David Sirota is a Denver-based syndicated newspaper columnist, radio host, and the author of three books, including Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live in Now. His article “The Only Game in Town: An unlikely comeback for dying newspapers” appears in the September 2012 issue of Harper’s Magazine.
Last month, the Denver Business Journal showed that international banking scandals can be a major focus of local reporting. In its article “LIBOR scandal may cost Denver schools money,” the low-circulation trade magazine documented how the interest-rate scandal, which originated in the United Kingdom, could end up bilking Colorado taxpayers of millions thanks to a refinancing plan for schools orchestrated in 2008 by then superintendent Michael Bennet. His controversial scheme placed Denver’s public-school-district pension fund in the hands of the finance industry, which later underwrote his U.S. Senate campaign.
In a state facing recurring budget deficits and underfunded schools, such losses are a blockbuster story—just as they are in every municipality whose finances have been destroyed by conniving politicians. But to date, most Coloradans haven’t heard about the local implications of the LIBOR scandal or the problems with the school-refinancing scheme. That’s because their media market’s dominant broadsheet, the Denver Post, has chosen not to invest serious resources in reporting on them.
Why the reticence from the square state’s newspaper of record? I ask this question in the September edition of Harper’s Magazine—and after many months of reporting, I found that the answer was far more insidious than mere newsroom layoffs.
Yes, it’s true, metro dailies have been shedding reporters, collectively decreasing the nation’s newspaper editorial staffs by 25 percent in two decades according to the American Society of News Editors. And yes, that has predictably reduced the scope and depth of local media coverage. However, when blockbuster stories are patently being ignored, the omissions suggest calculation. Indeed, they often have less to do with dwindling reportorial resources than with political machinations, information suppression, and monopoly power. That’s especially the case today, when newly minted newspaper monopolists—from Chicago to Philadelphia to San Diego to smaller markets—are also well-known political puppeteers.
In Denver, the new Citizen Kane is Dean Singleton, one of the most overtly political local newspapermen in contemporary American history. As the head of MediaNews, he has long bragged of his close relationships with conservative, business-friendly politicians from both parties, and has often had his paper publish reports of his birthday parties and award ceremonies with the city’s political elite. Always something of a powerbroker, Singleton has become even more willing to employ his media empire to defend his political allies and attack his political enemies since the Post’s primary competitor, the Rocky Mountain News, shut down in 2009. Today, as 5280 magazine noted in listing Singleton as the second most powerful person in Denver, local politicians must “regularly run their ideas by him and try to avoid unflattering Denver Post coverage.”
The Post’s failure to cover the Bennet story illustrates how the new Kanes’ power works. Prior to becoming active in Denver politics, Bennet made millions as a corporate raider for archconservative billionaire Philip Anschutz. He is the embodiment of the Singleton brand: he has an aristocratic pedigree, he’s antiunion, and he’s closely connected to big business. With that profile, he was able to get himself appointed Denver’s mayoral chief of staff, school superintendent, and U.S. senator within fifteen years of moving to Colorado. His meteoric rise was propelled, in part, by the Post’s repeated omissions and fantasies—which had few venues for refutation once the Rocky Mountain News had collapsed.
On the omission side, the aforementioned refusal to report Bennet’s role in exposing taxpayers to the LIBOR scandal is one small event in a chain of pro-Bennet deletions highlighted in my Harper’s article. On the fantasy side, many examples exist, but here is an emblematic one: During Bennet’s 2010 election battle, the Post’s election-year profiles reimagined him as a gate-crasher—an outsider on a “crusade to reform the way Washington works,” despite his pedigree as a consummate Washington insider. (The son of a U.S. ambassador, he grew up in D.C., attended the prestigious St. Albans School, and worked as a political staffer in the Clinton Justice Department).
Singleton is as hostile to his ideological enemies as he is friendly to his allies. In 2010, the Post published a house editorial demanding that G.O.P. gubernatorial nominee Dan Maes prematurely end his candidacy. After Maes ran a successful primary campaign against the state’s political establishment, KDVR Fox 31 reported that Singleton was “privately [urging] several prominent Republicans to retract their expressed support” for the candidate, which led Campaigns and Elections magazine to warn that Singleton had become active in Republican circles. Less than a year later, the Post slow-walked a story involving prostitution allegations against business-friendly mayoral candidate Michael Hancock, secure in the knowledge that no competing newspaper existed to beat it to a potential scoop.
The alt weekly Westword notes that the Post’s editorial page “has been trending rightward for a while now—and the changes made since the Rocky folded are pushing it even further in that direction.” According to former Post columnist Susan Greene, right after the Rocky closed, her editors began spiking columns that might have embarrassed powerful Colorado politicos. When she resigned from the paper in 2010, she wrote a cathartic piece for the Huffington Post. “Staying true to the Denver Post brand required a certain type of Stockholm syndrome,” she said. “It meant internalizing what you figure your boss and your boss’s boss might deem inconvenient to print, say, before they hop on the train to Frontier Days with a posse of politicians and advertisers.” Survey data from the Pew Research Center confirm that this kind of self-censorship has long been a problem in newsrooms—in this new Citizen Kane era, the problem is clearly getting worse.
Greene also recounted to me that within a few months of the Rocky’s demise, Singleton’s influence was eroding not only the objectivity of the Post’s political coverage, but the watchdog notions at the heart of traditional journalism. “The minute the Rocky went under, [the Post] didn’t have to pretend it was about journalism anymore,” she told me. “That’s why shortly after the Rocky went under, there was no budget at the Post to lawyer anything up, so you just didn’t write anything that needed legal consultation. The message was loud and clear: don’t write that kind of tough stuff.”
If you think this sounds like a Denver-specific story, think again. According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the share of cities with a competing newspaper went from 60 percent in 1910 to just 2 percent in 1971, and that 2 percent has since dwindled even more, leaving most media markets with a single newspaper. Not surprisingly, a Federal Communications Commission report noted last year that American journalism has experienced “a shift in the balance of power—away from citizens, toward powerful institutions,” with newspapers becoming “more reliant on news doled out by press release or official statement.” While some argue that radio stations, television outlets, and Internet sites can challenge the newspaper monopolists’ power, CRS notes that those outlets, which are facing resource shortages of their own, often “piggyback on reporting done by much larger newspaper staffs.” The result, says Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, is that “most of what the public learns is still overwhelmingly driven by traditional media—particularly newspapers.”
Taken together, this means that more one-newspaper markets are at the mercy of newspaper owners’ personal and political agendas than ever before.
In one-newspaper San Diego, conservative businessman and activist Douglas Manchester bought the Union-Tribune in 2011 and promptly published a front-page editorial promoting a real estate deal from which he stood to profit. In Chicago, according to Tribune editor Ann Marie Lipinski, Sam Zell pushed the editorial page of his Tribune to slam Rod Blagojevich (D.) in hopes of pressuring the then governor to ink a deal that would have enriched Zell’s company. In Philadelphia, a consortium of political powerbrokers, including businessman and Democratic Party boss George Norcross, recently bought the Inquirer; according to the New York Times, while Norcross was considering purchasing the paper, it left unpublished a damning report on possible conflicts of interest inside his hospital business.
Vigorous competition once provided a natural bulwark against such manipulation of the news. Simply put, newspapers couldn’t stray too far from objectivity for fear of being humiliated or scooped. With that competition disappearing, today’s moguls see objectivity as an obstacle that can be overcome. Like Charles Foster Kane before them, they want people to think what they tell them to think—and with newspaper competition a thing of the past, their wish is coming true.