I read the anguished valedictories to our sinking newspaper industry, the calls for some sort of government bailout or subsidy, with mounting incredulity. It’s like hearing the witches in Macbeth evoked as if they were the beautiful Aphrodite and her rivals vying for the judgment of Paris. Sonorous phrases about “public service” mingle with fearful yelps about the “dramatically diminished version of democracy” that looms over America if the old corporate print press goes the way of the steam engine. In The Nation recently, John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney quavered that “as journalists are laid off and newspapers cut back or shut down, whole sectors of our civic life go dark” and that “journalism is collapsing, and with it comes the most serious threat in our lifetimes to self-government and the rule of law as it has been understood here in the United States.”
I came to America in 1973 to the Village Voice, which Dan Wolf, Ed Fancher and Norman Mailer founded in 1955 to bring light to those whole sectors of civic life kept in darkness by the major newspapers of the day, starting with the New York Times. As a tot I’d been given bracing tutorials about the paradigms of journalism and class power by my father, Claud, who’d founded his newsletter The Week in the 1930s as counterbalance to the awful mainstream coverage. From Europe I’d already been writing for Kopkind and Ridgeway’s Hard Times and also for Ramparts, respectively a newsletter and a monthly founded–like much of the old underground press–to compensate for the ghastly mainstream coverage of the upheavals of the ’60s and the Vietnam War.
In other words, any exacting assessment of the actual performance of newspapers rated against the twaddle about the role of the Fourth Estate spouted by publishers and editors at their annual conventions would be a negative verdict in every era. Of course, there have been moments when a newspaper or a reporter could make fair claims to have done a decent job, inevitably eradicated by a panicky proprietor, a change in ownership, advertiser pressure, eviction of some protective editor or summary firing of the enterprising reporter. By and large, down the decades, the mainstream newspapers have–often rabidly–obstructed and sabotaged efforts to improve our social and political condition.
In an earlier time writers like Mencken and Hecht and Liebling loved newspapers, but the portentous claims for their indispensable role would have made them hoot with derision, as they did the columnist Bernard Levin, decrying in the Times of London at the start of the 1980s the notion of a “responsible press”: “we are, and must remain, vagabonds and outlaws, for only by so remaining shall we be able to keep the faith by which we live, which is the pursuit of knowledge that others would like unpursued, and the making of comment that others would prefer unmade.”
But, of course, most publishers and journalists are not vagabonds and outlaws, any more than are the profs at journalism schools or the jurors and “boards” servicing the racket known as the Pulitzer industry. What the publishers were after was a 20 percent rate of return, a desire that prompts great respect for “the rule of law,” if such laws assist in the achievement of that goal. In 1970 this meant coercing Congress to pass the Newspaper Preservation Act of 1970, exempting newspapers from antitrust sanctions against price fixing in a given market. Nixon signed the law and was duly rewarded with profuse editorial endorsements in 1972.
The early and mid-1970s saw a brief flare-up of investigative zeal. But not long after Nixon had been sent packing, Katharine Graham, boss of the Washington Post Company, used the occasion of the annual meeting of the Newspaper Publishers Association to issue a public warning to reporters not to get any uppity ideas about shining too intrusive a searchlight on the way the system works: “The press these days should…be rather careful about its role…. We had better not yield to the temptation to…see conspiracy and cover-up where they do not exist.” As Jeffrey St. Clair and I pointed out in our prophetic End Times: The Death of the Fourth Estate, citing this speech, who wanted ugly talk about conspiracy and cover-up when there were broadcasting licenses to be OK’d by the FCC?
South of me in Mendocino County, California, is the Anderson Valley Advertiser, a weekly edited by my friend Bruce Anderson. I’ve written a column for it for more than twenty years. The AVA does everything a newspaper should do. It covers the county board of supervisors, the court system, the cops, water issues, the marijuana industry. It’s fun to read and reminds people of what a real newspaper should be, which is why half its circulation is outside the county, often on the other end of the United States. The AVA‘s masthead motto: Joseph Pulitzer’s “A newspaper should have no friends.”
I asked Bruce, “Do you like these bailout ideas?” “No, I don’t,” he said. “I don’t even want them to rest in peace. Why? They don’t do any local reporting and haven’t for about twenty-five years. I’m talking here about the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, owned by the New York Times Company, and the San Francisco Chronicle.
“With the drought upon us here on the North Coast the Press Democrat has yet to run a coherent account of how precarious our water supplies and delivery systems are. Why? They might get objections from the building industry and the wine industry, on which they’re almost totally dependent for advertising these days.
“They don’t cover the way the place is run and for whom it’s run. That is, the board of supervisors, the boards of education, the water districts–all of which we regularly cover with a staff, too. The Chronicle no longer serves any function. It’s a museum running reprints of Herb Caen and Art Hoppe.”
Does this remind you of a paper near you? Weep not for yesterday’s papers, for the old Fourth Estate. At almost every critical hour, in every decade, it failed us.
Unnatural Born Killer
On May 6 Johanna Justin-Jinich, a Wesleyan University student, was gunned down in the school’s bookstore, almost certainly by 29-year-old Stephen Morgan. My daughter is a senior at Wesleyan, and so I got to see part of the aftermath close up: young people stunned, scared, in tears, confined to their rooms because Morgan was still loose. News accounts make Justin-Jinich seem outstanding in many ways: altruistic, brilliant, full of life, much loved. But in one way, she was far from unusual. She was a woman killed by a man because she was a woman.
We are so used to violence against women we don’t even notice how used to it we are. When we’re not persuading ourselves that women are just as violent toward men as vice versa if you forget about who ends up seriously injured or dead, or pointing out that most murders are of men by men, we persuade ourselves that violence against women just comes up out of nowhere. Murder is serious, especially if the victim is young, white, middle-class, pretty; harassment, abuse, domestic violence, even rape, not so much. After all, as I’m writing, I read that Houston, taking a leaf from Sarah Palin’s Wasilla, is requiring rape victims to pay for the processing of their rape kits. Los Angeles has a backlog of 12,669 unprocessed rape kits, some so old the crimes have exceeded the statute of limitations. It’s controversial to even use terms like “misogyny” and “male privilege” to explain the prevalence of these crimes and the shameful inadequacy of our social and legal response to them. And if you really want to be branded a square and a prude, try talking about the hatred and contempt for, and objectification of, women that permeates pop culture.
Before Morgan allegedly murdered Justin-Jinich, he stalked her. After the two took the same summer course at NYU in 2007, he made repeated “unwanted” “insulting” phone calls and sent her thirty-eight hostile e-mails (“You’re going to have a lot more problems down the road if you can’t take any [expletive] criticism, Johanna”–a threat that has “I deserve to control and punish you, bitch” written all over it). The story gets a little unclear here: Justin-Jinich went to campus authorities, who referred her to the police, but like most victims, she declined to prosecute, and Morgan left town before he could be served with an order of protection. So, a situation important enough to warrant at least some legal intervention just vanished when the stalker moved away. “There was no way to foresee the sudden, nightmarish sequel,” writes Robert McFadden in the New York Times. Really?
Stalking is a serious crime and a common one. According to a 2009 Bureau of Justice Statistics report, about 3.4 million people, 74 percent of them female, said they had been stalked in a single year. Being stalked can derail a life: victims not only live in fear, they can lose their job, be forced to drop out or change schools, move. Not all stalkers become killers, of course, but some do. Seung Hui-Cho stalked two women before he went on to massacre thirty-two people at Virginia Tech. Moreover, killing a woman can be just the first step in larger plans of mayhem. It’s quite striking, actually, how many mass murderers–almost always men–begin their sprees by killing their wife, ex-wife (as in Corvino, California), girlfriend or even their mother, as one man did in Samson, Alabama; rage at an impending divorce is a popular motive in courtroom attacks, as in a 2005 case in Atlanta. Morgan’s diary detailed his plans to follow up by murdering Jews and shooting up the Wesleyan campus.
Violence against women isn’t the only blind spot in this case. For many reasons–from family denial to fears of Big Brother–America doesn’t deal well with people who have mental or emotional problems. Stephen Morgan, who came from a well-off family in Marblehead, Massachusetts, was weird for a long time. He had no friends at St. John’s Preparatory School, where a classmate described him as a “creepy loner,” or in the Navy, where he spent four years. After his honorable discharge in 2003, he barraged one fellow seaman with crazy, angry phone calls. The police advised this victim to change his phone number; the calls stopped; that was that. Morgan was an anti-Semite; he refused to sell his house to a Vietnamese couple; he doesn’t seem to have had a steady job, a social circle, roots, plans or interests. His family must have been worried about him, but so far as we know, nobody got him psychiatric care.
Of course mental health treatment is not a panacea, but don’t you wonder what would have happened if somewhere along the way Morgan had gotten some help? He wasn’t living on a desert island; many, many people experienced his strange vibes and their effects, including some who could have pushed him toward treatment but didn’t. For eight years of his life he was either in high school or the Navy–did either institution say to him, “You need therapy”? Our frayed and underfunded mental health system shows how little we expect from care: the National Alliance on Mental Illness calls our system “disastrous” and gives it a D. State after state has cut its mental-healthcare budget in recent years, including Massachusetts, where Morgan was living at home before taking his Czech-made 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistol from the box under his bed and setting out to kill Justin-Jinich.
Oh right, guns. The other boring, predictable part of the story. We’ve rather given up on gun control, haven’t we? You know the line: the passion’s on the other side, NRA, big political boner-killer for the Democrats, won’t make much difference anyway. The Million Mom March is so 2000. Results: in 2006, the most recent year for which there are statistics, 30,896 people died from gun violence–including 12,791 murders–and 14,678 were injured.
A woman-obsessed stalker with a mind full of hate who gets his hands on a gun. No, there’s no way anyone could have foreseen that he would kill, is there?