Oct 1 1991

So You Want To Be a City Editor?

So you want to be a big-time city editor like Lou Grant? Well, fine, but remember what happened to Lou Grant. He got cancelled.

In real life these days, city news is bad news: taxes up, jobs and wages down; no money for schools, parks and bridges; banks in trouble, business threatening to leave; homelessness on the rise; waste and corruption rife–and as for federal help, forget it.

In journalism, the news is bad too, but it’s different.

Take TV news, where Lou Grant began as Mary Tyler Moore’s crusty but lovable boss: Ratings are in the toilet, competition is murder and you’ve got a limited amount of time to cover it all, while trying to keep even the dumbest viewers from switching to cops and robbers. So you give them…cops and robbers.

The Law is only too glad to oblige, with staged parades of handcuffed perpetrators at your convenience. And for the few minutes you have left for the Big Picture–I mean, serious news–a few soundbites from the politicians and experts on your Rolodex, and that’s it for tonight.

The picture is much the same in print journalism. Although there’s not much head-to-head combat among local dailies anymore, your front office will be obsessed with the competition for a dwindling advertising dollar from TV and radio, shopping guides and suburban papers. It is now assumed that the public, raised on TV, has the attention span of a gnat, so McPaper (aka USA Today) is the model they shoot for.

Serious papers are not immune. The New York Times for example, recently doubled its sports coverage while trimming the city staff and its “news hole.” In fact, it hasn’t had a “city” editor in years that revered old title having been elevated to “metropolitan” to reflect the greater prestige of the suburban market. The inner city serves mainly as a source of perpetrators.

It’s a source of problems, too–heavy stuff, which may bore readers and confuse journalists, who are not too strong on arithmetic and analysis and who don’t have time to bone up on the issues anyway.

Fortunately, there are plenty of authoritative sources who are only too willing to tell us all we need to know. In fact, there are more P.R. reps in government and business than there are journalists, and they’re paid to inform us, aren’t they? (You can ignore labor people, public advocates and other bellyachers…they’re amateurs, after all.)

Readers would like to know why things are not going well, but they are easily distracted. Entertain them with scandals about overpaid singers and athletes and other celebrities. Outrage them with crime–street crime, that is, with just a dash of the big-time stuff, provided it’s libel-proof. The front offices don’t like lawsuits.

You have one perpetual problem. Those kids out of journalism school have seen Lou Grant and All the President’s Men–that’s why they went to J-School in the first place. Kids like that can keep you in hot water with the publisher, the advertiser and all the better citizens.

That’s why Mike O’Neill, in his famous 1982 farewell address as president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, repeated the wish (originally expressed by Roger Starr of the New York Times) “that journalism schools should ban Lincoln Steffen’s famous book, The Shame of the Cities.”

Starr had said that muckracking had already done the cities a lot of harm and could do much worse, and O’Neill said the press had undermined authority and now had a duty, in cooperation with the government, to “set matters straight.”

At the time, O’Neill was ending a career as editor of the New York Daily News, during which it went from being America’s most popular newspaper to a foundering wreck. You should be rewarded as well as he was.

Now, about those kids who want to make like Lincoln Steffans. No big problem.

For one thing, you keep them busy with fast-breaking stories, routine handouts and early deadlines. It takes time, more than your paper can afford, to dig into the deep and dirty.

Life takes care of most of the rest. You send a young reporter out on an assignment and he or she quickly realizes that he/she knows nothing about it but must appear to know everything by the deadline. What to do? Ask the man in charge, the politician, the prosecutor, the official, the P.R. rep. If you write it the way he tells it, next morning he’ll tell you what a great story you wrote, and a happy relationship has been born. The desk has no problem with that, either.

It is true that some reporters will on occasion listen to a dissenter, a whistle-blower, a troublemaker. And sometimes, more rarely, one of those stories will slip past your desk, or overcome your natural caution, or prove just too solid and competitive to spike.

In that even, relax. Put it in for an award, brag about it to your children, and cite it forever as proof that you’re not just a hack for the establishment.

Sidebar: Would Lou Grant OK the Metro Section?

For better or worse, the exemplar of American journalism is the Pulitzer-laden New York Times. Suppose that Lou Grant were to pick up a copy to see how the Times covers its home beat.

As this is written, it is Sept. 4, a relatively quiet day after a serious racial outbreak in Brooklyn and a subway disaster; a critical primary is eight days off. What Lou Grant might have considered the most significant news event, the resignation in frustration of the mayor’s adviser on the homeless, is reported on page B2.

The only Metro story to make page A1 is headed: “Families Seek Out Shelters as Route to Better Homes.” The article features a black couple with three children who left the small apartment they shared with an unspecified number of relatives to move into an apartment provided by the city shelter program at an unexplained cost to the taxpayer of $2,730 a month. The thrust of the piece is not that some apartment owner is gouging the public, but that these people and many others like them were not really homeless. They were portrayed as leaving their crowded home and their jobs, too for “a little vacation,” as the father put it, at the public’s expense.

This version of the welfare woman in mink of the 1930s and of Reagan’s screwdriver-drinking food stamp recipient of the 1980s fits a marked trend in the Times view of the local (and national) fiscal crisis: Blame the poor, welfare doesn’t work.

On this Sept. 4, the theme was promoted by two puff pieces promoting black politicians who, like Clarence Thomas, echo the Reaganite view that welfare harms the poor: Gov. L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia, offered as presidential timber on page A1, and Wayne Bryant, majority leader of the New Jersey Assembly on page B1. The latter is called a “maverick” despite his key role in the state power structure and his embrace of conservative orthodoxy.

A month earlier (8/4/91), the Times offered an analysis of New York City’s problems, headlined “How Long Can New York Redistribute Wealth Before the Wealthy Leave?” A subhead adds: “High taxes seem worse when they pay for poverty, a study says.” In reality, New York taxes, like federal taxes, have been cut by more than half for the rich in the last decade, as wealth has been redistributed upward. In an indication of the class for whom the Times is written, the story’s main source describes a couple making $60,000 a year as “poor.”

John Hess, a former New York Times correspondent, writes a column on media for the New York Observer.