Journalist A.J. Liebling said in 1960, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” Those words rang true then, and certainly today, as two recent events show how news organizations can either bury a story or kill it all together.
Last Friday The New Yorker magazine published a story that in 2006 President Donald Trump had yet another affair, this one with a Playboy bunny named Karen McDougal. In 2016 McDougal sold the exclusive rights to her story to the National Enquirer for $150,000. The Enquirer, by its publisher David Pecker, made the purchase in order NOT to run the story and thereby protect Pecker’s good friend, Trump.
The second example of trampling on our freedom of the press comes from Fox News. According to Vox.com, Fox News pretty much ignored last week’s announcement by Special Counsel Robert Mueller of the indictment of 13 Russians and three Russian companies over their meddling in the 2016 Presidential election. When Fox did cover it, the coverage consisted mostly of discussions about how the FBI missed the opportunity to prevent the Florida high school shootings because of its involvement in the Russia investigation.
News organizations burying the news, is not a new phenomenon. Until the advent of the internet, the amount of news space always was limited and editors made choices of what would run in their newspapers. There are only so many pages in a newspaper. There is only 23 minutes of available time in a 30-minute nightly newscast.
Back in 1770, Benjamin Franklin had to choose what stories would run in his Pennsylvania Gazette and other newspapers of the day. I doubt there was much support for stories about the niceties of British rule. Likewise, in the early 1960’s in the American south, most newspapers completely ignored the civil rights movement. I seized on that historical fact in writing Black Hearts White Minds. In the novel, the Stockville, Alabama newspaper publisher, Paul Owens, has stayed in the good graces of the town’s racist white residents by featuring puff pieces and ignoring the national movement toward racial equality. Shamed and humbled by his own lack of courage, he prints the following: “It has come to my attention that for the past 10 years this newspaper has neglected to cover the civil rights movement. We regret the omission.”
Owens’ epiphany is based on a true story. In 2004 the Lexington, Kentucky Herald-Leader made just such a proclamation and printed a four-page special section about what was really going on in Lexington in the early 60’s, with a full page of previously “buried” black and white photos of Lexington’s civil rights sit-ins, demonstrations and its leaders.
So keep in mind that what you read and see and hear in the news is the product of someone making a decision what a publisher (the owner of the “printing press”) thinks you should know. This is more important today than ever, when decision-makers are often not even Americans, they’re Russian bots and trolls.