Monday, April 03, 2006

NEWSPAPERS / Rich Oppel: The only institution with courage, resources to do watchdog journalism

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Oppel: Newspapers, the guardians defending us from official tyranny

By Rich Oppel

I saw the other day where New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller says
he'll spend less time reading blogs and granting interviews to the
bloggers who see newspapers as stumbling behemoths on the way to the

Way to go, Bill.

Nothing is new when it comes to critics predicting the impending doom of
newspapers. I heard the predictions before most of them were born.

The bloggers are derivatives, good at catching "Old Media" in its
mistakes, but virtually incapable of breaking news on their own.

June 1, 1963, was my first day as a cub at The Tampa Tribune, and reporter
Milton Plumb ambled over to give me some advice: "Don't get into this
business, kid. It's dying."

Then Plumb went through his nightly exercise of dismantling his
Smith-Corona and locking up the parts so that no one could use the
typewriter. Then he left.

Today Milt's son Terry is the seasoned, worthy editor of the Rock Hill,
S.C., Herald. So much for dire predictions. We couldn't afford to see
newspapers go away. They are essential to an open society, and we would
all be in sad shape if daily papers weren't here.

In a good fight with big government, the bloggers can't hold the jackets
of newspaper people because they lack shoe-leather experience and the
financial resources of a newspaper to pursue and endure. Further,
magazines have become frothy, and TV news has been crippled by

The business of journalism will change; but the journalism of journalism
needs to hold up.

This is Pulitzer season, when the 18 members of the Pulitzer Prize board .
I'm one of them . read the work of the three finalists in each of 14
journalism categories and then announce winners in mid-April.

Again this year, I see courage, passion and skill in journalism across the
nation, from the great cities to the small towns.

It is evident in the editorials of The Oregonian in Portland, supporting
fair treatment for the institutionalized mentally ill; in Biloxi, Miss.,
where editor Stan Tiner's eloquent writing gave courage to Katrina-mauled
residents; in Toledo, Ohio, where Blade reporters turned up a $200 million
state investment fraud by one of Gov. Bob Taft's golfing buddies.

But whether they are winners or not, two journalistic efforts stand out.
They are national projects done in the face of our nation's growing veil
of secrecy and despite threats by the Bush administration. They could
change history.

Dana Priest, who covers the intelligence world for The Washington Post,
revealed that the CIA was operating "black site" prisons in East Europe.
She showed prisoner abuse, mistaken imprisonment and a record of few
intelligence gains.

The other national piece of great note was "Spying at Home" by Eric
Lichtblau and James Risen of The New York Times. The White House asked
that the articles not be published. The Times published anyway . and
showed that Bush had permitted the National Security Agency to eavesdrop
without court warrants inside the United States.

The NSA spying led investigators to only a few potential terrorists, while
flooding the FBI with useless tips and diverting them from more promising
work. Both the Post and the Times spurred public debate about the balance
of fighting terrorism, civil liberties and the growing concentration of
presidential power.

You can be angry. For those who believe the press is undermining national
security, or at the least playing into the hands of Democrats, remember
that Priest's work caused a Republican-controlled Congress to require the
CIA to report on the secret prisons (which the CIA had, until then, failed
to do).

No newspaper is worth its salt unless it provokes people.

Who would do this work if daily newspapers didn't exist? Who would replace
the Post and the Times on national security, and who would be Biloxi's
voice were it not for Stan Tiner of the Biloxi Sun-Herald?

And if the American-Statesman didn't exist, who would conduct Laylan
Copelin's investigation of Texas redistricting, Texans for a Republican
Majority, the Texas Association of Business and Tom DeLay?

Who would replace Andy Alford and Erik Rodriguez in uncovering the Austin
Police Department's pattern of abusing minorities, which is now lessening?
Who would pick up Robert Elder's close watch on state investment funds?

TV, radio and magazines occasionally penetrate the walls of government to
develop meaningful enterprise, but they do not match the work of more than
50,000 journalists in the newsrooms of American daily newspapers.

No other medium has the resources to stand guard at the wall separating an
informed society from official tyranny.

No one.


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