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Best of times, worst of times for the media

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It is a grand understatement to say media in American has been undergoing a seismic shift these past few years. We all know print is suffering and could be threatened with extinction in the not-too-distant future (although I am still a firm believer that print will exist in some media outlets for many more decades). Radio has become a dinosaur. Even cable television is getting socked by all the cord-cutters who would rather stream than stick to prime-time viewing.

But, dear reader, all is not lost. We are also witnessing an era of the resurgent dominant dailies: The New York Times and Washington Post are producing the best journalism this country has seen since the 1970s Watergate era. Not only are both of these dominant national newspapers putting heat on the Trump administration and all the dizzying investigations, but The Times has also opened the floodgates on the corporate sexual harassment plague in America. Its ground-breaking expose of Harvey Weinstein, done in painstaking detail, has spurred women around the country to speak out against their tormenters. Many heavyweights in Hollywood, media, the restaurant world, and other industries have been taken down in this tsunami of news coverage.

The Washington Post, now owned by Amazon honcho Jeff Bezos, has doubled-down on investigative journalism and is regularly breaking news out of DC’s ever-increasing swamp. It’s editor, Marty Barron, perhaps the greatest of this generation, has already been lionized on film for his role at the Boston Globe in spearheading the exposes of the Catholic Church pedophilia scandals. Now, the paper of record for the nation’s capital is doing some deep digging into the Russian collusion investigation as well as the financial shenanigans of top Trump officials.

Not to be outdone by its DC competitor, The Times has been breaking scoops left and right — most recently in its detailing of the dubious finances of Trump Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. Not many people realize that Ross once tried his hand at media moguldom in New York back in the mid-1990s. In fact, Crain’s New York once put him on the cover under the headline: “The Mini Murdoch of Local Media.” I know this firsthand because I reported to him at a public media company called News Communications, which then owned 23 newspapers in the metropolitan area and DC. Let’s just say that Ross, now a billionaire, has been more skillful in rolling up bankrupt steel mills than he was in the media business.

It’s actually incredible to contemplate the disdain for the media that this administration has from the top on down. Trump clearly thinks that the media exists to publicize him and his deals in the ways he wants (see the New York Post coverage in the 1990s and early 2000s) but when it is critical of him, it’s “fake news” or “the failing New York Times.”

Son-in-law and minister without portfolio Jared Kushner is famous for his media bumbling as he failed repeatedly during his turn as a budding media mogul. The New York Observer went from an award-winning weekly newspaper to a cringe-worthy media property during Kushner’s brief ownership. He tried starting other magazines like one covering New York society and another covering parenting issues, but they failed miserably. Better he should stick to real estate and tend to Daddy’s once-mighty property empire (which the heir unwisely traded for a trophy property at 666 Fifth Avenue that is now under water).

And don’t get me started on Sean Spicer and Sarah Huckabee Sanders (and let’s not forget The Mooch — We hardly knew ye!), who every day wage their war on the truth and the DC media corps.

Despite these unceasing attacks, quality journalism is rising to the top as evidenced by The Times, The Post, and other great media like Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, the Atlantic, Pro Publica, NPR, and numerous other outlets. They are truly following that famous dictum we all learned at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism our first day: “Good journalism comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.”

I would be remiss, however, in not pointing out some of the bad news in the media of late — the demise of local news outlets like DNA Info (has there ever been a worse name for a company?) and Gothamist. Like the Ross-Kushner style of media ownership, these properties were owned by a wealthy man who wouldn’t know the difference between a lede and a nut graph. Joe Ricketts, the Chicago titan who built financial giant Ameritrade, decided that after his newsroom unionized he would just shut the whole thing down rather than try to forge ahead and figure out a better financial model. I guess it was his money and his right to throw in the towel, but the optics of the timing looked really bad and reminded me that letting mercurial billionaires own media (except for Jeff Bezos) is usually a recipe for disaster.

So go out and pick up your local newspaper, buy a Times digital subscription, donate to NPR, subscribe to Vanity Fair and put your support behind quality journalism. It’s one of the few things standing between our government and so much authoritarianism that we won’t recognize what our country has become.

Tom Allon, president of City & State NY, was a Republican and Liberal Party-backed mayoral candidate in 2013 before he left to return to the private sector. Reach him at tallon@cityandstateny.com.

Updated 12:32 am, July 10, 2018
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