The Inky and Me


 

The Philadelphia
Inquirer
(Inky) is widely regarded as
a very good newspaper. This reputation derives in
part from its great superiority over its
predecessor, Walter Annenberg’s Inquirer,
notorious as a partisan Republican rag and
instrument of Annenberg’s personal vendettas
(most famously, his refusal to allow mention of
the name of the liberal Democratic Governor of
Pennsylvania, Milton Shapp). After the Knight
system acquired the Inky (and the Annenberg-owned
Philadelphia Daily News) in
1970—Knight merged with the Ridder chain in
1974 to form Knight-Ridder—it brought in
professional managers, sharply upgraded the news
operation, and terminated the paper’s
service as a personal political vehicle of the
owner.

The paper’s favorable
reputation also rests on positive
accomplishments. Knight-Ridder has had some first
rate journalists like Frank Greve and Juan
Tamayo, whose reports occasionally appear in the Inky
(these reporters have been attached directly to
the Knight-Ridder-owned Miami Herald). The
Inky has had a fair number of in-house
news articles and investigative studies of issues
such as the wetlands, police abuses, local
political corruption, and others that are very
good journalism. Barlett and Steele’s
periodic multi-part investigative reports on the
tax burden and income distribution, despite
limitations (noted below) are worthy efforts. The
paper is not closed, and publishes news articles
and occasional opinion pieces that conflict with
the party line the paper is supporting
editorially.

Despite these positives,
however, the Inky has always been an
establishment institution that keeps news and
opinion very much within the bounds of
establishment parameters. It is a market-driven
paper, increasingly so over the past decade, and
as a result has done a very poor job of
maintaining a "public sphere" within
which issues important to the entire citizenry
are freely discussed and debated. Its news arm
has the deficiency of all mainstream commercial
papers—it depends too heavily on official
sources, so that it is regularly led by the nose
in the direction officials desire; and where
officials want silence and afford few leads, the
paper fails to follow a story and allows silence
to prevail. (Often, where officials want the Inky
to go its editors want to go anyway.) One result
is that the Inky has frequently served as
a propaganda arm of the state, as in the case of
its news/editorial treatment of the NAFTA debate
and Mexican bailout, where the news coverage was
thin and uncritical, the editorial page hugely
biased and demagogic.

Market-Driven
Journalism

The Inky’s
parent, Knight-Ridder (KR), is a publicly owned
company traded on the New York Stock Exchange,
and in consequence is under steady pressure to
attend to the bottom line. This pressure
sharpened over the past decade during which
newspaper profits suffered from recession, high
newsprint prices, and competition for advertising
from cable and other rivals. John Knight, a
liberal Republican with an old-fashioned respect
for investigative journalism, died in 1981; the
Ridder half of the combine was always more
business oriented, and Tony Ridder, now the CEO,
is noted for his marketing focus. Under Ridder,
and his predecessor as president, James Batten,
KR has pursued a number of strategies: it has
tried to diversify into new media
(unsuccessfully), it has engaged in union busting
in Detroit, and it has tried to cut costs in all
its papers by reducing personnel. This led to the
departure of the Inky’s top
executive, Eugene Roberts, in 1990, and then to
the resignation of executive editor James
Naughton in 1995. In leaving the Philadelphia
Daily News
in 1995, editorial page editor
Richard Aregood remarked that KR "was
becoming a company on the standard model of
corporations rather than on the Knight
model." David Von Drehle, who once worked
for the Miami Herald, stated that the
recent deterioration of standards at KR led him
to conclude "that its time to pronounce the
experiment of publicly traded newspapers a
failure."

The other line of attack by
Knight-Ridder has been a more aggressive (or
sycophantic) catering to readers and advertisers.
James Batten, president of KR from 1988 until his
death in 1995, pioneered this new phase of
market-driven journalism, and was featured in the
recent books When MBAs Rule Newsrooms
(Doug Underwood) and Market-Driven Journalism
(John McManus). From 1988 Batten campaigned
within KR for what he called "customer
obsession," the word customer encompassing
both readers and advertisers. The marketing
underpinning of this "obsession" was
clear: an intensified focus on profit margin
targets, and the Wall Street Journal noted
back in 1990 that KR seemed to be "borrowing
heavily on the innovations of Gannett Co.’s USA
Today
…[with] graphics and bright colors
[that] highlight stories on baby-boomer ‘hot
buttons,’ such as divorce, personal finance,
housing trends and the workplace." According
to Miami Herald executive editor Doug
Clifton, the paper should be answering the main
question asked by readers: "What does this
mean to me?" Accordingly, his paper
downgraded non-local news and, as a matter of
policy, confined news coverage to nine areas that
focus groups indicated were of primary interest
to readers (the list excluded national politics
and world affairs). David Remick wrote in the New
Yorker
that the Miami Herald was now
"thin and anemic, a booster sheet."

Boosterism and
Phony Empowerment

The Inky was slower
than the Miami Herald to succumb to the
"obsession" being pushed by KR on its
subsidiaries, but it took heavy cost-cutting hits
and gradually adopted important features of the
new order. Its boosterism was evident in its
editorial support of a locally produced
helicopter boondoggle ("Save the Osprey:
Here’s a strange-looking plane we really
need," July 9, 1990). It was more
dramatically illustrated at the time of death of
Philadelphia-based Cardinal John Krol on March 3,
1996. For an entire week the Inky ran huge
front-page spreads with pictures of the Cardinal,
his bier, his funeral, with adulatory
language—"a towering presence,"
"Philadelphia’s [sic] Servant for 27
Years," etc.—and the inside pages full
of detail and drivel. Krol, an admirer of Richard
Nixon, ally of the regressive Pope John II, and a
mediocrity in every respect, could be given a
wholly uncritical hero’s celebration only by
a newspaper pandering to a bloc of readers.

The 1990 Wall Street
Journal
account of the new "reader
friendly" KR noted that KR papers’
editorial pages now featured
"‘empowerment boxes’ giving names
and phone numbers, so readers can take
action." The Inky was one of those
papers. Many KR papers also installed Citizens
Voice programs that encourage readers to get
together to exchange opinions and to have them
expressed in a special part of the paper. The
Inky has adopted this with energy and has devoted
many pages to brief expressions of "citizens
voices." This new "civic
journalism," sometimes called
"commercial populism," is basically a
copout and fraud. It is a copout in that the
paper abandons its own responsibility to address
issues and treat them in depth; it is fraudulent
in its pretended interest in ordinary
people’s views and in the notion that
allowing controlled expressions of opinion by
these citizens in any sense "empowers"
them (when in fact the brevity and range of
voices assures that they will have no coherence
or consequences).

The Inky also has a
reader-friendly Ombudsman, who displayed his and
the Inky’s true colors in an incident
involving the publication of a front-page article
on Rush Limbaugh, "The king of talk, leading
the charge" (Joe Logan, June 2, 1995), with
an accompanying picture that showed Limbaugh
grimacing. The article was a superficial
puff-piece that quoted Rush at length. Only on
the continuation page did Logan mention that
Limbaugh’s "no less strident"
critics assert that he plays fast and loose with
facts and has a mean streak. No quotes or
citations were given and no mention was made of
the well-publicized Fairness and Accuracy in
Reporting book The Way Things Aren’t:
Rush Limbaugh’s Reign of Error
. Enter
the Ombudsman, not to apologize for the omissions
and puffery but for the photo showing Rush
grimacing. And while the Inky also gave
Limbaugh an Op Ed column, a submission detailing
Limbaugh’s errors by Jeff Cohen (co-author
of the FAIR volume) was rejected.

This pandering to the Right
has characterized the Inky’s handling
of the letters and Op Ed page for many years.
These are not designed to illuminate issues or
encourage in-depth debate, which might upset
important constituencies. The Inky sees
its market as mainly the affluent suburbanites of
Philadelphia; the affiliated Daily News is
for the lunch pail citizenry of the city. A
recent Inky solicitation of advertisers
asserted that the paper is read by 83 percent of
Philadelphians with incomes of $100,000 or more.
The Inky management has long perceived
that this market segment wants a generous
treatment of conservative and rightwing pundits
and the Inky has provided such treatment
for decades.

During the 1980s, opponents
of the Central American wars steadily protested
the Inky’s Op Ed page generosity to
the war party, causing the editor, Edwin Guthman,
to write two columns acknowledging that the
antiwar letters were outnumbering those
supporting Reagan, and literally appealing to
rightwing readers to write in to correct the
imbalance and presumably justify the pro-war
columns (April 6, 1986). We may be sure that no
Inky editor has ever appealed to liberals and
leftists to write in to support a liberal-left
position or program.

In an editorial commenting
on the reception to the Barlett-Steele series in
1996, the Inky editor noted that letters
supporting Barlett and Steele greatly outnumbered
those in opposition. This once again suggests
that the conservative bias of the Op Ed page and
close rationing of liberal-left commentary is not
justified by the voices that reach the paper, but
results from the desire to provide a page that
satisfies important readers and advertisers.
 

In an August 1990 letter to
Central American protestors explaining Inky
letters policy, the letters editor wrote that the
letters column is "primarily for plain old
ordinary readers first, not for groups and
organizations seeking a platform to expound their
beliefs." Citizens Voices for the Inky
are not people in Central American protest
groups, but "ordinary" citizens. This
is a formula for using the letters columns as a
lightning rod, to give the impression of being
democratic while keeping it mostly free of
letters that might enlighten.

Pandering to
the Pro-Israel Lobby

The Inky makes
exceptions to the policy of avoiding letters by
organized groups where the groups are powerful
and effectively threatening. A conspicuous case
involved the pro-Israel lobby and the
Specter-Yeakel senatorial election campaign of
1992. The paper is under steady pressure from
this lobby, and one form of cave-in has been a
very generous allotment of letter and Op Ed
column space to its members. Notable has been
their treatment of Morton Klein, the very
aggressive, Philadelphia-based president of the
Zionist Organization of America, who had seven
letters and four Op Ed columns published in
1991-1992 (and many thereafter). Klein strongly
favored Arlen Specter in 1992, and one Inky
insider informed me that Klein faxed the Inky
a message of criticism for its coverage of the
election and Israeli issues every day. The lobby
also besieged the Inky with visits; one of
its members noted in a local paper that his group
visited the editors, who "listened very
carefully and, to their credit, took steps to
redress the imbalance in subsequent
editions."

One consequence of this
lobbying effort was that Inky coverage of
the Specter-Yeakel campaign was assigned mainly
to reporter Nathan Gorenstein, whose pro-Specter
bias was blatant. He, and other reporters as
well, repeatedly referred to Yeakel’s wealth
and the fact that some of her own money went into
her campaign, but he never mentioned the much
greater sums poured into the Specter campaign by
the pro-Israel lobby, and real issues and
Specter’s record were not covered. One of
the sinister features of Specter’s campaign
was the claim that Yeakel’s Bryn Mawr
Presbyterian Church was anti-Semitic, because
they had had some pro-Palestinian speakers on the
Middle East among a large set that included
Specter (this last point was never mentioned by
Gorenstein). Gorenstein’s stories treated
this charge of anti-Semitism as a genuine issue,
not a smear tactic, and the Inky never explored
the use of this dirty trick by Specter and his
supportive lobby.

The Inky also
supported the lobby and Specter by publishing
successive letters attacking the Bryn Mawr
Presbyterian Church by Klein, CAMERA zealot Gary
Wolf, and the fanatical local rabbi Michael
Goldblatt. The last was featured by the Inky,
although full of errors that any competent editor
should recognize, such as "No Jewish leader
has attempted to equate criticism of Israel with
anti-Semitism," and it made ad hominem and
false charges about church leaders Rev. Eugene
Bay and Paul Hopkins. Hopkins’s low-keyed
reply to Goldblatt was refused publication by the
Inky.

My Decade on
the Blacklist

I had a painful experience
of my own with the pro-Israel lobby’s muscle
with the Inky. After having three
successive Op Ed columns taken by the Inky
in 1981-82, a fourth was published on state
terrorism, which identified Israel (among others)
as a terrorist state. This elicited flak,
including some from important pro-Israel power
brokers in Philadelphia. For the next decade
(until 1991) I couldn’t get an Op Ed into
the paper, and while I have no hard evidence of
cause I am pretty confident that the Inky
was responding to a power center to which it
often grovels, and that I was de facto
blacklisted.

During this period I
published a number of books on matters of extreme
topicality, but Op Eds on these topics by a
"local author" were not saleable. One
proposed Op Ed, on the alleged Bulgarian-KGB plot
to kill the Pope in 1991, an important propaganda
ploy of the Cold War, was based on the book, The
Rise and Fall of the Bulgarian Connection

(written with Frank Brodhead). The Inky
published only one Op Ed column on this subject,
by rightwinger Michael Ledeen, who took the plot
as already proven. The Inky not only
rejected my offering, they also turned down an
opinion piece on the subject by Diana Johnstone,
the well-informed In These Times
correspondent from Paris, which I submitted on
her behalf. In its news columns, also, the Inky’s
reporters never once departed from the party
line; its "specialist" was completely
uninterested in pursuing counter-evidence that I
pointed out to him. When the case against the
Bulgarians collapsed in an Italian Court in 1986,
the Inky offered no reassessment; nor did
it review the issue in 1991 when former CIA
official Melvin Goodman told congress during the
Gates confirmation hearings that the CIA
professionals knew the case against the
Bulgarians was fraudulent because, for one
reason, they had penetrated the Bulgarian secret
services. In short, in this major propaganda
exercise the Inky was a gullible
instrument of misinformation.

Several of my rejected
columns during the blacklist years were on the
Central America wars. One was based on the book Demonstration
Elections
, also written with Frank Brodhead,
that tried to show that the 1982 Salvadoran
election met none of the conditions of a genuine
free election, but was a public relations gambit
designed to prove to the U.S. public that our
intervention was justified, thereby allowing the
war to continue. (At the same time, both here and
in El Salvador it was claimed that the election
was a means of terminating the fighting.) The
only Op Ed column in the Inky during the
1984 Salvadoran election period was by James
Kilpatrick, who, of course, found it a
wonderfully democratic exercise. The Inky
was editorially "against the war," but
interestingly this did not cause their editorials
to challenge the demonstration elections as
fraudulent, nor, in the case of Nicaragua, did
they expose the Reagan peace plans as cynical and
call the contra war state-sponsored terrorism.
No—they regularly lauded the good intentions
of the terrorist sponsors, agreed that Nicaragua
had a "dictatorship," and that their
hot pursuit of contras into Honduras was
reprehensible, etc. So, in the case of the
Salvadoran elections of 1982 and 1984, with the
news department following the official lead, and
the editorials weakly critical, the Inky
on balance supported the war policy.

The same conclusion was
arrived at later by the Media Committee of the
Philadelphia Pledge of Resistance, in two
detailed and excellent studies of the Inky’s
coverage of Central America for 1989-1990,
showing (among many other things, and with solid
data) that the Inky was "twice as
likely to use [derogatory] labels" for
"enemies" than U.S. allies; that it
depended excessively on U.S. official sources and
"rarely quoted or interviewed"
civilians or victims; that its photo selection
policy supported State Department policy (no
photos of civilian victims in El Salvador or
Panama); and that it rarely covered Salvadoran
military killings and almost never mentioned its
responsibility for the vast majority of civilian
deaths. As U.S. officials ignored Guatemala, so
did the Inky, and it gave "very limited
coverage to the unprecedented upsurge in U.S.
national and local demonstrations/civil
disobedience against U.S. policy and
intervention." The paper’s bias as
regards each country in the region was
substantial and supportive of U.S. intervention.

Columnists From
Center to Far Right

Back in the 1970s, when the
Inky had George Will and William Rusher of
the National Review and far-rightists John
Lofton and Smith Hempstone (feebly balanced by
Mike Royko and David Broder) as columnists, I
visited the editorial offices to try to sell them
on Howard Zinn, who then had a syndicated column.
I failed in this, and the Inky has never
had a regular columnist as far "left"
as Mary McGrory. They have had lightweight,
issue-evading centrists like Broder, easily
overpowered by rightwingers like Will and Charles
Krauthammer, who all through the 1980s pressed
the Reaganite propaganda lines on Central
America, the soviet threat, and the welfare
mother threat, with only weak opposition. The Inky
defends the columnist imbalance on the ground
that their own editorials are liberal, as is
their cartoonist Tony Auth, so the
"left" is well covered. But this
argument does not hold water. As noted on Central
America, even when tending toward opposition to
official policy Inky editorials are badly
compromised, and on many policies they are
distinctly illiberal: the Inky editorially
supported Clarence Thomas, the Panama and Gulf
wars, and Clinton’s bombing and starving of
Iraq; NAFTA; the anti-PC crusade; privatization;
the urgent need to balance the budget; the
Concord Coalition view of the threat of Social
Security; and Boris Yeltsin as savior of the
highly desirably Russian "reforms."
With liberalism like this who needs
conservatives?

Each new rightwinger who
comes on board in this country goes straight into
the Inky Op Ed columns—Greg
Easterbrook and Michael Silverstein on the threat
of the environmentalists, Mickey Kaus on the end
of equality, Richard Rector of Heritage on the
welfare threat, Christina Sommers and Camille
Paglia on the menace of feminism. Sommers and
Paglia are not needed anymore as the Op Ed page
has latched on to Cathy Young, who has had over
50 columns since 1993, a large fraction
aggressively attacking feminists. It is true that
the Inky often carries Ellen Goodman and
Sally Steenland, but these women are
general-interest columnists who rarely address
and defend feminist concerns. They in no way
offset the steady anti-feminist aggression of
Young, supplemented by columnist and former
editor David Boldt, local rightwing contributing
editor Mark Randall, and local fanatic Ronald
James ("Where are the feminists when a
sister needs help? Free Leona!," July 8,
1992).

The Inky has also
been very kind to Dinesh D’Souza. His book Illiberal
Education
was given a featured double review
(one favorable, one critical). With his new
racist tome, The End of Racism [sic!], he
was given generous Op Ed space (and identified as
a conservative "scholar"), a featured
book review, plus an accolade by David Boldt.
When D’Souza spoke at St. Joseph College
following publication of Illiberal Education,
his speech got a generous Inky write-up
complete with a flattering picture of the
speaker. At almost the same moment, Noam Chomsky
was in Philadelphia, giving a fund-raising speech
at a downtown church. Not only was Chomsky’s
speech never mentioned in the Inky, the
paper refused to report that it was to take
place, despite repeated requests. Chomsky has
never had an Op Ed column in the Inky; he
supplied one, by invitation, several years ago,
but it was never published, and no explanation
was ever given for the failure to do so. The most
frequently published economist on the Op Ed
page—22 columns, 1994-1996—is Walter
Williams, the black reactionary first syndicated
by Heritage and holder of an Olin Foundation
chair. He specializes in attacking entitlements
(of poor people), welfare, and affirmative
action. The local progressive economist, Richard
DuBoff, gets published much less
frequently—two columns, 1994-1996—and
his submissions put the Op Ed editor under
stress. For example, DuBoff submitted an Op Ed on
July 16, 1996, defending Social Security. The Op
Ed editor, when pushed, told DuBoff that he
couldn’t find a "peg" for the
piece, although social security is a hot issue
and he was publishing "unpegged"
feel-good tripe and Walter Williams columns
without a problem. The piece was never published.
DuBoff submitted another one in January 1997 on
the immensely topical issue of investing Social
Security money in the stock market. The editor
was trapped: so what he did was solicit an
"answer" from Michael Tanner of the
Cato Institute, to set alongside DuBoff’s
piece (which he also cut and softened), to
provide "balance."

The two most frequently
published Inky insiders are Claude Lewis
and Trudy Rubin. Lewis, who is black, is perfect
for the Inky as he gives ethnic balance
while staying nicely within the bounds acceptable
to the white establishment. He strongly supported
Clarence Thomas (although to his credit he
recently expressed regret and admitted having
made a mistake), supported Arlen Specter for the
Senate in 1992, found that "So far Bush is a
pleasant surprise" (September 13, 1989),
argued along Reagan lines that the homeless made
a free choice and asked for it ("Homeless,
by deciding not to work," Dec. 27, 1989),
and in a recent marvel on the crack-cocaine CIA
connection, notes that "Even if the CIA
flooded inner cities with crack, blacks
didn’t say ‘no’" (September
25, 1996). Lewis shows his black solidarity by
bravely denouncing Texaco officials for racist
talk and talk show hosts for racist innuendo.

Trudy ("I love
Boris") Rubin, the Inky’s
foreign policy specialist, was once a pretty good
reporter, but her long stint on the Inky
editorial board has taken a heavy toll and it has
been years since she has said anything that
departs one iota from the establishment foreign
policy consensus. She also makes grossly
inaccurate statements, like, "[the
Europeans] opposed U.S. moves to quarantine
Saddam Hussein before 1990" (August 7, 1996;
the U.S. was appeasing Saddam up to August 31,
1990; this factual error was uncorrectable in the
letters column). Her apologetics for Yeltsin, the
attack on Parliament and the Consitution in 1993,
the 1996 election, the Chechnya War and the
devastating effects of Russian reform have been
grounded in a simple avoidance of inconvenient
facts. They have made the editorial and Op Ed
page a travesty on this important area.

In September 1995, Inky
editor Jane Eisner announced changes in the
syndicated columnists, replacing a few tired
centrists with others, and substituting Joseph
Sobran for George Will. Sobran is on the far
right among the regulars of the rightwing National
Review
. Eisner explained Sobran’s
selection on the ground that "we’ve
heard often from readers who complain that this
kind of unvarnished conservatism is not
represented on our pages."

Eisner had not done her
homework. Sobran’s outbursts and warm
affiliation with the pro-Nazi, anti-Semitic, and
racist instauration in the mid-1980s had caused
Midge Decter to label him "a crude and naked
anti-semite" and even led William Buckley to
distance himself from Sobran, briefly. In 1994
Sobran criticized Schindler’s List as
"holocaust harping" that has
"gotten out of control," and in another
column assailed Roosevelt for having gotten us
into war in 1941 because of his unreasonable
antipathy to Nazi Germany.

Eisner took quite a bit of
flak for bringing in Sobran, but defended herself
in print by a selective reading of his work and
his personal assurances that he regretted some of
his past remarks. She also stated with great
pomposity that "I understand that some
readers wish to open these pages and find a set
of opinions that conform pleasantly to their own
views. I am afraid that I can’t accommodate
them." Eisner apparently forgot her previous
statement admitting her accommodation to
rightwing readers desirous of an
"unvarnished conservative." A letter
signed by 55 individuals pointing out her
inconsistency, and asking why the Left has to be
satisfied with beltway centrists who never
challenge the status quo, was refused
publication. The Letters Editor did, however,
publish a letter extolling Eisner’s
"clear reasoning." So much for Citizens
Voices.

The
Barlett-Steele Anomaly

Barlett’s and
Steele’s populism doesn’t fit too
comfortably into today’s Inky, but as
noted the paper is not entirely closed to
critical fact and opinion and these authors have
built a strong reputation for investigative
research. Their productions bolster Inky
circulation, enhance its reputation even if they
"go too far," and they come along only
very periodically. The Inky can support
NAFTA and largely evade distributional issues
year after year, with only rare discomfort from
the house populists.

Barlett/Steele populism
also has its limits. They don’t urge a
vigorous full employment policy or strengthened
unions as means of improving income distribution;
nor do they propose cutbacks in the military
budget or decentralization of the corporate
system and media. They support campaign financing
reform, which everybody agrees to but which is
hard to enact or enforce with existing
inequalities intact. They also take dubious
positions on trade and immigration—they
support more aggressive efforts to open foreign
markets, and, although urging higher taxes on TNC
incomes, they offer no useful proposals for
controlling U.S. foreign investment or
international money market speculation. They fail
to recognize that a great deal of immigration
pressure comes from U.S. and IMF policy abroad
that generates political and economic refugees.

Back in the mid-1970s, when
SANE was a vigorous membership organization in
Philadelphia, they organized a membership protest
against the very conservative editor of the Inky,
Creed Black, with many scores of letters and
numerous phone calls to John Knight and others in
the top management. Black was replaced by Ed
Guthman shortly thereafter, and the Inky
did become a somewhat better paper. But we failed
to maintain that organization and level of
activism, and the liberals and Left of
Philadelphia have largely sat on the sidelines as
citizens without representation, as far as the Inky
goes. And the Inky remains a "part of
the problem," speaking consistently for the
establishment, giving the Right ample voice, and
marginalizing citizens of the Left. We need new
media for a real voice, but we also have to fight
harder to get representation and a modest public
sphere operating in the existing media, which
will accommodate to some extent those who press
hard and with tenacity.
                         
              

Edward S. Herman is a
professor of finance at the Wharton School,
University of Pennsylvania, and the author or
numerous books and articles on media, economics,
and foreign policy.