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Political Animal

The Fourth Plantation

By Brian Morton | Posted 12/17/2008

Originally the term, "The Fourth Estate" referred to "the mob" or "the rabble," as it was used in 19th-century England and France, with the other "estates" being the king, the clergy, and the commons, or the legislature. According to William Safire's New Political Dictionary, the term didn't really refer to the press until the 1820s.

Nowadays, that estate is in serious disrepair, having been pummeled by issues of greed, mistrust, and the effects of the souring economy. Here in Baltimore, we sit and watch The Sun bleed people every other couple of months--first waves of buyouts, and then layoffs, with each respective contraction accompanied by the standard declarations of how a shrunken newspaper will be able to deliver a better product. It's sort of like saying that the less soap you use, the cleaner you'll get.

Of course, the latest incarnation of the Other Paper's woes comes from the classic greed of the man who bought the Tribune Co., the conglomerate which owns The Sun, the Chicago Tribune, and the Los Angeles Times, among other papers. Sam Zell, a man who admitted at the start that he didn't like newspapers, acted like a 1980s-era corporate raider more interested in how much money he could get from the parts than the sum of the whole. Zell bought Tribune using financial machinations similar to the chicanery Wall Street used when creating the sub-prime mortgage fiasco. It's still amazing that anyone could think they could run a viable business by taking on $13 billion worth of debt. And Zell financed his deal by borrowing against the future of the employees' pension plan, as if other people's futures are something to be gambled away by a 67-year-old tycoon who wanted a new toy.

And there's more than just appearances that link the fall of once-great newspapers and Wall Street: The board members of Tribune, when authorizing the sale, were listening to Citigroup and Merrill Lynch, which, according to The New York Times, "walked off with $35.8 million and $37 million, respectively." That alone should have been a warning siren; they may be bullish on America, but for decades, everything Merrill Lynch has touched has turned to shit.

In his recap of this decade's Wall Street debacle, Michael Lewis, the author of Liar's Poker, quotes one the few people who saw the writing on the wall as saying, "whenever there's a calamity, Merrill is there." Bankrupting Orange County in California in the 1990s, dumping money into dot-coms before the collapse, and as Lewis says, "way back in the 1980s, when the first bond trader was let off his leash and lost hundreds of millions of dollars, Merrill was there to take the hit." And now both Merrill Lynch and Citigroup are ass and elbows deep in one of the country's biggest newspaper groups heading for the toilet. What a surprise: Merrill Lynch had to be eaten by Bank of America, and Citigroup is getting one of the biggest taxpayer bailouts in history. And the employees of Tribune get screwed twice over, since their pensions ended up in the pockets of all the crooks who put the deal together, plus they're paying for the bailouts with their tax dollars.

It's not just Tribune, either. Gannett, one of the largest newspaper chains in the country, has cut close to 2,000 jobs, according to a former Gannett editor who maintains a blog covering the company.

As for the content of journalism itself, well, for every serious bit of real journalism being produced, there seems to be reams of crap churned out as filler. The easiest way to recognize this is to walk over to your television and turn it on. For the last eight years, science has taken it on the chin from an administration more interested in politics than policy, leaving us in a hole when it comes to journalism devoted to things such as climate change. Now CNN has shuttered its entire science, environment, and technology department. As the Columbia Journalism Review put it, "one can't help but feel dismayed by CNN's decision or that this industry, at least for the time being, is sadly deteriorating."

In the next 10 years, the news business is going to undergo some radical changes, many revolving around the transition from newsprint to the internet. Unfortunately, many of those changes may also come about due to the foolishness, venality, and greed of those investors who looked to the business as a cash cow and not as the informational engine at the heart of an intelligent democracy.

When the Sam Zells of the world think of newspapers (and by extension, television news), they think of profit centers and not of the thousands of people who report on science, politics, finance, foreign events, crime, and entertainment. And they don't think of what happens when their debt-ridden acquisitions are forced to supposedly create more out of less: more "news" with less people. If it continues, journalism will be less of an estate than a plantation, where the employees only get to watch from a distance as the owners sit on the veranda, living richly off the pensions of their minions.

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