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2005-03-14

Pulitzer Prize-Winning Journalist Laurie Garrett Quits Newsday: "When You See News As a Product...It’s Impossible To Really Serve Democracy"

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We speak with Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Laurie Garrett, who resigned from Newsday and ripped the paper’s parent company, the Tribune Company, for putting profit over quality journalism. Garrett says, "If you trim back your staff, if you trim back your costs, and you put out a lower quality product, your stock value goes up. All across the news industry, we have seen this same phenomenon." [includes rush transcript]

Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Laurie Garrett made headlines last week when she resigned from New York Newsday–where she had worked since 1988.

In a blistering memo to her colleagues at the paper, she ripped Newsday’s parent company–the Tribune Company–for putting profit over quality journalism. In the memo announcing that she is going to work full time at the Council on Foreign Relations, she wrote that "All across America news organizations have been devoured by massive corporations–and allegiance to stockholders, the drive for higher share prices, and push for larger dividend returns trumps everything that the grunts in the newsrooms consider their missions." She went on to write, "This is terrible for democracy. I have been in 47 states of the USA since 9/11, and I can attest to the horrible impact the deterioration of journalism has had on the national psyche. I have found America a place of great and confused fearfulness."

She continues: "It would be easy to descend into despair, not only about the state of journalism, but the future of American democracy. But giving up is not an option. There is too much at stake."

Laurie Garrett joins us today in our studio. She is the author of "The Coming Plague and Betrayal of Trust." She won a Pulitzer Prize in 1996 for her reporting on the Ebola virus. She’s also won a Polk Award and a Peabody and was finalist for another Pulitzer in 1998.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s let Laurie Garrett speak for herself. She joins us in our firehouse studio. She is author of The Coming Plague and Betrayal of Trust. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1996 for her reporting on the Ebola virus. She has also won the George Polk Award, a Peabody, and was a finalist for yet another Pulitzer in 1998. We welcome you to Democracy Now!

LAURIE GARRETT: Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us. So, you are leaving Newsday. Can you talk about your decision?

LAURIE GARRETT: Well, you know, I — first of all, I have to say that I deeply admire my colleagues. I already miss them terribly, and I feel great regret about having to leave Newsday. It’s been a fantastic home for a long time and a place where I could do a lot of journalism that — I’m not sure there were very many other outlets that might have supported my work. And I have certain editors I admire very, very deeply at Newsday. The top of the list would be Les Payne, who I think is just one of the great consciences of American journalism. But we have been through so much at Newsday over the last decade, and I should add, our sister papers, the Los Angeles Times, the Baltimore Sun, the Hartford Courant, and so on, we have all been through such corporate machinations and taken such hits that — ten years ago we had a circulation of well over a million. We had a tremendous impact in New York City, so much so that The New York Times was scared to dickens and was actually beefing up its coverage of the city, which now it seems to almost ignore most of the time. And The Daily News and The New York Post were both terrified. We had a routine of garnering Pulitzer Prizes year after year. And we had some of the most creative foreign coverage you were likely to see in any major daily newspaper. And today, the last data I was privy to, which may be out of date, Newsday was down to about 400,000 readers — that’s a loss of, you know, somewhere between 700,000 and 800,000 readers — and has a very low profile in New York City and is a shadow of its former self. And it has all been a series of terrible cuts done to the institution for the sake of the bottom line, the stock price of first Times Mirror stock, and then when Tribune bought out Times Mirror, of Tribune stock.

AMY GOODMAN: How did it happen? Who was brought in, and how have the people like you in the newsroom fared?

LAURIE GARRETT: Well, you know, it has been an unbelievably demoralizing set of situations. When I first joined Newsday in 1988 we had this amazing presence in New York City. There really were two newspapers: Newsday, which was based on Long Island, and New York Newsday, which was based in Manhattan. Sometimes there was tension actually between the two papers, and it could get nasty at times, and that was a problem and that should have been fixed. But it was not a problem that was unfixable, and ultimately, New York Newsday was right on the cusp of being a major profit center for the Times Mirror Corporation and of having an enormous, enormous impact on New York City. And I was surrounded by, in that newsroom, some of the most exciting colleagues I’ll ever have the pleasure of working with. It was just, you know, hard to even imagine, when I look back on that talent pool, what we had in 1993, 1994 in the newsroom. But it was at a time in the 1990s when more and more corporations were showing astounding stock returns. Remember, the market was just overheated beyond belief in the early 1990s and would soar until the big crash of 1997. And the family that owned 51% of the stock of Times Mirror, the Chandler family based in Southern California, felt that the profit returns they were realizing on the investment were rather small compared to many of their friends and wealthy compatriots, who were invested in other kinds of businesses, and so on. And they brought in from General Foods Corporation, a CEO who had never had anything to do with media, had no understanding of journalism. Frankly, as far as I could tell, didn’t give a darn about journalism. His mandate was to raise the stock value. Six weeks after he took over, in a single day, he eliminated entirely New York Newsday, he eliminated the evening edition of the Baltimore Sun, he cut 10% of the staff at the Hartford Courant, he eliminated all Spanish-language editions of Los Angeles Times and shrank L.A. Times’ bureaus for metropolitan coverage of greater Los Angeles. He, across the board in all aspects of the Times Mirror media empire, which included television, cut, cut, cut. And it worked.

AMY GOODMAN: He came from General Mills.

LAURIE GARRETT: General Foods, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And they called him the Cereal Killer?

LAURIE GARRETT: They called him the Cereal Killer. And that day, the stock value went up, just skyrocketed. If I remember the numbers right, and this could be off, I won’t be held responsible, but I believe it was about 19 on the market in the morning and went up to 80-something by 5:00, and they continued to stay high. So, very clearly, what was happening at that time in the corporate world was, if you trim back your staff, if you trim back your costs, and you put out a less — a lower quality product, your stock value goes up. And all across the news industry, we have seen this same phenomenon. And it has built and built and built.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think that people could have organized across the Tribune empire from the Los Angeles Times to Baltimore Sun to Newsday, and said, no, we won’t put it out at all?

LAURIE GARRETT: Well, at that time we weren’t owned by the Tribune. At that time it was theTimes Mirror Corporation. The Tribune came in a couple of years later into the picture, partly at the urging of certain people high up in the Times Mirror Corporation who were opposed to what was happening and thought the Tribune might be white knights. But the Tribune Corporation, which — their flagship operation is the Chicago Tribune newspaper and Tribune Broadcasting — moved in and first did do some very positive things, improving the quality of the Los Angeles Times, but then showed their true colors, and we started to see the bottom-liners walking through the newsroom and demanding ever higher profitability until literally one year, I think two years ago, Newsday, turned over a 25% profit in a single year, which is unheard of in the news industry, and got in trouble because Tribune had pegged it at 31%.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Laurie Garrett, a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter who has quit her newspaper where she has been for how long?

LAURIE GARRETT: Since 1988.

AMY GOODMAN: Since 1988. Talk about some of the work that you did there. For example, you won the Pulitzer Prize for your coverage of Ebola. So what — that was 1996 — but what did you do to do that series, and do you think you could have done it today?

LAURIE GARRETT: Well, there were a number of series of reporting that I did, and I was hardly exceptional. I mean, the halls of Newsday are full of people who have done extraordinary reporting. And there was a time when we were supported to do so. In 1995, I went off to cover the Ebola outbreak in then Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo. There were a lot of reporters there, but I was fortunate to be one of the only science reporters there and strongly supported by my institution, that said, stay as long as you need to stay, spend what you have to spend to make the story come alive. And I was able to use resources to get out into the villages, identify who the index case was, how it originally spread, and from whom to whom.

AMY GOODMAN: This was where?

LAURIE GARRETT: This was in what is now called Kikwit, Democratic Republic of Congo, but then called Zaire. And when I came back, I issued a memo to management saying, I have been keeping my eyes on what’s going on in the former Soviet Union. I think that every aspect of health there is collapsing. I’d like to go, and I think it’s going to take several months, and it’s going to be very expensive, and I will have to hire translators, and I’d like to take a photographer with me. And they said, okay, go. And it was an enormous budget. I was out of pocket as a reporter for about six months, came back, wrote a 32-part series. They ran all 32 parts on the collapse of health in the former Soviet Union. And that series won the Polk, George C. Polk Award, but more important than whether it won an award, there was a newspaper willing to dedicate that much news hole, that much column inches and everything, to a problem that was not in the United States, that was overseas, that might come to haunt us and has indeed come to haunt us in the form of drug resistant strains of tuberculosis that have made their way from prisons in Siberia to the streets of New York, and things of that nature, but what it really was a series about was, here was our former Cold War enemy, and we come to find out that the only way they were able to fight that Cold War was by destroying their entire social service infrastructure and spending on military and spending on repression of their own people. And look at what they did to their health system in the process. I mean, you know, I said to Newsday, I have to go deal with AIDS in Africa, and they said, bye-bye, and I was on a plane and off to Africa. I came back and said, I have to deal with AIDS in India. Bye-bye, I was on a plane to India. It’s the kind of institution that would do that. If you showed with your track record that you would come back with the goods, you would get that story, and you could have the dedication to write it well. The editors would fight it through, and it would get published. But what we see today all across the newspaper industry and more and more in broadcasting is to — a 30-part series on the collapse of health in the former Soviet Union? I don’t know any institution today that would publish that.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Pulitzer Prize winning reporter, Laurie Garrett. She will stay with us. And if you are watching or hearing this live, maybe at the video/audio stream at democracynow.org or on your local community radio or television station, you can ask a question, too, by emailing mail@democracynow.org, that’s mail@democracynow.org. We’re also going to be talking about the latest front-page piece in The New York Times, well, yesterday, on VNRs, video news releases, not from corporations (that’s been going on for a long time), but from the government, from the Pentagon, from the Agriculture Department, from the Transportation Department ending up in your local newscast, though you think it’s a local news report that comes from an independent reporter. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Pulitzer Prize winning reporter, Laurie Garrett. And if you have any questions for her, you could email mail@democracynow.org. In fact, Laurie, you go through this public media terrain, having — you started at Pacifica, went on to NPR, went on to Newsday and now has quit Newsday with a blistering memo to her colleagues talking about the state of the media today. You say that the corporatization of the news media is a threat to democracy. Why?

LAURIE GARRETT: Well, first, let me be very clear about something. I’m not coming from some ideological space on this, and I’m definitely not anti-corporate, nor am I anti-profit. I think it’s perfectly reasonable that you can make a modest profit off of news, but when you see news as a product that has to compete with other product lines, so that if toilet paper turns a 35% annual profit return in one division of your company, your news product has to turn a 35% profit return, as well, then I think it’s impossible to really serve democracy. Because what kind of news can turn that kind of a profit? Well, number one, it’s not lengthy. Number two, it doesn’t take on slow, plodding, difficult, complicated subject matter. Number three, it doesn’t reprint testimony. It doesn’t reprint speeches from the halls of Congress, because they can be boring. If it’s broadcasting it doesn’t run, you know, a senator speaking at length, it might run a few seconds clip unless it’s, you know, the Sunday morning talk shows or something of that nature.

Long run, what we’re getting at here is a couple of things are kind of crashing together at the same time. First of all, all across the news industry there’s a recognition that people under 30 are not watching. They’re not reading. They don’t subscribe to newspapers. They’re not watching the evening news, and in many cases, it’s hard to pin down exactly how people under 30 in America are getting information. It’s a kind of information cocoon in which you’re osmotically absorbing from thousands and thousands of places from the internet, from your friends, from text messaging, from God knows where. And it means that those of us who come from more established old patterns of media dissemination of information are nervous. Will that generation eventually buy newspapers? When I was in college, being a subscriber to a mainstream newspaper was a way of showing you were an adult. And having that newspaper outside your dorm room said to all of the other students, I’m serious. I’m a grownup.

Today, apparently, young people don’t think there’s any value to that at all. It’s kind of garbage. And so, the news industry is terrified about that. Now, if you couple that with the need to make advertising revenue, who is your big ad market? Precisely that age group. If you look at the evening news, one of the things that’s happening to network television news is look at the ads. It’s, you know, hemorrhoid cream. It’s Viagra. It’s arthritis medication. It reflects their demographic, which is that most of the people watching an evening network newscast are well over 60 years of age. So, when you look at what is the information source that’s got the snappy ads that signal these viewers or these listeners or these readers are under 35 years of age, it’s like the top of the hour drivel on MTV.

So, how do we get to a point for our democracy, for our nation, where people who go to pull that lever in New York or push that button or punch that hole in the voting booth wherever they may be actually know what’s going on in the world, and actually have had a critical, informed analysis, including all that so-called boring, plodding information that tells them what the nature is of Medicare, how if you are 35 years old today, you’re going to not be able to pay for prescription medication when you need it, when you are 55? All of these elements that are the essence of understanding how you are a citizen in a society are getting harder and harder to convey, because it’s not profitable to convey them. One of the key things, Amy, I want to put across is when I put this memo out, I had no intention for it to go beyond my immediate friends and colleagues at Newsday. It’s been a shock and surprise to me to see how widely it’s ended up all over the place and the kind of brouhaha it’s caused.

And I want to say one thing to any of your viewers out there that are coming from a kind of conspiracy place. I do not believe, and I have never witnessed it in the newsroom, that the political agenda of these corporations or any group of individuals dictates news coverage. It might at certain institutions, perhaps Fox Television, for example, but what I’m talking about is not political bias. I’m not talking here about somebody coming in and saying, you cannot write that story because it doesn’t reflect our agenda. I have never ever seen that happen at Newsday, at NPR, in any newsroom I have worked in. What I am talking about is that a story that requires some difficulty to appreciate, that deserves complex analysis, and that might need 3,000 words to explain will not get that 3,000 words, because it’s not snappy, it doesn’t sell, it’s not got a great catchy headline with it, and besides, we need that space to do Michael Jackson. We need that space to show Martha Stewart walking out of prison. And celebrity news sells. But plodding analysis of Social Security does not.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let me ask you, when you say you don’t think there’s any political agenda there, let’s just go back a little. When there was blanket coverage leading up to the invasion of Iraq, for example, when all of the media really was focusing on these issues, and yet — and you write about this too — somehow the issue that weapons of mass destruction were not there just didn’t make it to the front pages of the Times. I mean, in that sense, you’re talking about media that beat the drums for war. And it wasn’t just The New York Times, it was all of the networks, as well.

LAURIE GARRETT: Well, I think there’s a couple of things going on there, and that is a little more complicated. First of all, journalists love to be responsible for scoops. And that’s a good thing. I mean, the competitive atmosphere that gets reporters out there hustling is a good thing. However, if the hustle is about trying to get access to a White House that is notoriously impervious to media query, that is one of the major anti-media fortresses in the country, or access to the Department of Defense when there’s a Secretary of Defense who is openly disdainful, openly disdainful of the reporters in the room at every press conference, then if you want a scoop to show what’s going on on the eve of this war, you needed to cultivate certain kinds of sources. Well, for some of the media, those sources turned out to be Chalabi, the leader of the whole right wing insurgency in Iraq, Paul Wolfowitz and his staff in the Department of Defense, the staff of Vice President Cheney, and certain key individuals in the FBI and the Defense Intelligence Agency. And so, you know, I was getting the same information. I was covering, before the search for weapons of mass destruction, I was covering bio-terrorism very heavily after 9/11 and the anthrax attacks. I was getting the same information, but I was always trying to double-check it against something else. And our feeling was you don’t run a story unless you have got at least two confirmed sources, and ideally, three or four.

AMY GOODMAN: That don’t come from the same place.

LAURIE GARRETT: That don’t come from the same place, and that haven’t — have clearly not been sharing their information with each other, so that they’re basically echoing each other’s comments. But very clearly in the pell-mell rush to scoop, scoop, scoop, and to look hot, hot, hot, a lot of reporters did not show that caution. We saw stories that in The New York Times, in The Washington Post, in a number of news outlets claiming evidence of weapons of mass destruction that clearly was bogus. One of the most egregious was the claim that a Russian scientist who had been a smallpox expert was in Baghdad, and had advised the Iraqi government on smallpox production when, in fact, the time that woman had been in Baghdad had been as part of the eradication campaign, as a public health officer to eliminate smallpox from planet earth. And it really besmirched her reputation to even imply that she was a bio-weaponeer. But these were all things that were just fed. I mean, look at how the media convicted Richard Jewell of the Atlanta Olympic bombing, when it turned out, of course, that he was completely innocent. Look at how quickly the media moved to try and convict Steven Hatfill of being responsible for the anthrax mailings, when, in fact, he is free today, the judge has actually given him the right to interrogate his accusers from the media and to demand "how do you claim knowledge that I committed these events?" And then, of course, the Wen Ho Lee case in Los Alamos Laboratory, where a Taiwanese American scientist was accused of feeding discs of information to the Chinese government. Nobody ever explained why a Taiwanese would be helping mainland China. That alone should have caused some serious skepticism. But, of course, ultimately the judge in that case not only threw out all the charges against Wen Ho Lee, but particularly castigated The New York Times for their coverage and for having basically convicted him on the pages of their newspaper.

AMY GOODMAN: Very interestingly, that was right before September 11, 2001. If people were asking what was the FBI doing before, why weren’t they investigating these guys that ended up in the United States that perhaps were part of the September 11 attacks, well, maybe they should look at how many of them were going after Wen Ho Lee. We’re talking to Laurie Garrett. And, Laurie, I’d like to ask you to stay for the hour, because I would like to ask you more about bio-terror and bio-weapons, something that you certainly have investigated, as well.

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