Why News Can’t Be Business as Usual

Commentary by John McManus

Recently, the publisher of the Sacramento Bee was booed off the stage in the middle of a university commencement speech. Some graduates disagreed with her. Others were bored. So they censored her.

Ironically, her speech was about preserving the freedom to say what the majority doesn’t want to hear. The publisher tried to warn of how shortcuts in the process of justice and abandonment of journalistic neutrality might come back to haunt America. What happened on that stage captures in a single incident why news media can never be run like ordinary businesses.

Journalism is the only business where your job sometimes requires you to drive away paying customers. News media that have taken unpopular stands--even those later applauded have risked the enterprise for a principle that may make them a target on Wall Street and on Main Street.

The Bee’s publisher’s comments earned her the scorn of two-thirds of those who flooded the paper’s ombudsman with messages. There were calls for subscription and advertiser boycotts.  A century ago during the Ku Klux Klan terror, Southern newspapers that opposed lynching black men faced public rebuke. In the civil rights era, Southern papers championing racial integration lost subscribers. Here in California, which newspapers crusaded against the internment of Japanese-Americans?

In journalism, the customer isn’t always right. But the standards of the market are more powerful now than they’ve ever been in American newsrooms. I should say maketS. More and more, news is crafted to please not just readers and viewers, but advertisers, powerful sources, and most importantly, distant investors.

Let the citizen beware: Market-driven journalism is an oxymoron.