Jul 1 2005

‘The Profit Motive’

CounterSpin Interview with Laurie Garrett

Dan Rather got the lion’s share of the attention, but another journalistic retirement has also been cause for discussion in media circles.

Award-winning journalist Laurie Garrett announced recently that she won’t be returning to her post at Newsday, the Long Island daily, and she was crystal clear about the reasons why. In an exit memo that quickly made the rounds of journalism websites, Garrett wrote pointedly about the deterioration of journalism at her own paper and in media generally, in the rush to increase corporate profits. “The sad arc of greed” Garrett wrote, “has finally hit bottom.”

CounterSpin: Let me ask you, first of all, the impetus for the memo itself. Lots of folks leave journalism jobs, many of them presumably with some measure of frustration. Why write something that’s going to be at least semi-public like that?

Laurie Garrett: Well, everybody at Newsday has been through hell and back. We went from having a circulation, 10 years ago, of about 1.1 million-1.2 million readers, scaring the dickens out of the New York Times, garnering Pulitzer prizes right and left, and really being one of the top three or four newspapers in the nation. And now we’re down to something like 400,000 readers, or maybe even less—virtually irrelevant in the great pantheon of national journalism. And along the way, so many people have lost their jobs. I just felt that I couldn’t go out the door without trying to both reflect on what had gone wrong, and at the same time give some hope, some sense of a morale boost to my colleagues as I left.

CS: I would note that many people think New York Newsday was to be credited for really forcing the New York Times to do local journalism at all. Certainly it was a paper that many folks found lots to love about. There’s always been good journalism and bad journalism. What is the primary thing that you think has changed during your tenure, such that it is now so inhospitable?

LG: The profit motive. I mean, look, when I came into journalism—way back, we’re not going to say when—there were still plenty of family-owned newspapers across America, family-owned radio, family-owned television stations, or a small company that maybe owned only two or three outlets. And you still had a sense that there was a hint of a competitive spirit between newspapers in the same town and so on. That’s all gone, long gone.

First of all, the competition’s gone. So most of your listeners are in towns where there’s only one newspaper, and maybe only one NPR station and one or two commercial radio stations, and then a bunch of Clear Channel stations and so on.

And secondly, most of the old small-scale businesses have long since been bought up by corporations, and some of those corporations may consider themselves media companies, but most of them don’t! They just sort of have a little bit of a media portfolio in a large corporate diversified empire. And that means that if they tell their parts and manufacturing division that they’re expected to turn a 30 percent profit next year, they turn around and tell their media operations, you’re expected to turn a 30 percent profit next year as well. And it’s just not realistic to have the same profit expectations of news, and to think of news as product in quite the same way as one would think of an automobile, computer chips, insurance services and so on.

CS: Let me draw you out just a bit on that, because I found it key in your memo that you say, “You just can’t realize annual profit returns of more than 30 percent by methodically laying out the truth in a dignified, accessible manner.” Now when FAIR and others suggest that good journalism and increasing profit margins are fundamentally at loggerheads, that this is a structural problem, we sometimes hear that that’s too negative a view of journalists, if they would only do more, do better. . . . You’re seeming to say that that’s not really it.

LG: I would consider it cruel in the extreme to say that to my colleagues at Newsday. They’re down to a newsroom that’s been cut, not just to the bone, but to the bone marrow. How can you say, “do more, do better,” when people are already doing more than anybody ought to be expected to do?

CS: The comments that you made at your exit sounded similar to some folks to comments that Jay Harris, the former publisher of the San Jose Mercury News, made when he retired in 2001. Do you think there’s going to be more of this—I mean, people have left journalism—but more, “This is why I’m leaving”?

LG: Well, a lot of people go out the door, and as you say, they go out quietly. And I guess I thought because I have had a couple of bestselling books and won a Pulitzer and so on, for what all that’s worth—perhaps my departure would draw a little more attention, so perhaps I could have a little impact on the discourse. But I was thinking of it in terms of my colleagues at Newsday. I had no intent that this would get widely circulated. But on the other hand, it would be naïve these days to think that somebody wouldn’t send it to Romenesko, which is what happened.

And I’m not sure that the point is whether or not a lot more people go out denouncing the new rulers of the journalistic empire. I think the point is, if you’re toiling away in the newsroom today, whether your newsroom is a small commercial television station or the New York Times, you need to be able to feel that the enterprise matters, that your job matters. And I think that journalism thrives when there’s a sense of idealism, and when you can separate idealism from bias.

So the best young reporters are idealistic. They believe that if they do their mission and they do it well, they might make a difference in the world. And that’s to be admired. I think if you take the passion out of journalism, you destroy the whole enterprise.

The problem is, it’s very hard to feel passionate about anything you do if all around you there’s layoffs, if your newsroom is a depressing place to be, and if you’re fighting to get more than 600 words of space in the newspaper, or more than 45 seconds, couple of minutes on the radio. If that’s going to be the endless trap we’re going to get into—putting out a cheaper product by cheapening the value of the people that make the product—I think we’re going to see more and more people opt out of the profession.

CS: You say we should note that giving up is not an option. What would you say to people just entering journalism who may think, well heck, if Laurie Garrett doesn’t want to do it anymore, what am I doing, what am I walking into here? What’s your advice to new journalists?

LG: As I said in my memo, I really think there are some potentially very exciting things going on out there. The Internet is not entirely a wasteland and it is not entirely an un-refereed, un-fact-checked danger zone. There are some terrific blogs, there are a few websites that are very dynamic, and it’s good news that Salon and Slate are now in the black. Maybe we will see more very creative news on the Internet in years to come.

I also think that the American people—at least a certain element of the American population—is sort of waking up, and realizing that we’ve been in kind of a numb state since 9/11. In many ways as a nation, we’ve been in a state of shock and fear, and we’ve not really been thinking critically about many of the things that have occurred since then.

And I’m not speaking here about whether or not you favor the war in Iraq, or whether or not you think Condoleezza Rice is the perfect choice for head of the State Department. I’m talking here about whether or not you sort of look at the overall culture and environment in which you live and ask, “Is this the best that Americans can be?”

What I see, as I travel around the country, is that more and more of that critical thinking is beginning to happen. And I would hope that, number one, journalists would pay attention to that process, and number two, they will realize that it’s all to their benefit—and that perhaps this will result in an appetite, among the American people, for more genuine information.

Laurie Garrett won a Pulitzer prize in 1996 for her coverage of the Ebola virus. She’s senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations and author, most recently, of Betrayal of Trust: The Collapse of Global Public Health. Garrett was interviewed by CounterSpin’s Janine Jackson and Peter Hart.