In the September 2012 issue of Harper’s Magazine, David Sirota had an excellent article (subscription required for the full article though you can see a shortened version here) that examined how the fact that almost all the major cities have become one newspaper towns lacking any competition has resulted in in an unhealthy collusion between the papers and local institutions and business leaders, with the papers often suppressing stories that might harm the interests and images of powerful people.
Sirota reports that we now have the odd situation of (say) the New York Times writing an expose of corruption in Denver while the Denver Post sat on the story because its publisher had a cozy relationship with the people involved. So the people of Denver had to find out from an out-of-town newspaper what was going on in their own back yard.
Vigorous competition once provided a natural bulwark against such manipulation of the news. Simply put, newspapers couldn’t stray too far from objectivity for fear of being humiliated or scooped. With that competition disappearing, today’s moguls see objectivity as an obstacle that can be overcome. Like Charles Foster Kane before them, they want people to think what they tell them to think—and with newspaper competition a thing of the past, their wish is coming true.
In the article, Sirota revealed something about The Plain Dealer that I was not aware of, perhaps because the events happened before I moved here. It lent support to yesterday’s post about this paper’s obsession with covering news about the Catholic Church and the veneration with which it seems to hold the institution.
Conflict avoidance is almost always the outcome when cities are denuded of newspaper competition. In Cleveland in the mid-1980s, for instance, the Plain Dealer soft-pedaled an investigative report about a Catholic Church pedophilia scandal, knowing it wouldn’t be scooped because its competitor, the Cleveland Press, had closed its doors.
In each of these situations, the monopoly newspaper chose to avoid a high-profile (and potentially litigious) confrontation with a civic institution or public figure, knowing full well it could do so without losing a story to a competitor. “With no competition, the issue is whether the newspaper becomes a keeper of secrets,” says Jason Berry, whose investigation of the Catholic Church and pedophilia was spiked by the Plain Dealer.
In other words, thanks to The Plain Dealer‘s collusion, the Catholic Church was allowed to continue its corrupt pedophilic practices in secret. Who knows how many more young people were subjected to its abuses as a result.