The Chain Gangs


NEWSPAPERS--and the media in general--have an enormous sway over public opinion. They provide information on political candidates; they hand out advice on how to stand on political issues. Newspapers and television are the political educators of the people. Yet, at the same time, newspapers rake in the kind of profits that would make the president of General Motors jealous. The Washington Post Co., which owns Newsweek, the Washington Post and several other newspapers, is one of the biggest corporations in the United States. Other chains such as Knight-Ridder, Gannet, or the Murdoch chain gross enormous amounts of revenue totalling hundreds of millions of dollars.

The fact that newspapers are money-making ventures must be considered in light of the special position to which they have been relegated in the United States. Newspapers have a history of taking editorial positions with righteous indignation. There is a feeling among journalists--especially in the post-Woodstein era--that they have a responsibility to ferret out malfeasance and expose iniquity. This strident posturing has had an effect. Despite the grumblings of the public, newspapers are widely respected, or at least read. The press is protected, more or less, by the First Amendment, which states that Congress may make no law limiting its power. Over the years, newspapers have had ample opportunity to laud their own humanitarian accomplishments. Thousands of editorials have appeared in dailies throughout the country touting the primacy of freedom of the press in a political system. The recent battery of editorials condemning the Supreme Court for its ruling that newspapers are not above the law illustrates the determination with which the press attempts to protect its sanctified status. Nowhere but America is the press so pervasive and respected; nowhere is the media business so lucrative.

Rarely is the subjective censoring of opinions--both on the front page and the editorial page--of a newspaper apparent to the innocent eye. The process works in a variety of subtle ways. For instance: A newspaper is struggling fiercely with a new competitor. The paper is just barely in the black--mainly because of the munificence of a few established businesses in the groups boycott these established businesses community which have decided to stick with the old paper. Suddenly the city's minority groups boycott these established businesses in protest of discriminatory hiring practices. The progressive editorial board wants to publish an editorial condemning these businesses and supporting the boycott. But the publisher--at the instruction of the chairman of the board of the corporation that runs the paper--informs the editor that he will do no such thing, for the businesses that are being boycotted have threatened to take their advertising to the competition. Instead of an editorial supporting the boycott, there appears a skillfully crafted "objective" opinion on why the boycott is unfair and reprehensible. This happens far more than people outside the profession would tend to believe.

WITH THE ADVENT of giant newspaper chains owned by public corporations, there is a chance for more freedom for editorial boards from the shackles of the money-makers. The chains work on the basic premise that the greater the extent of the division of labor in the newspaper business, the more efficient production becomes. Consequently, this specialization decreases the contact between the business and the editorial employees, allowing the latter more freedom. The corporate leaders of these chains have so far been relatively content to let the editor have the final say on all news and editorial matters, while the president and general manager of the newspaper have the final say for advertising and circulation concerns. Since newspapers that win Pulitzer prizes by digging up city hall scandals usually sell well, everyone's happy--as in the case of many Knight-Ridder papers. But this is not always the case, as the Rupert Murdoch papers demonstrate.

But even with the large chains, which are inexorably destined to take over the newspaper business, the chairmen of the board direct editorial content, although in a more subtle fashion. Rarely does an editor working for a chain newspaper receive a direct order to take certain stands on an issue. Instead the censorship occurs a priori-- when the editor is hired. The businessmen who run the corporation hire the editors who run the papers and write the editorials. Selecting an editor is an elaborate affair: The corporate leaders are careful to pick just their kind of guy and are willing spend many hours over lunch, at cocktail parties and conducting intense face-to-face interviews deciding who qualifies under this dubious rubric. The men who run large newspaper chains tend to share the corporate mentality that one develops when one is wealthy, powerful and free from the restraints of the government to make as much money as one can. They are typically profoundly anti-government and anti-socialist. And they have no penchant for hiring editors who have strongly divergent views to offer the millions of Americans who turn to newspapers for political guidance.


If, however, inextricable, ideological links between the people who own newspaper chains and those they hire presently exist media conglomeration spawns new potential for news and editorial independence from business. This power comes from the increasingly more organized unions of news and editorial writers. Just as in other industries, centralization of newspaper ownership has led employees to heightened awareness of their own vulnerability. But so far, these unions have failed to realize their promise. The news reporters and editorial writers belong to a mammoth newspaper guild that covers linotype operators, want-ad salesmen, shop foremen, etc. Consequently, the union deals strictly with what its various members have in common such as health benefits, vacation time automatic pay increases, and other work issues that have traditionally concerned labor unions.

CERTAIN MANAGEMENT policies, status concerns on the part of reporters, and fundamental conflicts of interest between reporters and other newspaper employees impede the progress of unions of writers and editors. Owners of both individual newspapers and large chains have undermined the unity of news and editorial writers' guilds by splitting news and editorial departments in half. The underlings are designated by contract as members of the huge newspaper guild, while the city editors, editorial page editors, and assistant managing editors are positioned under the status-label of "management." The owners play off the desire reporters have both for the status of a management position and the greater salary that tags along. The related conflict between news and editorial writers and the men who work the presses is shown in the recent newspaper strikes. Newswriters are removed from the threat of mechanization and have much less to lose from recent technological innovations. They tend to side with management on this issue. This psychological victory for the owners and managers abets their desire to prevent news and editorial writers from seeking alternatives to news and editorial control.

The extent to which a newspaper chain gives its editors freedom to print what they want varies greatly among the chains that have emerged over the past few decades. Some chains enforce set dress codes and dispatch centrally written editorial columns that must run in all its publications. Other chains take pains to maintain the utmost respect for the opinions of its editors. In all cases, however, the bottom line totals dollars and cents, not editorial excellence. If a paper removes itself so far editorially from its subscribers and advertisers that financial repercussions occur, the business experts will most assuredly intervene for the sake of corporate survival. Consequently, newspapers must reflect, to a large degree, the thoughts and opinions of their readers, regardless of the ideologies of newspaper owners or editors. But somewhere along the line, newspapers are able to exercise a fair amount of control of opinion. In these cases, it is necessary to know just who has editorial control over such a powerful industry.