This is one of those columns that will piss-off some of my geekier readers. They’ll complain that I am covering this subject at all, they will declare me dead or at least too stupid to be worth reading, and they will claim to be departing Cringelyville never to return. Frankly, I don’t give a damn. And it is important that I not give a damn, because that’s what freedom of the press is all about. This column concerns a particularly damning story about Goldman Sachs, the big Wall Street bank, that is available online now from the Rolling Stone. But I’m not so interested here in Goldman, or even in our ongoing global financial nightmare: I am fascinated by the fact that the story is in Rolling Stone and not in the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times.
This is not liberal media bias or conservative media bias, it is simple dollars and cents — the inevitable economic pressures that are felt in any media organization that relies on advertising for revenue. If you went to the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times they’d tell you there is a wall between “church and state” as it is sometimes referred to in the newspaper business — a wall that keeps ad salesmen from calling reporters and ostensibly gives the news side carte blanche to follow stories wherever they go, no matter who they annoy.
Except that usually isn’t the way it works in real life.
Read the Rolling Stone piece. It is one of a series of long stories about the financial crisis in that magazine from writer Matt Taibbi — stories that paint a scathing and foul-mouthed picture of corporate greed, especially at Goldman Sachs. In this particular installment the writer makes a strong argument that Goldman executives should be in prison. And he’s probably correct.
Why isn’t this story in the Wall Street Journal, minus the cuss words? Why isn’t it in the New York Times? Will something like it ever be in either of those papers? Probably not. And I write this freely admitting that I like the New York Times and I think the Wall Street Journal often does a pretty good job with its technology coverage.
As Deep Throat said, “Follow the money.”
I first noticed this media syndrome as a child reading airplane magazines. I came from a flying family and airplanes have been part of my life all my life, so I grew up reading Flying, and AOPA Pilot, and Sport Aviation. And I noticed that when those magazines reviewed a new airplane they hardly ever said anything bad about it. Yet a few years later, when they covered the same airplane as something you might buy used, it was as though they were flying a completely different machine. The very same writers were suddenly pointing-out “chronic problems” in a plane that might be “something of a dog.”
Airplane manufacturers don’t run ads for their old models, just the new ones. And used aircraft are competition for new ones so it is in the manufacturer’s economic interest for journalists to like the new stuff but not like the older stuff. And that’s how it seemed to play.
So I became, at 12, a media cynic.
Jann Wenner owns Rolling Stone which he founded during the Summer of Love when I was 15. He can publish these stories that don’t appear — and will probably never appear — in the Wall Street Journal or New York Times mainly because his business is radically different from their businesses. Rolling Stone doesn’t look to Citibank or Morgan Stanley for advertising. And Jann Wenner has nobody to report to except himself. Like me, he doesn’t give a damn. Those other papers have shareholders and boards of directors that inevitably create a cesspool of interests and intrigue no matter what the church-versus-state rules are supposed to be.
This is not to say that the Journal and the Times won’t jump on this story at some point, but that point will carefully be after it is already too late. If Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein goes to jail, those papers will cover it, not predict it, and they certainly won’t make it happen. At best they’ll carefully explain the story after the fact.
If this was an equivalent crisis in the music business, would Jann Wenner cover that as zealously and risk offending his own advertiser base? I hope so, but maybe not.
We’re in the middle of a global trend toward media consolidation so what I decry here is only going to get worse. Against it our best hope isn’t Wenner — though he is for the moment my hero — it is the blogosphere, the edge of which you are touching right now. Longtime readers will recall dozens of pretty darned big stories of technological bullying and badness that were covered right here and often nowhere else. When I was beating the crap out of Microsoft over Burst.com, for example, reporters from Big Media kept saying to me, “I wish we could write stories like that.”
What was stopping them?
As the blogosphere evolves, my worry is that whatever independent voice or impact we have will be lost. I fear that the Huffington Post, for example, will be less useful to society as part of AOL than it was before.
Consolidation breeds mediocrity. What we need, then, are better ways to disseminate both information and opinion. The search engines can’t do it, or won’t. Google News won’t index this rag, for example, so what good is it? Is Google for searching or finding? More on that tomorrow.