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Richard McCord goes after Gannett.

By Marc K. Stengel and Elaine Phillips

MAY 18, 1998:  Perhaps Richard McCord just can't help himself. By the time the Tucker, Ga., native was a senior at Vanderbilt University in the early '60s, he was editor of The Hustler student newspaper. His decision to pursue a journalist's career in '67 eventually led him to Newsday in New York and then to New Mexico, where he launched and edited the weekly Santa Fe Reporter. His 1996 exposé, The Chain Gang: One Newspaper Versus the Gannett Empire (U. of Missouri Press), could only spring from the heart and mind of an inveterate newspaperman with ink in his veins and perfidy in his cross-hairs.

"The daily newspaper still has a very prominent role to play," McCord says. "People idly toss out the idea that nobody reads anymore because everyone's watching television. I don't think that's the case at all. Even though there are various electronic choices, the printed paper is still the most substantive source of news for a given community.

"But the role of the newspaper has shifted a great deal. At the end of World War II, about 80 percent of the daily newspapers in America were locally owned. This doesn't mean all of them were great newspapers, but it does mean they were based in their communities. Today, the situation is just about reversed. About 80 percent of the nation's daily newspapers today--and there are fewer of them, by the way--are chain-owned."

The creeping conglomeration of the nation's media--particularly among daily newspapers--is McCord's greatest fear. His critics would like to dismiss his view of the national media landscape as delusional. The United States is, after all, both birthplace and bulwark of the world's most enviably free press. Like Cassandra within her own impregnable walls of Troy, McCord seeks listeners who will give credence to dire warnings.

"The fear of a centralized press or media originally sprang from a concern that totalitarian governments would be in control," he observes. "After all, that's what happened in George Orwell's 1984, and that's what was literally happening in the Soviet Union and what had happened in Nazi Germany. This is why there is so much chanting and banner-waving on behalf of the free ownership of the press. The Gannetts, the Knight-Ridders, the Disneys, and all the other huge companies say, 'We're the very embodiment of the free press.'

"But it's not really working out that way," McCord warns. "You've got the vast majority of all the daily newspapers throughout the country controlled by just a few companies, and all of them are bent upon maximizing profits far more than upon the free and unfettered delivery of the news. So while nobody was paying attention, it seems, we've created some version of what George Orwell was worried about. Ultimately, what controls the press now is corporate economics, and corporate economics is not what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they sought to preserve the independence of the press, pointedly, in the very Constitution of this country."

Personal experience serves as both a shield and an Achilles' Heel in McCord's raging battle. It is his shield because he has endured a corporate confrontation with the Gannett newspaper chain and lived to tell the tale. Nevertheless, his detractors point to McCord's central role in the drama of The Chain Gang as a source of diminished objectivity. In any event, he admits being drafted into battle involuntarily and by surprise.

"I had learned that a very prosperous weekly in Salem, Ore.--The Community Press--had been driven totally out of business by Gannett in a very brutal campaign," McCord explains. "For example, Gannett sent a new publisher in who announced to the staff that he had come to destroy The Community Press. The campaign was called, literally, Operation Demolition; and the people who worked for it were called The Dobermans.

"So they unleashed The Dobermans simply to drive all the business out of The Community Press. When that paper went out of business, it sued Gannett on antitrust grounds. Well, I'd gone there to research the file, and in so doing I discovered testimony by the Western Advertising Manager for K-Mart identifying another town where something similar was happening. That town turned out to be Santa Fe, and suddenly I realized my paper was next on Gannett's hit list. Because we publicized what had been done in Oregon, we prevented a similar thing from happening in Santa Fe."

Ultimately, Gannett settled out of court with the publishers of The Community Press for amounts undisclosed and with records sealed. The reason Gannett folded its cards on the eve of trial, McCord's book suggests, was the media chain's unwillingness "to have its practices revealed in open court." But the court of public opinion, McCord believes, remains open.

"I do think that the ways of Gannett need to be known to the world," he admits. "I've made the strongest effort I could to get this story out. I was hoping that the book would create some kind of internal embarrassment, cause a little self-examination at Gannett, get their board of directors concerned or encourage the many fine people who work there to start talking about the way their company does business.

"But you know, when it comes right down to it, I think people have their own problems. Of course, I think it's extremely important for those of us who are working on this to fight tooth and nail to preserve a free and widely decentralized press, but I don't deceive myself into believing this is a really emotional issue for the average man and woman. What it all comes down to, I guess, is that everyone has their own fight to fight. This one just happens to be mine."

--Marc K. Stengel

Wrung out

Spin Cycle: Inside the Clinton Propaganda Machine, by Howard Kurtz (The Free Press: A Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., $25.00) In his latest book, Howard Kurtz, longtime media reporter for The Washington Post, investigates the press corps' struggle with the Clinton White House's media experts. Kurtz aims to prove with Spin Cycle that the current administration has been the most successful at creating positive spin, and he cites as proof Bill Clinton's high public approval rating despite a growing number of scandals and allegations.

From the outset, there's one problem with Kurtz's thesis: Bad news emerging from the Clinton White House needs spinning because it becomes public. Truly successful propagandists keep bad news from surfacing at all. For instance, John F. Kennedy's womanizing and health problems never made the news during his lifetime because the press corps liked him and cooperated with his press secretaries. And there's the rub: For various reasons, journalists despise Clinton, and they take out their hatred on him by covering every negative story they can find.

This doesn't mean, however, that Spin Cycle isn't an engrossing read. The book is driven by an implicit plot: Amoral but clever spin doctors try to outfox and manipulate feisty, plucky journalists. Kurtz grudgingly gives due respect to current press secretary Mike McCurry for his toughness, flexibility, sense of humor, and self-awareness. He criticizes McCurry, however, for his sarcastic and contemptuous handling of overly persistent journalists. Surprisingly, Kurtz portrays Hillary Rodham Clinton in a sympathetic light. The media characterizes Mrs. Clinton as cold and controlling, but Kurtz's account of her early trust in the press and its betrayal of her makes the first lady's reluctance to court journalists understandable.

Curiously, Kurtz's characterization of Bill Clinton seems based mainly on journalists' impressions of the president: arrogant and dishonest as governor of Arkansas, sleazy and immoral as a candidate in the 1992 presidential campaign, and ungrateful to his supporters as president. Kurtz apparently agrees with the journalists' assessment of Clinton, because he never contradicts or qualifies his sources' descriptions. Indeed, Spin Cycle implicitly condemns the president as an arrogant man who thinks he is above ethics and the law.

Part of that condemnation can be found in Kurtz's description of McCurry and other press secretaries, who carefully orchestrate the president's press conferences and interviews to keep Clinton from rambling indiscreetly and giving reporters more rope with which to hang him. Writing as a savvy insider, the author presents both the spin doctors' maneuvering and the journalists' counterattacks clearly and suspensefully. As the two sides engage in a symbiotic dance, it becomes clear just how the news is manipulated into something other than the truth. While Kurtz admires the wiliness of McCurry and co., he doesn't like the ends to which they put their considerable intelligence and energy. He ends the book with the events of February 1998, obviously believing that the White House's spin doctors will fail to control the damage done by the Monica Lewinsky scandal. While the fallout from the sex scandal isn't over, Kurtz's conclusion already seems premature.

Spin Cycle doesn't idealize the media as disinterested truth-seekers, but the book does sympathize with them. Kurtz attributes their contempt and their appetite for scandal to their frustration with the Clinton administration's manipulative tactics. As he points out, the increasing public appetite for news makes journalists more competitive than ever. When a big story breaks, reporters pursue it because of a desire for the truth, one-upmanship, and revenge. Kurtz sees the journalists' motivations as justified because they have to tolerate so much garbage from the White House. That said, however, Spin Cycle is not an obvious anti-Clinton diatribe. Kurtz does try to see things from the White House press secretaries' point of view, but he clearly thinks the Clinton administration deserves its comeuppance at the hands of the press.

Spin Cycle will appeal to Clinton haters, Washington gossip junkies, and anyone interested in postmodern Machiavellian practices. These people will find confirmation for their views in the book's casebook histories of spin that succeeds and fails. At the same time, Clinton sympathizers and people disgusted with the news media's self-absorption should read this book as well, because it explains why Clinton gets pilloried for the same peccadilloes that other presidents have committed without fanfare.

In the end, readers of Spin Cycle will feel as if they're watching a coon hunt. Seeing a pack of coonhounds tree a frightened, solitary raccoon is an unappealing sight, but Kurtz suggests that perhaps the raccoon has been up to his own mischief, killing poultry and menacing the hounds. Like the journalists in Spin Cycle, the hounds are only doing their job--the difference is that their drive to destroy their prey is much purer and simpler.

--Elaine Phillips

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