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The Tentacle


July 29, 2004

The News Business

Joe Volz

There has been an abundance of concern by a host of critics lately, from politicians to professors, about the integrity of newspapers these days.

Bring back the good old newspaper ethics, longtime newspaper readers argue.

The critics claim that even the best newspapers today, like The New York Times, whose motto is "All the news that's fit to print," can't be trusted anymore. Just look at the case of the troubled young Times reporter, Jayson Blair, who faked at least three dozen stories before he was caught on a tip from a Texas reporter and forced to resign. The scandal led to the resignation of the Times' two top editors.

And how about USA Today, where the star foreign correspondent, Jack Kelly, regularly falsified his stories from overseas and denied it when caught? He quit under pressure, too, and soon after so did the USA Today editor.

Just the other day, I attended a session at the public library sponsored by the Frederick Peace and Resource Center decrying the state of today's journalists. The consensus of the 50 in attendance seemed to be that newspapers and TV, owned by conglomerates, are bordering on being corrupt, slanting the news for their own corporate interests. And those that aren't greedy are just inept, unable to see a story when it is placed before them.

Furthermore, one member of the audience contended, if it weren't for the newspapers, we would never have gotten into the Iraq war. The papers were complicit by printing all of the misinformation spewing from the Bush White House.

The Frederick New-Post came in for particular attack. Several audience members said the News-Post seems to be more of a PR vehicle than a genuine newspaper. It has no investigative staff and has allowed Fort Detrick, the nation's biological warfare center, a free ride.

Well, I have been a reporter for 40 years, and I must confess, in this era of unabated public confessing, that the good old days were not really that good, at least not in New Jersey where I toiled for many years.

It was at a time in the 1960s when 130 New Jersey public officials had been indicted. A mobster, testifying before Congress, when asked if he lived in New Jersey, declined to answer on the grounds it might incriminate him.

Well, we reporters didn't bump anyone off, but maybe some of us should have gone to the slammer for taking bribes from politicians and falsifying expense accounts. Isn't that what today's corporate thieve are doing - although on a slightly larger scale?

I worked for eight papers over the years. Seven went out of business but not because they were trapped in ethical or legal dilemmas. They just weren't making money.

Let me take you back to those colorful days of hard-drinking and inaccurate - and sometimes, dishonest - reporting. Judge for yourself if the business was more ethical than today.

The first paper I worked on, a now-defunct New Jersey weekly, the Mount Holly Herald, assigned me to "rewrite" the obituaries of local people that ran in the big daily, The Philadelphia Inquirer. "Rewrite" was a widely used newspaper word, which, as I understood it, meant plagiarizing a piece out of another paper. I didn't do any independent reporting of my own, I just "rewrote" The Inquirer articles, rearranging the words a little bit to disguise the fact I was stealing the stories. It was considered perfectly proper. Everyone did it.

At the late Hudson Dispatch, reporters regularly accepted "cash tips" from politicians of both parties to put their press releases in the paper. Sometimes the editors took the tips before they got to the reporter. I remember writing a piece about a political rally in Hoboken without ever attending. It turned out that my editor was doing PR on the side for the mayor and had already written the story before the rally took place. He just told me to "pump it up a bit" and put my name on it. I complied. As a young, naive reporter, I thought all papers did it that way. I suppose, looking back, many of them did.

Actually the "tips" to Dispatch reporters didn't help the Republicans very much. Hudson County was controlled for decades by Democratic bosses, including at one point the nationally powerful Jersey City mayor, Frank Hague. He said, "I am the law," and he meant it. Putting a press release from a Republican into the paper was tantamount to breaking Hague's law.

I arrived in the area when Hague's successor, John V. Kenny, was running things, and the edict to ban the Republicans from print was still in effect. One day a Republican candidate came to the office with what appeared to be irrefutable evidence that the county was larding the payroll with ghost employees. They had a word for it in Jersey City - "no-shows." The employees got paid but never showed up for work.

My editor dismissed the story. He said it wasn't news. Everyone knew about "no-shows." In fact, some newspaper reporters themselves had no-show jobs as public works employees.

I did work for one honorable paper in New Jersey, the courtly Newark News of late memory, which put out a fair report each day. But the way the reporters were paid was another story - a story that didn't get printed until years later in a labor dispute.

I still remember my job interview. I was making $80 a week at the Hudson Dispatch and wanted a raise before jumping to a new paper. Well, the suburban editor said my salary at the News would be $75 a week - but....

"But what," I asked.

I didn't want to take a pay cut. He said I would get an expense account that would raise my pay to $135 a week. I would be a suburban reporter and would have to use my car a lot.

But that's legitimate expenses, not a raise in salary, I protested. The editor was silent. A fellow reporter clued me in that the "expenses" I would be paid would be about four times more than my actual expenses. It was a tax-free way of giving me more wages.

Some of the copy editors who never left the office received the munificent sum of $60 a week in expenses - all bogus.

So when I hear that newspapers, run mainly by big corporations these days, have descended to a new low in ethics, I wonder.

E-mail Joe Volz at jvolz2003@adelphia.net



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