Molly Ivins January 29
BERKELEY, Calif. — I'm apparently up for sale this morning, along with my newspaper, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Our corporate masters have put us on the bidding block, and here we stand, waiting for prospective buyers to come along and inspect our teeth, as it were.
As a veteran of this experience (this is my fourth time on the block), I prefer it when the corporate masters announce the results abruptly after the deed is done. That way, you don't have time to worry about which Simon Legree might come along and snap you up as a bargain at the price. "Could have been worse," we say to one another after the done deal is announced. "We could have gone to Rupert Murdoch." Mr. Murdoch is widely regarded as the worst plantation owner producing our line of crops.
Trouble is, the news business is rapidly becoming one big plantation. I'm looking over the list of potential bidders the same way they're looking over us. Si Newhouse is on the list. Murray Kempton once observed, "I think Si Newhouse has lost his moral compass since Roy Cohn died" — the single meanest thing I've ever heard said about anyone.
Gannett still means Al Neuharth; I always thought he was a dipstick. A.H. Belo Corp.? I once swore that pigs would fly before I'd work for Belo, which owns The Dallas Morning News. Besides, Amon Carter Sr., former patriarch of the Star-Telegram, is gonna come up out of his grave if that happens. When Carter was forced to go to Dallas, which he cordially loathed, he reportedly always carried his own lunch in a brown paper bag so as not to contribute to the economy of Big D.
Amon Sr. has been on my mind lately. I was out in Big Bend over New Year's; few people remember it now, but Amon Sr. was the driving force behind getting the Bend made into a park in the first place. He loved West Texas and started a drive to raise the money to pay for the park. Used the Star-Telegram to crusade for it, too. The new corporate masters don't do things like that; we're on the block because our division is producing a profit of only $200 million this year. That barely covers Michael Ovitz's golden parachute. Yesterday, the Walt Disney Co. announced a 33 percent increase in its net income in the first quarter of fiscal '97.
According to the business pages, Disney faces a huge tax bite by selling off its newspapers — some monster capital-gains tab comes due.
I'm teaching a course now to some of the world's brightest graduate students, trying to convince them that journalism is an honorable and important craft. We talk a lot about what citizens need to know in order to participate in running their own country properly.
We discuss ethical traps and libel and fairness, the morality of writing about the private lives of public figures, and the corruption of the political system by money. We talk about how to get people interested in public affairs and how to report on the public's business without squeezing out all the life and suspense and juice and joy and humor of it. We even talk about just societies and equal opportunity. And, of course, we study the media themselves, the new sources of information, the new technologies. And the concentration of ownership of the media and its effect on what we do.
The dean emeritus of the journalism school at the University of California at Berkeley is the great Ben Bagdikian, author of "Media Monopoly" and perhaps the foremost scholar of the phenomenon.
I've never had much use for management myself. I've worked for a wide variety of managements, and the result is that I always join a union if there's one available. When management was the art of getting a whole bunch of people together to do something in the best way possible, I had some interest in it. But now that it has become an endless quest for increased quarterly profits, I find it boring and a menace to quality.
I suppose that we of the Star-Telegram and our sister papers, with our piddly $200 million profit, could feel some sense of rejection at being dumped by the mighty Disney Co., with its 33 percent increase and acquisition of E! TV. But being dumped by the people who hired Michael Ovitz and then paid $93 million to get rid of him doesn't strike me as a great humiliation.
This genius manager Michael Eisner assured all the newspapers in our group that his company would stay in publishing. In the newspaper trade, which has never been genteel, we call that lying. Personally, I think we're just as well off being dumped out of that frying pan.
Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
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