitent indeed. A burgeoning literature of journalistic autoflagellation proclaims that all this public mistrust is, for once, right on target, that it is journalists’ own poisonous “cynicism” that is to blame, that unless this corrosive cynicism is stopped soon, it will destroy nothing less than “the Republic” itself. It is a time of desperation in that Washington-based encampment of hypernormalcy that is the punditocracy, and the commentator class has wheeled in formation to face its tormentors, issuing forth vast reams of journalistic wisdom, diagnoses of the malaise, and schemes by which the middlebrow republic might be redeemed. In one compilation of lamentations, Feeding Frenzy, by political scientist Larry Sabato, Beltway journalists assess their “attack-dog” practices and their “adversarial” behavior. Joseph Cappella and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, in Spiral of Cynicism, summon up so many Beltwayer confessions of malevolence that the authors’ conclusion—journalists have caused the dread “cynicism” that stalks the land—seems positively superfluous. It is a staggeringly arrogant notion, this idea of a public mind poisoned by an overdose of journalistic zealotry, and yet so nicely does it flatter the power of a declining profession that it is repeated virtually wherever the press’s legitimacy crisis is being discussed.[*]

To be sure, some worthwhile work has come of these journalistic mea culpas. In Breaking the News, veteran editor James Fallows administers a series of much-deserved hidings to the various lights of the Washington press corps. He writes intelligently about the changing class interests of journalists and their consequently skewed perspectives, and capably trashes the pontifications of John McLaughlin, Cokie Roberts, and the redbaiting twister Robert Novak. Jay Rosen, former media critic for Tikkun magazine (and, like Fallows, a standard-bearer for the public journalism movement), blasts the tendency to reduce political coverage to tales of one politician’s tactical advantages over another in his book Getting the Connections Right. Cappella and Jamieson demonstrate that by focusing on the superficial conflicts between Clinton and Gingrich in 1995, the press utterly missed the two men’s collusion on larger issues.

But having landed these blows, each critic then proceeds to make the same gargantuan error. For all their moaning over “adversarialism,” not one of these authors seems to have the faintest idea what the word means. While Bob Woodward, the poster-boy of “attack dog” journalism, may have occasionally put politicians in difficult positions, his writing hardly raises a meaningful challenge to the foundation of American order, to the rule of the market. Nor can any of the other journalists cited in these books be said to regard the exercise of American power as an alienated outsider, or as an opponent of the existing economic order, or even as someone with ideals substantially different from those of the generals and senators and administrators on whom they so obsessively focus. A more fruitful analysis of the intellectual failings of America in the nineties might begin not with the media’s “adversarialism” but with its mountainous smugness, its unthinking reverence for free markets and global trade, its unquestioning embrace of the advertised life and its refusal to consider alternatives to the corporate order. It might take into account the industry’s trans-seventies past, its proud and ancient status as a leading pillar of consensus. One might begin by wondering why it is that the United States has the least truly adversarial journalism of any Western nation; why it is that ours is the only country where the transparently false bromides of the market encounter only the feeblest of demurrals in the daily press and never a peep of the kind of excoriating refutation to which they are routinely treated in such un-cynical places as Mexico, France, or India; how it came to be that our journalists boast so proudly of their independence when they are closer to the thinking of the elites of industry and government than their counterparts in almost any other land.

Oddly enough, this is exactly where critiques of the press began for figures like Upton Sinclair and George Seldes. Maybe journalism’s problems, they reasoned, arise from the forcible application of business principles to an enterprise where business ought to have very little place. Maybe each of our contemporary problems, from the peculiar institution of journalistic “objectivity” to the inability to contextualize to the rise of celebrity pundits, is related to the fact that journalism has been swallowed whole by the culture of money. Maybe the decline of American journalism is one of the most glaring and shameful tales of market failure in our history, an object lesson in a simple fact the molders of middlebrow opinion will not face up to: Corporations do not act on behalf of the public good. (Rosen, to his credit, does admit that such a critique of the press exists and that it is accurate, but then criticizes it for being too “depressing,” suggests that it is not “productive” enough, and then turns resolutely away from it.)

Historical context is evidently too much of a leap for contemporary news-thinkers. Almost without fail their books follow the same mysterious trajectory, veering from scathing indictments of pundit idiocy to airy musings about civil society and its virtues. In place of cynicism, it is said, journalists must try hard and dedicate themselves to service. We must have a “public journalism” that, in Jay Rosen’s maddeningly vague terms, “clears a space where the public can do its work,” which can “engage people as citizens,” which will “help revive civic life and improve public dialogue.”

As so many other strains of romantic pseudo-populism have done before, public journalism seems to understand critical judgment itself as an arrogant, undemocratic act.

It sounds quite noble, this “public journalism.” But what, specifically, does it mean to apply democratic principles to the information industry? Were we not so blinded by the language of the market triumphant, the answers would be obvious: Promote local ownership of newspapers somehow, or reduce the power of advertisers, or break up the Culture Trust, or, at the very least, secure decent wages and working conditions for journalists and pressmen. But public journalism is an idea that has achieved prominence through the support of the big foundations—proud towers of middlebrow given to high-minded causes like “empowerment” or “involvement” and bearing names like “Do Something”—and as such it is naturally allergic to considerations of institutional power. Prominent proponents of public journalism like Rosen and Fallows have almost nothing to say about reshaping journalism as an industry, about changing the relations of economic power. What they mean by “democracy” is a kind of cultural democracy, a weird populism according to which the root of all the industry’s problems is the “elitism” of particular writers, their refusal to “listen” and their tendency to favor expert opinion over that of the people. And the solutions for which the public journalists call—an extensive use of polls, “town hall meetings,” and focus groups to ensure that newspaper stories take into account the actual concerns of the public rather than the cynical urges of the self-centered writer—are about as likely to offend journalism’s conglomerate parents as would a demand for, say, a more comprehensive astrology column.

And, sure enough, once their anger at the Beltway boobs has passed, the theorists of public journalism indulge their middlebrow tendencies without shame or reservation, returning again and again to the most innocent, even infantile, formulations of democratic theory. Rosen is particularly given to hollow fifties-era phrases like “the American experiment” and “our lengthy adventure in nationhood,” and to maudlin descriptions of the perils that beset such high-minded ideas. Fallows seems to believe that national discord is something invented by journalists; that social conflict is alien to American shores; and that if only “elite journalists” would “listen” to the people rather than poison the democratic process with their “adversarialism,” the few problems we face would be quickly solved. He speaks heartily of one newspaper’s “Public Life Team” (“We will lead the community to discover itself and act on what it has learned”) and Rosen hails the “People Project” launched by another, both monikers so grandly meaningless that they could well be brand names for lines of Japanese footwear.

However simplistic, this reduction of journalistic error to questions of personal arrogance, to an unfamiliarity with the ways of the people, strikes a powerful American chord, and by this year “elitism” was rivalling “cynicism” as the free-floating explain-all whenever some explanation is required for journalistic malpractice. From the Stephen Glass episode to the Lewinsky circus, the media “establishment” is said to be arrogant and out of touch, guided by its own ideas rather than those of the citizenry, endlessly “widening the gap,” as one hand-wringing U.S. News column put it, between their snobbish selves and “the rest of us.” As so many other strains of romantic pseudo-populism have done before, public journalism seems to understand critical judgment itself as an arrogant, undemocratic act. “Elitism,” that cardinal democratic sin, is a quality that Fallows repeatedly associates with hyperjudgmental figures like Novak and McLaughlin; the error of the “media Establishment” consists of “talk[ing] at people rather than with or even to them.” “Democracy,” meanwhile, is a sort of eternal suspension of judgment, a process of endless “listening,” “ambivalence,” and virtuous deference to “the popular will.” Rosen insists even more forcefully that journalists have no business giving an arrogant thumbs-up or thumbs-down on everything our leaders do, but should instead constantly be wondering about who they are and whether or not they are representing their constituency, the public, and asking the questions that the public would want them to ask. He calls his model of democratic journalism “proactive neutrality,” a process of soliciting conversation with the public—“bringing people to the table”—but never “telling them what to decide.” Beneath its therapeutic warmth, the obvious implication of such an idea is that democratic culture has no place for crusading or even persuasion; these are by definition acts of cultural “elitism.” Another implication is that journalists can save their profession from the certain death of public doubt only by replacing its elitist ideas with the tools of mass marketing. Through the focus group and the telephone survey we can catch a glimpse of The People; only by embracing the democratic devices of big business can we persuade Them to believe again.

It may seem a rather embarrassing intellectual error to look out at the America of 1998, in which more and more aspects of public life are being brought under corporate control, in which the concentration of wealth and the growth of poverty are at record levels, in which no group or figure, public or private, dares challenge the authority of the market, and in which so many aspects of the general welfare are breaking down, and to declare that the problem facing democracy is an excess of judgment. It may seem strange in such circumstances to argue that the answer to such acute and well-defined disorders is to shut up, stop criticizing, and contemplate instead the majesty of The People.

But in fact it is fully in the American grain. Confusing democracy with the suspension of judgment is, like ringing evocations of “the American experiment,” a classic element of American middlebrow. It recurs, for example, with striking consistency throughout One Nation, After All, sociologist Alan Wolfe’s recent survey of upper-middle-class American attitudes. Almost to a man, the American bourgeoisie is evidently convinced that democracy means nobody’s views are any righter than anyone else’s. “To exclude, to condemn, is to judge,” Wolfe writes approvingly, “and middle-class Americans are reluctant to pass judgment on how other people act and think.” It is presumptuous to believe too strongly in anything, insists the voice of the great middle, because by so doing we risk visiting bad feelings and exclusion on those who might disagree.

The path to salvation is clear: Journalists must become better democrats by becoming better businessmen, by paying more attention to the dictates of demographics and focus groups. As they become less elitist and more in touch with the people, they must also adopt the intellectual convictions of the business world: that markets are democracy; that social conflict is dysfunction. What is required is a sort of unilateral cultural disarmament, an intellectual laissez-faire. If abandoning its brief dalliance with “cynicism” is the price of saving journalism from a catastrophic loss of status, then it’s a bargain. So in a business that has always been schizophrenic, a place both of angry outsiders and the arrogance of power, of protests and of platitudes, public journalism comes down solidly on the side of the latter: It is Eddie Guest over H.L. Mencken, Roger Rosenblatt over Murray Kempton.

Of course, it is impossible to doubt the good intentions of the public journalists. And surely one must acknowledge that any number of efforts described as “public journalism” have enjoyed signal successes: The Kansas City Star’s 1995 series on urban sprawl, for example, is an outstanding example of critical, community-minded reporting. But consider how neatly public journalism’s dreams of a new consensus dovetail with the other journalistic “reform” tendency of the Nineties—the corporatization of the news. Although both movements come to their conclusions through different logical routes, both insist on transforming newspapers into demographic reflections of their readership and on excising the odd (and often anti-corporate) voices of idiosyncratic editors and publishers. It is no coincidence that Mark Willes, CEO of Times Mirror and a self-proclaimed public journalist, pulls the plug on the excellent New York Newsday (for less than convincing bottom-line reasons) and all but merges advertising and news departments at the Los Angeles Times, while passing his deeds off as civic duty. What he’s doing is facilitating conversation, you see, using the proven democratic machinery of marketing to let the people of Los Angeles see themselves in all their glorious peopleness. And please understand: Elitists aren’t those who run the world; they’re those who criticize the CEOs.

Tycoon on a Bus: The Practice

If the rage for public journalism can be understood as a contest to shout “The People, Yes!” louder than the next guy, then the newspapers produced by the Gannett Corporation must be understood as the least cynical and the most civic-minded of them all. Certainly the company has made remarkable claims along these lines. In 1996 Robert Giles, then editor and publisher of Gannett’s Detroit News, offered this definition of what public journalism meant to him:

It is a way to keep the reader’s voice in our minds. We are constantly meeting with our readers, conducting focus groups to discover not only what broad areas they are interested in but what specifically is on their minds, what they want us to engage. What is it they want their newspaper to do?

What Giles’s newspaper was doing, specifically, was teaching its union employees a thing or two about the new market order on the streets of Detroit and Sterling Heights, Michigan.

Unless you happen to be a worker on the receiving end of its flexibility strategies, or a reporter at a newspaper that competes with one of its products, it is unlikely that you’ve ever thought too much about Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper chain and publisher of USA Today. So well-camouflaged a part of the American landscape are its various newspapers that Gannett sometimes seems virtually invisible. And yet Gannett is precisely where those concerned about the future of journalism should be looking. Not only has the new middlebrow imagined by the theorists of public journalism here been refined to perfection, but in Gannett’s hands it has also become an ideology of corporate power. An empire of uplift, an autocracy of interactivity, Gannett has fashioned over the years a perfect synthesis of cultural populism and corporate predation.

When figures from across the profession denounce “cynicism,” Gannett newspapers are most definitely not what they have in mind. A survey of several recent editions turned up such innocent page-one fare as stories about the travels of the Chicago Bulls chaplain (Rockford Register-Star), a battery-powered lollipop holder (Des Moines Register), the Beanie Baby bubble (Cincinnati Enquirer), the man who introduced the corn dog to Iowa (Des Moines Register), and several cautionary entries pointing out that the rides at state fairs can make you dizzy (both the Louisville Courier-Journal and the Des Moines Register).

While Gannettoids have not been prominent in the fourth estate’s recent circus of contrition, they have joined quite naturally in the chorus of accusation.

In fact, the campaign against cynicism in news—and the tendency to conflate criticism with “elitism”—is very much a Gannett project. Al Neuharth, the charismatic founder of USA Today and the company’s public face through the eighties (today he writes a weekly column for the paper and serves as “Founder” of the Freedom Forum, a journalism think tank once known as the Gannett Foundation), may have been the first prominent newspaperman in the nation to identify cynicism and elitism as the industry’s two greatest problems. In his heyday he routinely denounced the newspaper elites “east of the Hudson and east of the Potomac,” those purveyors of “intellectual snobbery,” “pompousness,” and “arrogance” who “think their mission is to indict and convict, rather than inform and educate.” But USA Today was to be the home of something new, a “Journalism of Hope,” in Neuharth’s famous phrase, an embodiment of the new middlebrow’s refusal to judge: “It doesn’t dictate. We don’t force unwanted objects down unwilling throats.” Generally speaking, Gannett newspapers don’t startle, shock, or use long words and difficult concepts. They offer consumers a pleasant product that is remarkably consistent from place to place and that emphasizes reader interaction and “good news.”

Critical stories about Gannett are fairly rare; when they do happen to appear, they seem always to revert to the most simplistic of denunciations. The company’s literary products are dismissed as lowest-common-denominator stuff; its executives are hooted for their boorish tastes and faintly creepy corporate conformity. But to read Gannett in such a reflexively contemptuous way is to dismiss its very real and very significant theoretical contributions to American culture. Whatever else one might say about it, USA Today is arguably the nation’s most carefully edited and highly polished newspaper; the way it looks and reads is the result of years of refinement and planning. Certain of its executives may be louts, but from the invention of coverage-by-demographic to color in the masthead to the pseudo-interactive style, USA Today has charted the course that almost every paper in the country is presently following. And, of course, Gannett has had a hand in developing the theoretical side of the business as well. The Freedom Forum, staffed by a number of former Gannett executives, sponsors panel discussions featuring thinkers like Rosen and publishes the Media Studies Journal, in which prominent journalists wax ponderous (and apparently unedited) about their weighty responsibilities.

While Gannettoids have not been prominent in the fourth estate’s recent circus of contrition, they have joined quite naturally in the chorus of accusation. Each successive disaster to befall the Washington press corps—chased from the field by Brill’s Content or James Fallows, humiliated by Stephen Glass, routed convincingly in yet another of those poll-driven popularity contests—is a little victory for Gannett, whose once-derided stand against “cynicism” and “elitism” now seems to be vindicated by every new whipping administered to the more respectable news institutions. USA Today, in fact, has even begun to take the lead in denouncing the now vulnerable “media elite,” deriding the people columnist Samuel Freedman inventively labels “brainiacs,” lambasting what Neuharth calls the “would-be Woodwards and Bernsteins (who) came off college campuses,” and who have now so shamed their profession through their ignoble desire “to get rich and famous.”

Such sanctimoniousness is perhaps the ideal introduction to the painless series of contradictions that make up Gannett’s trademark middlebrow sensibility. In fact, according to just about everyone who has ever written about the company, Gannett’s curious journalistic style seems to have been consciously invented to permit an extraordinary level of profitability. Realizing early on that owning the franchise in a one-newspaper town can be remarkably lucrative, the company has, since its beginnings, bought or created monopolies across the country. Since the “journalism of hope” often requires little more than press-release rewriting and virtually mandates favorable coverage of local businesses, it can be done both cheaply and with an eye to cultivating advertisers. Critical observers have accused Gannett of slashing both news content and newsgathering staff; of constantly shuffling its editors about the country; of deleting competitors and soaking local advertisers.[**] The company is also dogged by strange profit-legends: Veteran journalist Richard McCord relates both the improbable but persistent rumor of the armored cars believed to haul each small-town paper’s take off to Gannett HQ and of the company’s “dobermans” (ferocious publishing executives) who can be dispatched across the country to put troublesome competitors out of business. Neuharth himself refers to the company as “a nonstop money machine” and approvingly quotes Wall Street figures who call Gannett “virtually an unregulated monopoly” and who note that its “management lives, breathes, and sleeps profits and would trade profits over Pulitzer Prizes any day.” Observers of the company marvel at its sumptuous offices and the money-burning antics of Neuharth, who boasts of his “first-class tastes” in his memoirs. And while family-owned newspapers are lucky to make a 10 percent profit in a good year, Gannett routinely squeezes close to 30 percent out of its properties.

Gannett, in its typically ham-handed way, has made the convergence between journalistic populism and market forces far, far too obvious.

The primary casualties of Gannett’s corporate culture war are the cities in which the company does business. McCord makes this point thoroughly and repeatedly in his 1996 book The Chain Gang, recalling town after town where Gannett’s intervention has resulted in relentless downdumbing and the silencing of independent editorial voices. Another consistent victim of Gannett’s strategy is organized labor, whose wage scales can impede the astronomical profits that the company demands. “Gannett is among the most antiunion companies that we deal with,” says Linda Foley, president of the Newspaper Guild. “They just do not believe that their employees should have collective bargaining rights.” One can detect traces of this attitude in The Making of McPaper, a panegyric of USA Todays early days by its former editor-in-chief Peter Prichard, who consistently describes union workers as trouble making thugs bent on keeping “The Nation’s Newspaper” from reaching its adoring public. One can see it more clearly in the company’s policy of excluding employees “covered by a collective bargaining agreement” (as its annual report puts it) from participation in 401(k) plans and its elevation to a board position of Drew Lewis, who famously busted the air traffic controllers’ union while serving as Ronald Reagan’s secretary of transportation. And it came into particularly sharp focus in Detroit after Gannett acquired The Detroit News.

But the point here isn’t just that Gannett practices an unpleasant form of profit-seeking; its remarkably consistent behavior along those lines has been thoroughly documented elsewhere over the years, most recently and most comprehensively by McCord. More remarkable is its melding of populism and predation, the seamless connection the company has forged between its rapacity and its Up With People exterior. It is a uniquely American hybrid of opposites, combining a self-effacing, all-inclusive, anti-elitist editorial style with a shamelessly self-aggrandizing corporate culture and the no-nonsense kicking of worker ass. Gannett has invented a postmodern middlebrow all its own, an elaborate strategy for producing newspapers of a standard quality and profitability, a theory of mediocrity that simulates localness and community concern while striving to offend no one.

The deep thinkers of public journalism are strangely reticent about Gannett (an exception is Cappella and Jamieson, who regard Neuharth’s “journalism of hope” as a promising idea), and episodes like the Detroit newspaper strike are one reason why. But perhaps there is a larger reason as well. Gannett, in its typically ham-handed way, has made the convergence between journalistic populism and market forces far, far too obvious. The conglomerate’s practices might present the thinkers with a trickier question: Why are foundation millions required to propose an operation that the most ruthlessly profit-minded managers have found quite useful all on their own?

USA Today, Gannett’s most visible product, is explicitly aimed at an audience of transient businessmen, the reading material of choice as one jets from sales meeting to sales meeting. But in a mix-up that speaks volumes about American culture of the eighties and nineties, it has successfully cast itself as nothing less than the People’s Newspaper, the folksy small-town read for a folksy small-town nation. From its colorful page-one polls to its frequent editorial use of the imperial “we,” populist pretensions are an essential element of the publication’s style. Prichard’s book (published not in New York but in good ol’ Kansas City) begins with the story of how Neuharth decided on the paper’s first day of publication to forgo a complicated story about an assassination in Lebanon and emphasize instead the death of Grace Kelly, the original “people’s princess,” thereby demonstrating, in Prichard’s words, that “USA Today would be edited … not for the nation’s editors, but for the nation’s readers.” Charles Kuralt, volksgeist shaman of the official media, provided further populist credentials in the book’s foreword by describing a Norman Rockwell landscape of honest Western towns dotted with omnipresent USA Today vending machines, each one bearing a “four-section, four-color gift from Al Neuharth.” So you don’t miss the point, Kuralt runs through a list of picturesque locales where he has purchased the paper (“the Holiday Inn in Klamath Falls,” “the 7-11 store in Great Bridge, Virginia,” “the last bus stop before the road runs out at Homestead Valley, California”) and even brings in Alf Landon for a cameo.

But Neuharth himself takes the prize for populist posturing. Virtually every account of his life and deeds dwells on his Midwestern background, his impoverished boyhood in South Dakota, his early efforts at a sports paper in that state, and the way his humble origins reflected those of his employer (in its early days Gannett had been an exclusively small-town chain). In his bizarre 1989 memoir, Confessions of an S.O.B., Neuharth again and again attacks the nation’s leading papers for their cynicism and negativity, portraying their coverage of events in foreign countries, their strongly held opinions, and their anxious clamoring after Pulitzer Prizes as loathsome badges of class hauteur. The New York Times, for example, is said to have suffered from “intellectual snobbery” and the Washington Post to exude an “aura of arrogance.” Neuharth himself, meanwhile, “declared war on the good old boys in our business,” “said ‘no’ to the status quo,” and wins the plaudits of none other than Carter confidant Bert Lance, who is trotted out to enthuse, “This here Gannett is an all-American company, an all-American company.” USA Todays account of Neuharth’s retirement described him as a “nemesis of the newspaper elite.”

Neuharth’s populist tendencies took on an almost demented earnestness in 1987, when he set out on an elaborate national tour called “BusCapade.” Ostensibly inspired by his conviction that the “national media” had “too much of an East Coast perspective,” Neuharth began his tour at the most middling place in the land (a town in Missouri that was then the demographic center of the country), declaring in the first words of his first column that “People hereabouts are proud of being more middlemost than most of us…” In the months of BusCapading that followed, he narrated for USA Today readers his Kuraltian wanderings amongst the people—chin-chinning with lots of just-folks, holding plenty of “town meetings,” and conducting polls wherever he went—and led readers toward that iridescent goal of public journalists everywhere: “Understanding. Of each other. All across the USA.” What this meant in practice was that Neuharth wrote an installment of his column, “Plain Talk,” from every state, celebrating each one successively in evermore passionate terms. Most of his BusCapade dispatches were organized around some state motto or song or other almanac-level fact whose profundity Neuharth would consider in his usual truncated style. Maryland, for example, struck him as being the place where the national anthem had been composed: “Folks in Maryland think that very appropriate. They consider their state a miniature of the nation. ‘America in miniature,’ says a slogan.” Virginia, he wrote, is both “for lovers” and “the Mother of Presidents.” In New Jersey, he observed that the “nickname ‘The Garden State’ applies.” Kansans were said to “like it at home on the range. Seldom is heard a discouraging word.” Throw in an occasional stray cliché like “Olympic dreams,” a softball interview with a governor or two, and some stories about local entrepreneurs and industries on the rebound, and you’ve just about got it.

Neuharth’s BusCapade exploits bring to mind the emptiest variety of American political demagoguery—one thinks of Richard Nixon’s foolish promise to visit all fifty states during the 1960 campaign and of Bill Clinton’s own 1992 series of “BusCapades.” Not only did Neuharth serve as Clinton’s “informal bus consultant,” according to Business Week, but he was perhaps the only national newspaper columnist to regard Clinton’s bus-stunts as expressions of genuine populist feeling, a sentiment which, he insisted in USA Today, the “media effete don’t understand.” One might also read BusCapade as a long-delayed answer to “These United States,” the famous series of articles run by The Nation in the twenties in which an all-star cast of intellectuals and eggheads flayed each state in turn for being the home of dolts, bigots, boobs, and philistines. (Also as a delayed riposte to Ken Kesey’s famous bit of bourgeoisie-annoying on wheels: The music Neuharth chose to blare from his bus’s loudspeakers was not loopy, irritating rock but uplifting state songs, one for each state.)

The high point of BusCapade, in both Neuharth’s and Prichard’s accounting, was the moment in which Neuharth himself, polling and town-halling his way across the country in a valiant battle against media cynicism, received the tidings of entrepreneurial victory. A telegram arrived announcing USA Todays first-ever month of profitability, by coincidence, just as the Bus was Capading through Al’s home state of South Dakota. The achievement thus became something of a populist miracle: local boy borne home on clouds of money. One can imagine the scene, depicted in heroic oversize in the National Gallery or something—“Annunciation of Profits in the Heartland” or “Tycoon’s Return.” That is, one could have imagined it, had Neuharth not announced in his Confessions that the whole thing was a set-up, that he had arranged to have the telegram sent to himself. Strangely, the founder of USA Today doesn’t seem to think this revelation casts any shade on the event. But pity poor Peter Prichard, whose Neuharth-authorized account solemnly gives the magical version of the event, even reproducing the (staged) telegram of glory.

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The incident helps to get at the meaning of the new middlebrow typified by Neuharth, Gannett, and the larger theories of public journalism. This is a populism in which “the people” aren’t so much the hero as they are a symbol, an ideological figurehead for the larger democracy of the market. Neuharth’s constant attacks on the “media elite,” for example, seem always to come back to questions of business know-how, in particular the idea that snobs are, by definition, poor entrepreneurs. The newspaper “elite never really considered me an insider,” Neuharth remarks at one point, just before relating how the publisher of the hated Washington Post, arrogant to the core, once lost a bidding war to him by “thinking her insider club membership would protect her interests.” Within pages Al bests her again in yet another takeover contest, this time because she has foolishly sent “Ivy League reporters to Iowa to report on the farm economy,” and thus misjudges the true worth of the Des Moines Register. Similarly, Al explains that he beat out the New York Times in another deal simply because that paper’s publisher was “elitist to the end.”

So closely are populism and the market connected for Neuharth that it hardly seems contradictory when he turns directly, as he so frequently does in his Confessions, from celebrating the plain-spoken ways of the heartland to an almost pathological boasting about the perks of power. With a certain pride he recounts his loudest acts of conspicuous consumption, rattling off the once-impressive brand names—the Porsche sunglasses, the Gulfstream IV jet (with shower), the uniforms worn by the crew of said jet, the Cristal champagne, the “beach side chapel” in his yard where he gives thanks, the luxury hotel suites in which he does business. Nor does Neuharth’s dedication to The People and the “Journalism of Hope” prevent him from writing his memoirs as a diary of corporate megalomania. Stories are constantly interrupted so Neuharth can give an account of how somebody praised him or how he burned someone. Almost every chapter begins with a quotation about Chairman Al. And through it all, the only overt explanation Neuharth offers for his doings is the down-home logic of “having fun,” or, better yet, “having a helluva lot of fun.”

Wherever newspaper moguls talk populism and profits simultaneously, it seems, the practical results take the same form: a sort of middle-class relativism in which tenaciously held ideas are the greatest journalistic error of all.

But Neuharth’s ideas deserve to be taken seriously nevertheless. Along with the public journalism reformers, Neuharth believes that the decline of the American newspaper is a parable of fundamental democratic virtues. Elitism is what is killing newspapers; getting in touch with the common people through polls, focus groups, and town-hall meetings is what will save them. But what is “elitism,” exactly? For Neuharth, who seems to hear the Vox Populi even when riding in his corporate jet, the term has little to do with its traditional connotations of economic power. Elitism is a sin committed by authors, not by owners. Elitism is nothing less than critical thought, a failure to exercise that middle-class suspension of judgment so celebrated by Alan Wolfe. Tellingly, this is a lesson that Neuharth chooses to put in the mouth of none other than Lee Kuan Yew, the Singapore strongman who has made public gum-chewing a felony: “The more you judge others by your own standards,” this beacon of the General Will tells him, “the more you show total disregard for their circumstances.”

In Gannett-land the suspension of judgment is called “listening” to readers, refusing to “dictate” to them. It is accomplished through a number of devices allowing journalists to understand the community for which they write. Polls not only appear every day in each section of USA Today, but they seem to hold a hallowed place in company lore. Prichard recalls how Neuharth discovered polling back in the sixties; how he used it to launch a new newspaper in Florida; and, most significantly, how a batch of market research appeared at just the right moment in 1981 and put Neuharth’s arguments for launching a new national newspaper over the top. By 1998, the democratic logic of polling is so familiar to readers that one USA Today feature—“Ad Track,” a series of studies revealing how “key target groups” feel about various TV commercials—actually equates consumer activism with participating in a focus group, with thinking about how you might best be sold running shoes or fruit drinks.

“News 2000” is the name of Gannett’s comprehensive program for “tailoring the content” of a newspaper anywhere in the country with the help of polling and focus groups. It is a theoretical program as well, informed by a vision of the news crisis that directly links the company’s corporate populism with anti-intellectualism. A primary factor in the long decline of American journalism, one News 2000 document asserts, is that “some newspapers grew increasingly out of touch with their communities.” They became “arrogant.” They “operated ‘inside-out’ with staffers deciding what news and information was needed by their community, often without a good sense of the concerns of the many groups comprising the community.” But Gannett has the answer to such tragic errors: Use focus groups, surveys, and “trend watchers” to help newspapers conform more closely to the wishes of the public. Only then, with “two-way communication between residents and readers,” can the newspaper in question “empower residents to improve their lives” and “help to establish newspapers as a ‘member of the family’ in their communities.” The 1997 Gannett annual report further defines the qualities of the non-cynical, non-elitist newspaper: “positive stories,” “stories that tell how new developments in the community have a positive effect on citizens and profiles that tell how local business owners have overcome obstacles.”

Reading through Gannett’s vision of the community- and owner-affirming newspaper, one can’t help but think of the sort of writing that it would prohibit. From William Lloyd Garrison to Lincoln Steffens to I.F. Stone, what few transcendent moments American journalism can boast have each arisen from vicious, even violent conflict between an “inside-out” writer and a furiously intolerant “community,” usually a “community” made up of precisely those “local business owners” whom Gannett designates as the beneficiaries of its brand of empowerment. One also thinks of public journalist Mark Willes, whose brand of civic service encompasses both dedication to profit and what sounds like a war on critical thought itself. Soon after deciding to tear down the wall between editorial and business in a quest to make the Los Angeles Times more profitable, Willes announced that in order to make female readers “feel like the paper’s theirs” it needed to come up with stories that were “more emotional, more personal, less analytical.” Wherever newspaper moguls talk populism and profits simultaneously, it seems, the practical results take the same form: a sort of middle-class relativism in which tenaciously held ideas are the greatest journalistic error of all.

What must be kept constantly in mind while pondering Gannett’s ideal of the hopeful, happy newspaper, though, is that all this democratic talk goes hand in hand with a particularly adamantine species of corporate practice. Needless to say, Gannett’s way of doing business is absolutely and utterly non-negotiable, as subject to the public will as the coming and going of cold fronts. (Nor does the company’s penchant for “listening” include tolerance for criticism: the Nashville Scene reports that a Gannett editor in that city recently tried to prevent critic McCord from speaking at a meeting of Nashville’s Society of Professional Journalists.) There is an important distinction, though, between Gannett’s market populism and the organic middlebrow of decades past: If we learn anything from the literature surrounding USA Today it is that superhuman efforts, both intellectual and physical, were required to put this most inoffensive of newspapers over. We read about the deeds of Neuharth’s handpicked team of “geniuses” charged with inventing this masterpiece of mediocrity, about the tweaking of the prototypes and the response from the focus groups, about Neuharth’s dictatorial leadership style, about his close editing of the newspaper’s stories, about the people who couldn’t take the rigorous pace and gave up. What is described is not merely the launching of a national newspaper, but the heroic forging of a new middlebrow by a man who is simultaneously hard as screws and soft as flan, absolutely determined, with a Calvinist inner fire, to be other-directed.

Pro Patria et Pro Gannett: The Monument

“Freedom of the press,” goes the old leftist saying, “belongs to those who own one.” It is a cynical adage, to be sure, the scoffing negation of Al Neuharth’s tendency to refer to even the “biggest media companies” with the possessive pronoun “our.” And, as with all the other bits of cynicism so deplored by recent critics of journalism, it can have no place in the aggressively public-minded age into which “our biggest media companies” are leading us.

Stamping out this and any other suggestion that journalism, properly practiced, might be guided by interests other than “ours” is the noble charge taken up by the Newseum, a museum of journalism recently opened across the street from the glass towers of the Gannett/USA Today complex in Arlington, Virginia. This latest Neuharth project was built by the Freedom Forum, of which he is “Founder” and former chairman; some official documents also list Neuharth as the Newseum’s “Founder” so there is no mistake, while the executive director of the complex was until recently none other than Neuharth hagiographer Peter Prichard. Promising to transform the great man’s deeds into history, his strange ideas into wisdom for the ages, the Newseum is the sort of project that will someday be mandatory for retiring megalomaniacs.

In keeping with Neuharth’s peculiarly populist megalomania, the Newseum has banished the elitist devices of the traditional museum, all the formal traces of the patriarchal, the pompous, the pontificating. Its curving, open-ceilinged halls are filled with working video equipment, interpreters for the deaf, and computer stations on which people can try their hands at reporting and editing.

An introductory Newseum filmstrip declares: “We’re all reporters, because each of us tells stories.” Mastheads from our hometowns help situate us on the “News Globe”; headlines from our dates of birth tell us who we are. The press is your pal, we learn. The press is you. In fact, the press is your memory, your consciousness, your conscience. Screens scattered throughout the history exhibits reminds us of those journalistic moments—almost all of them disasters of one sort or another—that are increasingly all we have in common as a nation. Here Walter Cronkite announces the death of JFK; there Frank Reynolds briefly loses his cool while announcing the shooting of Reagan; and over in a corner falls a little hailstorm of emotional news moments from more recent years: an endlessly repeating pitter-pat of “We interrupt this program” and announcements that “Princess Diana [pause] has died”; an exciting hijacking and baby Jessica caught in a well; glimpses of parents realizing that their daughter has exploded with the space shuttle, of the screen going blank as Scuds fall on Israel.

Strangely, almost every one of these episodes ranks, for less ecstatic critics, among American journalism’s all-time lows. But at the Newseum there is no sense of shame or even acknowledgment of such criticism. Quite the opposite: Here these poignant moments of reporter-audience closeness are presented as the crowning glories of a centuries-long struggle against tyranny. It’s a tendency one notices again and again here. While the Newseum’s facade is all open-ended and egalitarian, the handful of serious points it makes are hammered home in a style so Whiggishly presumptuous that one might as well be learning about the advance of empire or the conversion of savages. The “News History Gallery,” the museum’s serious (and at times impressive) collection of historical artifacts, is as bombastic a tale of Progress and its millionaire heroes as anything invented by the commissars in their heyday. Beginning from the earliest colonial publications, and taking us through the rise of yellow journalism and the twentieth century tabloids, the gallery deposits us neatly before the USA Today exhibit (“The Newspaper is Reinvented”), the story of the media conglomerates, and the endless loop of Jessica, Challenger, and [pause] Diana, a fabulous now in which the emotional needs of The People are seen to efficiently. Just ahead lies “interactivity,” the cultural-democratic New Jerusalem where authorial voice is finally dissolved in the ecstatic communion of journalist and audience. Pulitzer, Hearst, Neuharth, You.

Assuming you are among that vast majority of Americans who regard journalists with contempt, and can therefore see right through such stuff, the Newseum has an even more compelling narrative to offer: The heroic tale of the press as selfless champion of democracy, as an ever-advancing libertarian tide whose flow cannot be impeded and whose every move is a step forward for We the People. “Information is where liberty starts,” intones the narrator of the introductory filmstrip, and the theme continues as one follows the glorious march of historical progress. Tyrants try to suppress press; but press suppresses tyrants. The invention of the moving-picture camera, for example, brings forth this astonishingly counterfactual remark: “The citizens now know they have a powerful ally in the hunt for the truth.” But in the hands of the Newseum’s curators, obviously concerned to make the point about the goodness of journalists as hard to miss as possible, the story rapidly descends from the enlightening—there is actually an exhibit on W.E.B. Du Bois’s magazine The Crisis—to a mawkish obsession with the persecution of journalists, as though that alone were enough to establish their essential decency. A rather irrelevant quotation in which Thomas Jefferson mentions both “freedom of the press” and “martyrdom” appears on pamphlets and an outside wall. Scenes of Dan Rather in China are accompanied by the solemn observation that “Reporters have been censored, jailed, sometimes killed for doing their job.” One exhibit lingers libidinally over the physical dangers faced by reporters during the Gulf War (presumably as they were shuttled around in those closely chaperoned army pools).

an erected statue

Those who still doubt the democratic commitment of the press can visit “Freedom Park,” a collection of weather-proof souvenirs of The Struggle mounted next to a sidewalk outside: One relic each from the fights for women’s suffrage, civil rights, and the battles against Nazis and apartheid, and no fewer than three from the war against Communism. None of them have much to do with journalism, of course, but T-shirts depicting the inspiring objects can be purchased in the Newseum store, along with copies of Al Neuharth’s memoirs, still clean and full-priced although published nearly eight years ago and readily available in thrift stores nationwide.

When a Fortune 500 company (or its prodigal philanthropic stepchild) takes up public moaning about persecution, one is permitted a little skepticism. And the Newseum’s historiography is suspicious stuff indeed, oblivious to vast regions of the American experience even as it goes out of its way to hail the achievements of just about every approved social or political struggle. As told by the News History Gallery, the march of liberty includes feminism and the civil rights movement, the fights against Hitler and communism, dozens of individual battles against racism and sexism, and victory after victory for champions of free speech. It makes no mention—none—of the fight for the eight-hour day and for the right of workers to unionize in the last century, or of the various reforms won by labor in this century, or of which side “our” friendly “media companies” were on in those struggles. And the closer one looks the more apparent this erasure becomes: William Allen White is lauded for opposing the Klan and for supporting free speech, but his Progressivism somehow never comes up. The Masses makes it into the museum because it was “banned from the mail for opposing U.S. participation in World War I,” but the logic of its opposition is not discussed. The Newspaper Guild, which represents reporters and editors at any number of American newspapers, is mentioned only in a short bio of its founder, Heywood Broun. And “working class” is used almost exclusively as a demographic notation, as in its “relish” for tabloids and affinity for certain Hearst columnists.

Like other Washington edifices, the Newseum is an exercise in patriotic instruction, an easily absorbed lesson in Why We’re So Darn Good.

The Newseum’s consistent evasion of class is part of a more sinister reticence about the seamier side of the trade. The chronic journalistic problem of keeping editorial separate from business, for example, no doubt familiar to veterans of any Gannett paper, is mentioned nowhere. The “Ethics Center,” where one may grapple with “the difficult choices faced by journalists every day” (typical dilemma: how to cover a wheelchair-bound president), fails to discuss how one might deal with the misdeeds of a local business that advertises in your paper. Even the exhibit on conglomerates, while acknowledging that the Culture Trust has been criticized, invokes the tired Press vs. Tyranny canard in this remarkable bit of casuistry: “Executives say the size of their corporations helps them stand up to governments that would control news.” It’s a view of liberty that consistently understands “freedom” as a thing wrung from an inherently repressive state by inherently liberating media corporations: That liberty might have an economic dimension, that the corporations themselves might sometimes be repressive and the state liberating is simply left out, as though contrary to the physical laws of the universe.

But then the goal here is hardly to mount a complex analysis of society. Like other Washington edifices, the Newseum is an exercise in patriotic instruction, an easily absorbed lesson in Why We’re So Darn Good. The point isn’t to condemn the state on a specific list of charges, but to drive home the underlying principle of recent press theory: We, too, are the state. You may despise us, and we may even be slipping into obsolescence, but the checking and balancing of the news media are as critical to the preserving of nice moderate moderation as are all those other purveyors of museums—from the U.S. Postal Service to the Supreme Court—on the other side of the Potomac.

Other troubled industries have also confronted their persecutors by symbolically comparing themselves to the state (as bankers did in the late twenties), but one exhibit at the Newseum manages to top them all in its desperate bid for gravitas. On a gray concrete bridge between the Newseum and the USA Today building stands the “Journalists Memorial,” a steel-and-glass monument to newspapermen, cameramen, and TV announcers killed in the line of duty. Like the Vietnam Memorial on the National Mall, its centerpiece is a bogglingly comprehensive tally of inscribed names, the sheer number of dead journalists impressing visitors with the magnitude of the fourth estate’s sacrifices. Otherwise, though, it is the Vietnam Memorial’s opposite: Colorful and fully above-ground rather than pitch-black and sunken, it immediately calls to mind the curiously durable inverse relationship, in public opinion, between the military and the press since the publication of the Pentagon Papers—or since the moment cynical newspaperman David Janssen dared to question John Wayne’s war in The Green Berets.

Today, of course, the tables are turned: As Al Neuharth pointed out in a recent column, journalists are hated now while soldiers—always imagined these days as a cross between Schwarzeneggerian powerboys and victimized subalterns, kicking ass with a tear in their eye—are revered. Maybe Al came up with the idea for the Journalists Memorial (it certainly bears the earmarks of a Neuharth project) in a poll-inspired epiphany, after poring one long, grim night over the figures that revealed how right-thinking Americans now hold not the long-suffering Nam vet but the reviled newsman responsible for losing that fine war—and maybe the idea of building the Cenotaph of the Fallen Scribe just flashed through his mind, like all his other bits of monumental aggrandizement must have done: the plan for the cross-country bus ride, the discovery that he needed to hire his own pollster (in fact the very one who, he recalls in his memoirs, helped “Jack” Kennedy win “crucial primaries”), the stratagem by which astronaut Alan Shepard was persuaded to take a copy of a Gannett newspaper to the moon, or the inspired decision to enclose with each copy of his Confessions a campaign-style button bearing his smiling visage and announcing both that you love and hate that darn SOB.

The Journalists Memorial also calls to mind the Tribune Tower in Chicago, where chunks of stone from other world-class piles (the Great Pyramid, the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China) stud its fake-Gothic facade and lend world classness to a publication that, in Colonel McCormick’s heyday, broke all existing records for abusive boorishness. The masters of USA Today, of course, are press lords of a different kind; they preside over a whirling interactive democracy in which The People have long since dispensed with the monoliths of high culture, and their symbolic needs are understandably different. The Gannettoids don’t need reminders of Glorious Pastness to sanctify their mission, but a colossal list of names, of martyrs from different faiths, countries, and centuries, all of them rounded up and plunked down a few steps from the USA Today building, as though this were it, as though 30 percent profits, full-color weather maps, a union-free workplace, and nationwide access to the staccato banalities of Al Neuharth were the great causes for which each of them died.

While examining the Journalists Memorial I try to imagine for a minute what goes on here during the day, how the prosperous Gannettoids who inhabit these buildings must come out on this bridge to eat their lunches, how they must sit here next to this monument to the fallen and chew their focaccio and envy each other’s company rings and cellphones and subtly rolled collars … and then it occurs to me: It is day. And yet there is nobody here. The sky is gray. The street is gray. The building housing the Newseum is gray. No pedestrians walk the streets; no faces peer out from behind the mirrored glass windows of the surrounding office blocks. So fabricated is the landscape that one can’t even be sure when, exactly, one stands on terra firma: The people who do occasionally appear walk back and forth on enclosed pedestrian bridges where their tasseled loafers might never encounter the elements; cars creep sporadically in and out of concealed underground parking garages; nearby a concrete church is built over a concrete filling station; and just a few blocks down from the Newseum lurks what must be the world’s only underground Safeway, hewn from the solid concrete, its only entrance emptying into yet another parking garage.

It is a curious place for the nation’s only monument to journalism’s fallen. Why not New York or Chicago, where the frenzied babel of daily journalism gave rise to what little literature we have managed to produce; or at least Detroit, where one of the last great newspaper wars raged until none other than Gannett entered the scene and turned the war on the workers instead? How did it come to pass that this city, whose journalistic contributions have ranged from despicable apologias for the naked exercise of imperial power (Alsop, Pegler) to unspeakable foolishness (George Will, Fred Barnes), is permitted to lay claim to the names of Elijah Lovejoy and Ernie Pyle? Maybe, though, the Journalists Memorial is less a monument than a funeral pyre, a symbolic flame of pink- and orange-colored glass wherein all those dead journalists, those prairie crusaders and abolitionist Jeremiahs, burn now for USA Today. Maybe Arlington is where journalism has come to die, in a place as distant as could be found from the urban maelstrom and the rural anger that once nourished it, within easy reach of the caves of state, sunk deep in the pockets of corporate power, here where busloads of glassy-eyed, well-dressed high schoolers from the affluent suburbs of northern Virginia can play anchorman on its grave.

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[*]Unfortunately, it’s also a wrong notion. A 1995 Times Mirror poll found that fully 77 percent of the public rated the honesty and ethics of public officials as low, while only 40 percent of journalists believed the same. If journalists were to faithfully represent the views of the public they serve, as the tenets of public journalism seem to mandate they do, they would have to become more cynical, not less.

[**]In February 1998, Gannett paid the owners of the Nashville Banner, an afternoon paper competing with its Nashville Tennessean, a reported $65 million simply to close their paper down. Prior to this, advertising space in both papers had been sold jointly, according to a joint operating agreement and based on the two papers’ combined circulation. Now one of the papers is no more, but, according to Henry Walker of the Nashville Scene, ad prices have still not been lowered.

Thomas Frank is a political analyst, historian, journalist and columnist for Salon. He is a former columnist for the Wall Street Journal, authoring “The Tilting Yard” from 2008 to 2010, and a founding editor of The Baffler. He is the author of a number of books, most notably What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2004). His newest book is Listen, Liberal.

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 April 17

Or, put it this way: Paul Ryan went out onto the tightrope. The crowd, so long adoring their golden child, cheered. But a jester got the best of Ryan.