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To hell with the AJC -- and CL

Who is the villain in the sad state of politics? Maybe it's us


Buried by the political news that followed the Nov. 5 drubbing of Democrats was a back-of-the-business-section story in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The newspaper acknowledged that it had lost 6 percent of its circulation in the last year. It didn't mention that this is another tumble down a decades-long slide.

The newspaper found a variety of reasons to explain its failure -- primarily that some subscription discounts were no longer offered. It didn't admit that the newspaper industry loosened rules about counting largely unpaid, promotional copies as "paid," which should have boosted the AJC's numbers. Nor did the Cox paper -- which once bragged that it covered Dixie like the dew -- even hint that its own philosophy and strategy might be at fault.

There's an irony that this news accompanied the Democrats' electoral ignominy. The very-unlikely-to-be-seen-by-most-readers circulation article in no way draws a connection between the Democrats and the AJC's failure to attract and retain readers. Yet not only are the two events similar -- the loss of critical support by both the newspaper and the Democrats -- but I'd argue they're related.

Newspapers, and the media in general, used to be battlegrounds where politicians and ideologies vigorously fought for the public's approval. A century ago, most cities boasted a stable of newspapers, each of a different political stripe. The press was doggedly opinionated, and in the clash, citizens learned what candidates and parties -- as well as the various newspapers -- stood for.

Moreover, the press not only revealed political fault lines, but underlying social divisions. Ed Larson, a University of Georgia professor who authored a book on the Scopes "monkey" trial, points out that newspapers once vigorously reported the sermons of a town's preachers. Now, although newspapers have inoffensive religion sections, you'd be hard-pressed to find out what denominations and ministers really believe. Theology is, well, controversial, and that's strictly verboten in papers such as the AJC.

"There's an alternative culture out there in the churches," Larson says, "that only makes itself apparent at election time or with education. That's what the press totally missed" during the fall election campaigns.

Why the press misses such things, and why, I'd argue, the pitiful AJC has lost almost 140,000 subscribers in the last decade -- a plunge of 26 percent -- is that it stands for nothing, reflects no essential values, and is fixated only on its bottom line.

So, too, the Democrats have no message, the party had ceased to stand for anything relevant to voters, and all that mattered to its leaders was fundraising.

Here in Georgia, the Democrats and the AJC moved in seeming lockstep as they shed those qualities that had once made them both great. The fortunes of both were interwoven. Gov. Roy Barnes faithfully served the corporate agenda as enunciated by the AJC, and the paper and its top execs bestowed endorsements and money on their governor. And, as I pointed out two weeks ago, when Barnes got himself in deep shit with a thoughtless statement about dead kids, the Cox bosses tried to squelch news of the imbroglio.

Why should Georgia voters trust the endorsements of the AJC? There is no definition on its pages. It panders to the ultra-right with William Safire (who at least has brains), Bill O'Reilly (who doesn't) and Jim Wooten (a Republican shill). That phalanx edges out, by space and placement, the few moderates, such as Cynthia Tucker and Jay Bookman. The editorials are ho-hummers, for the most part, and the paper is more concerned with achieving "balance" (hard to do when you start from a far-right tilt) than with saying anything.

In short, the paper's opinion pages are a mess -- just like the Democrats.

But news reporting -- not just at the AJC but at almost all American dailies -- is equally bad, lacking skepticism and initiative.

Did you expect that, prior to the election, the press would help you sort through what Democrat and GOP policies really are? Forget it. Newspapers are deathly afraid of complexities. Whether war, tax cuts or the competing prescription drug plans, the media reject in-depth analysis. Citizens are fed only pabulum. It's safe to be unthinkingly jingoistic. It's risky to note administration fibs.

On some issues, such as Iraq, the press parrots whatever the Bush-Cheney junta claims -- even when reporters must know they're being sandbagged with falsehoods. On other matters -- tax cuts, the economy -- the message is mixed, lightweight and inconsequential. On the claims by politicians, only a rare story culls reality from spin.

That leaves the electorate at the mercy of soundbites, which are very, very profitable to the TV networks and stations. And with ever more consolidation of the media, the same faceless boardroom manipulators who declare that their newspapers should be Journalism Lite know such policies help fatten their broadcast properties.

Keep in mind that Cox, along with its corporate kin, are vigorously pushing the Bush administration to tear down the few remaining restraints that ensure multiple media voices. (Actually, you probably won't keep that in mind, since the AJC and other dailies seldom report on their industry's machinations, and almost never tell more than a barebones CYA version of the story.) With billions of dollars riding on the good will of the Bushies, do you really think the media magnates want their scribes to be "aggressive" about administration policies and war plans? Could you conceive of the press lords allowing their serfs to unravel the corporate corruption that is inextricably fused to the White House?

And, as the number of media owners grows smaller, the motivation for bland news and unquestioning support of the status quo increases. (Cox is one of the big ones, with the company sprawling over print, broadcast and cable industries. Each of the two family heiresses is worth $9.5 billion, according to the Forbes 400 this year, a fact not reported by the servile AJC.)

As Neil Hickey of the Columbia Journalism Review wrote earlier this year: "That some transnational company that knows little and cares less about your community, and whose main allegiance is to its stockholders and advertisers, will own your local daily and weekly newspapers, all your television and radio stations, the cable system, the Internet service provider, several of the national networks that serve you... that would allow endless cross-promotion of the owner's interests, and probably very little hard news."

Mea culpa, mea culpa.

While I'm trashing the AJC, I guess I should send a few darts in the direction of my paycheck provider. In case you didn't notice, our editorial endorsements varied only slightly from the AJC's. That's hardly alternative.

I'll argue that the only intelligent analysis of the extremist record of Saxby Chambliss was provided by CL's Kevin Griffis. And we took the time to inject a few principles into our coverage and pontificating.

But to call us "altie" is sort of a stretch. We preferred to be "relevant" and endorse Barnes. We hardly even hinted that voters should consider mooning the political "duopoly" and voting for a third party.

Worst of all, we got all puffed up at our own importance when all of the politicians -- whether indictable or merely unscrupulous -- paid attention to us.

Hell, what's sad is that even endorsing Sonny Perdue would have been a good "alternative" newspaper response to the tired, slutty politics of Barnes.

The "alternative" press has long ago forgotten its roots as the "underground" press that championed civil rights and challenged the media lies during the Vietnam War. Now our raison d'etre is, as at the AJC, cash flow -- not The Truth.

Indeed, the "alternatives" have become so formula-driven that the dailies -- in cities such as Chicago and Miami -- have come out with imitations whose soullessness is only slightly more vacuous than our clan of papers.

John Lombardi, a fire-in-the-belly columnist at Miami's New Times, slapped at our industry last month, declaring that the nation's alternatives are "sounding more and more like the big dailies and monolithic weeklies (Time, Newsweek). Completing the absorption, the alternatives' sober young staffers produce dense, institutional reporting (like Time and Newsweek did before they got hip!) that mostly ... appears to have been written in smokeless rooms with PC flags fluttering in the recycled air-conditioning."

The people who own and run the CL papers in Atlanta, Tampa, Sarasota and Charlotte (and I'm part of the cabal) are still driven by a passion for civic affairs and progressive politics. It's just that we forget that passion occasionally. To find a truly "alternative" endorsement in Georgia for the last election, I had to keep searching until I read The Flagpole, the gutsy weekly in Athens. Editor Brad Aaron endorsed Green Party candidate Nan Garrett for governor.

"It's not the lesser of three evils," he said of Garrett. "It's more like we have an alternative."

Damn, after having participated in editorial self-flagellation in helping pick a lesser evil, I wish I had had Aaron's epiphany. u

Senior Editor John Sugg, who loves to bite the hand that feeds him, can be reached at 404-614-1241 or at

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