Some newspapers have responded to the bursting of its advertising bubble with humility and circumspection. The best of them have even hired ombudsmen in recent years to take their papers to task for wrong information, bad spin, puffery and other journalistic sins.
Not your Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Ever since the Incredible Shrinking Paper publicly ‘fessed up to its collapsing advertising and circulation base and began to cut pages, sections and features like Edward Scissorhands on a bender, the J-S has made a point, every Sunday on Page Two, of telling us how wonderful they are. It is the worse kind of self-serving blather that they treat like gracious community service writ. You can imagine the editors and managers of the paper reviewing each puff piece from high in the State Street ivory tower every Friday, nodding sagely at the glowing prose, patting each other on the back and thinking how lucky the grateful populace is to have them.
A prime example of this weekly editorial circle-jerk is right-wing managing editor George Stanley’s embarrassing piece in this Sunday’s paper. Stanley’s goal is to brag about all the right-wing talking-points and knee-jerk political reaction that have been generated by some recent stories and campaigns run by the J-S in recent weeks. Indeed, from the trivial to the hysterical, the Only Newspaper in Town has provided plenty of fodder for those who think the worst about some people anyway. The paper has become expert at finding and exposing easy targets, such as camping outside the homes of inner-city women and otherwise employing the still-vast resources of what passes for the Milwaukee mainstream media to punish those who would dare to use public child care dollars for child care or use travel accounts for travel. Who can deny them this self-serving victory lap on their recent "success" at rooting out, well, whatever the hell they are rooting out.
Well, I can. While some of the Journal Sentinel investigations have been important and interesting – the BPA stuff and the doctor-whore pharma expose – most of it has been exploitative piffle. African-American school board and county board members now have to call Dan Bice to clear receipts for taxi cab rides in foreign cities where they may happen to be for outrageous events like conferences or if they want to take advantage of the fact that everybody who is somebody happens to be in Washington for some event or other – better to try to network when no one is around. Of course, right-wing and noticeably Caucasian nutbag James Sensenbrenner – the most repulsive member of Congress I have ever had the misfortune to be represented by – racked up at least $179,814.16 for his various pleasure junkets to Las Vegas, Germany, Las Vegas, Paris, Las Vegas, Japan and other exotic locales through the years. But, the J-S can’t be bothered to expend its selective outrage on rich congressmen – better to beat up on hapless minor local officials who talk-radio can sink their teeth into.
Likewise the harumph-heavy tone of the "Cashing in on Kids" series. When I saw the headline, I was sure the Journal Sentinel had finally come to its senses and was going to go after the scam artists cashing state checks by pretending to run some of the so-called "choice" "schools". But no – the "choice" program continues to have sacred-cow status at the paper, which still stuffs the closing of yet another bunch of pretend educators (only five kids at one of them) in the back pages with small print. But the J-S has other child-care fish to fry. Apparently, some women figured out how to get paid for providing child care for themselves and their sisters’ kids, completely legally, through a state program. Oh, god, the horror. Happy to play "gotcha" with otherwise poor women, the reporters actually stalked the women outside their homes. I’m sure the reporters involved felt so proud while they sat in car waiting for the women to do...what?
Then there is the continuing anti-drunk driving campaign. There is not an easier target in the world for opportunistic news organizations looking to get on their high horse about something than drunk driving. They can drive their sanctimonious campaign by exploiting the sad victims (one in every county!). They can tell story after story of defendants gaming the system by – gasp! – insisting that they know their rights to a lawyer before getting their rights and liberty taken from them. They can compare Wisconsin’s shockingly lax laws on first offenses (because they are not criminal) and third offenses (because they are not felonies). All of which accomplishes nothing in influencing those unfortunate to get caught once and stupid enough to get caught numerous times. But, the J-S can feel good about itself for driving a change in state law that will result in increased costs of prosecution and defense, not to mention the enormous expense of the kind of lengthy incarceration promoted by the paper’s lock-‘em-up campaign.
It’s hard to say what the paper hopes to accomplish with this kind of self-back-patting. Has some consultant somewhere really told them that everything will be fine if people just knew how wonderful they are? Do they really think that spending so much of their shrinking news hole on this kind of ridiculous self-congratulation gets them anything but a laugh and a turn of the page? Fully a third of Stanley’s column is taken up with supposedly spontaneous testimonials from grateful readers, including this gem: "You truly do not get enough credit for the great work you guys do." Really, now. When Stanley is typing this tripe into the story, doesn’t he wince or shudder, just a little? Shouldn’t he?
Adding insult to injury, the paper had the balls to run a business story next to Stanley’s puff-piece on the same Page Two, trumpeting that the J-S ranked first in the naiton in "market penetration", meaning that a higher percentage of people around here read the paper in some form or other than in other metro areas. "An amazing connection" is therefore claimed (by none other than J-S president and COO Elizabeth Brenner) between the local burghers and the paper that covers them. Might I suggest some other reasons? 1) there is just not a whole lot else going on around here – we might as well read the damn thing while it’s still a daily; 2) it is fascinating to watch the paper shrink every week, like it’s disappearing before our eyes; and, finally:
3) we hope against hope for better. We want the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel to stand up and again take the place that the old Journal had of one of the best papers in the country. Alas, given Stanley’s misbegotten bravado, it appears the path has been chosen and the die is cast. There are many reasons all newspapers are in trouble and most of it the leaders of the dead-tree industry can do nothing about. But the J-S appears to have chosen the path of trying to pull out of its tailspin by providing material for talk-radio and otherwise reaching for our least common denominator. It is a cynical ploy that is doomed to fail.
UPDATE: The parody-as-reality self-congratulation theme continues this morning in the J-S. The paper bought a full-page ad from itself (hey, there's a way to fix the bottom line! No, wait...), celebrating the selection of Editor Martin Kaiser as "Editor of the Year" by the newspaper trade magazine Editor and Publisher. Let's see...shinking ad revenue...reduced number of pages...cratering stock price...hysterical, trivial news coverage...yep, give the guy an award, for sure. With that track record, it makes you wonder how the first-runner-up feels. The money quote from the E&P puff-piece is this beaut: "If the staff is having fun even in these parlous times — and a surprising number of people will tell you they are — it’s because Kaiser has turned the newsroom to his view of staff reductions, says Managing Editor George Stanley: 'We never look back on what we had.'" I'd love to know how the embattled staff at the paper feel about that one, besides wanting to head for the elevators with torches and pitchforks. The "surprising number" of staff "having fun" these days? That would be "one".