Tuesday, September 1, 2009

R-J Publisher Grabs Headlines; Others Annoyed

Nobody can accuse me of sucking up to R-J Publisher Sherm Frederick. I have spent many a blog post pointing out when he's lied about circulation figures and questioning how oblivious and arrogant he is about the ongoing disaster that is his website.


On Sunday, he wrote a column about an incident in which an R-J ad boss was told by Sen. Harry Reid: "I hope you go out of business." The paper's editorial writers haven't been too kind to Harry, least of all Frederick himself.

That column has received an enormous amount of attention, with links from Drudge and The New York Times as well as lots of yapping on Fox News. And rightfully so. It was a ridiculous statement for a powerful U.S. senator to make, especially given the condition of the overall economy and the print media. For all the press-bashing coming from the right, I've never once heard a prominent right-wing politician state out loud, "I wish The New York Times would go out of business." Ever.

Yesterday, Las Vegas Sun columnist Jon Ralston attempted to take apart Frederick's moment of attention in his daily e-mail newsletter under the headline: "Great Marketer, Horrible Journalist, Clumsy Demagogue." He asked: "
Was this just a shameless, disingenuous and pathetic cry for attention (please, please read the RJ) using a polarizing national figure to do so? Or was this a sincere concern about a powerful senator threatening to put a newspaper out of business?"

I agree with Ralston that Frederick, in his piece, framed the Reid remark as a "threat" when really it wasn't one. He didn't say, "I'm going to see that you're shut down." It was an inappropriate opinion; Reid now says it was a joke so if so it was an inappropriate joke. The most powerful senator in the nation should not be running around expressing (or even harboring, frankly) a hope that the media ought to be stifled and that hundreds of people should lose their jobs just because he's feeling assaulted by some of its writers. As journalists, that should be instinctively offensive.

Yet Ralston went too far here. I honestly don't believe that Frederick wrote his piece to increase readership in some permanent way. I think he felt he had a good, provocative topic and that's what columnists are supposed to exploit. Ralston, too, writes provocative columns (as do I), but I doubt he does so with a calculation of how much national ink he might receive or whether more people will buy the paper that day. That's the cliche about reporters; people in journalism should know better. If Frederick thinks one column is going to change the fortunes of his publication, he's foolish, but I don't believe he thinks that.

This particular passage of Ralston's I found weird:

"Today, Frederick is bragging on his blog about the thousands of responses. He may honestly think that thousands of people read his column. He may not understand that the column, for obvious reasons, was linked by Drudge, thus generating that volume of response. He may actually be that obtuse - history and my own experience says he is. But it is the national media attention - even The New York Times blogged about it and Fox News is understandably orgasmic - that generated the response on the RJ site."

Well, hold on a second. Why so dismissive of garnering links from major publications? Why is that somehow an invalid means of increased readership? Does Ralston himself not make note when he gets into the national press? If his site gets more traffic when he's on "Rachel Maddow," does he shrug it off or find it gratifying? Could it not also be said that Ralston was attempting, by firing off such a harsh assault, to stick his own head into the spotlight that Frederick has obtained in this instance? And if so, isn't that just how this game is played by folks on every side of the spectrum?

It also struck me as strange for Ralston, later in the piece, to attack the R-J's news pages for significant bias against Reid. They extensively covered the publicity stunt/re-election effort known as a Green Energy Summit recently, for instance, and for a so-called right-wing paper they've given fairly even-handed and prominent coverage to President Obama. Sure, they're covering Reid's foibles, too; he's a very controversial and undeniably locally unpopular figure and if the coverage didn't reflect that it would be inaccurate.

Furthermore, I've been friends with both former political writer Molly Ball and current one Ben Spillman and I find them both to be painstakingly fair and sincere journalists. I doubt, for instance, that Molly and Sherm would agree on much of anything politically, knowing her as I have, and that's saying something. If he were vetting his political writers for biases that line up with his own, he's doing a lousy job.

No publication -- especially in this city -- gets a pass on ideological purity in its news or editorial pages. I'm totally with Ralston that the R-J has failed to cover the Sen. John Ensign sex scandal with the gusto it deserves, but there are other stories that the R-J owns that the Sun hasn't addressed and plenty that I've broken that neither paper has touched. And the Sun certainly has its political biases that absolutely do bleed through from time to time in the way pieces are conceived, written and displayed. Because writers are given more liberties at the Sun and allowed to be more analytical, I submit it probably happens more at the Sun -- and that's OK, because the Sun has created a niche for itself that allows for that.

To clarify and summarize: Yes, Frederick was exploiting the situation. No, Reid didn't "threaten." But yes, Reid deserved to be called out for the remark any which way because the remark was the biggest sin of all that transpired here.


The Gay Ranger said...

And once again, Steve Friess arrives as the voice of reason and integrity in this town. Congrats for writing this. Perfectly put.

Michael said...

Nice piece Steve, glad to see you continue to try and shake issues down to their core. Now if we could all do it politically, maybe we'd get somewhere someday.

NewsMediaBiased said...

Well well well. Not sure I agree with the take, but it is more revealing about the sad state of the news and the news media. The news media was 'threatened' by a politician who has actual power, yet the media is in a circular firing squad about "right wing media", "Fox News", and "bias". The news media should be critical to all and I can't help feeling that some get a pass due to political bias. It's like lighten up on Reid because Ensign got a pass, or so it seems.

"No publication -- especially in this city -- gets a pass on ideological purity in its news or editorial pages."

Yet you refute yourself immediately following this line. Care for a re-write?


NMB: Nobody has shown me what the threat was contained in the sentence "I hope your newspaper goes out of business." That's not a threat. It's a bad thing to say or think, but it's not a threat. And I certainly am not saying that anyone should lighten up on anyone, so I'm confused by your comments. I also don't see how what I wrote after that line shows me to be inconsistent.

NewsMediaBiased said...

I suppose the person who says this makes the difference. Reid said it so the threat seems "tame"? How about if Bill Frist or Trent Lott said it.

Below that quote, you excused Sun's political bias, not that I was aware of it, but you certainly know about it and explained how Sun gets a pass .... "and that's OK".

Anonymous said...

This was not a threat to the R-J -- it's something the R-J made up to create a big splash. And they all know it, which makes them liars.

Liars should not be journalists. They're the last people who should be journalists.

Reid, for his part, was just being himself: A dick.

So there are no winners in this fight, just a bunch of losers.

For the record, I thought Ralston's take was correct.