Dear President Biden and Members of Congress:
I apologize if what follows appears pretentious or self-serving. It is not my intent.
I am merely going to state some salient facts to let you know I have accumulated, during the last 50 years, a variety of experiences in the field of journalism – and thus hopefully establish my bonafides to cogently discuss the problems in journalism today.
My career has given me the experience that only a small number of the total population ever gets first hand – and even fewer understand. Hopefully, I understand.
I am also a registered voter who has voted in every local, state and federal election since 1979. I’ve voted in PTA meetings, meetings of the library club and proudly cast the deciding ballot in the impromptu “Dr. Frank-n-Furter” look-alike contest in a dive bar on the campus of the University of Missouri in 1980. I wasn’t old enough to drink, but I was old enough to vote so I was there . . . and of course I drank. It was a college town. It was 1980. It was The Shack. Ask a Mizzou alum. As an alternative you can “Google” the history of Beetle Bailey.
Mizzou was a party college - don’t take my word for it - I think Playboy gave us a shout out on its pages when I was at MIZZOU. For two years in a row on April Fools day, a local weed dealer hid hundreds of one-ounce bags of pot in and around the campus, chalked the sidewalks advertising “Bag Day” and then proceeded to sit back and watch thousands of college-aged kids run around the campus on a weed-inspired Easter Egg hunt.
But I digress.
Since those college days, ending in 1983, I’ve been a working reporter. I have covered every presidential campaign since 1984. However, I began my journalism sojourn at a much earlier age. In 1973 I became a paperboy. I was proud to deliver The Jefferson Reporter, a weekly newspaper that later hired me to work in the production room laying out pages part-time. Being a paperboy gave you a certain amount of freedom I’ve always enjoyed. Just getting out on an early morning walk when no one else was around – that put a smile on my face.
I became the editor of my high school newspaper where I interviewed then County
Executive/Judge Mitch McConnell for the first time. I’ve worked for community newspapers as well as much larger daily newspapers; for television and radio stations, magazines, television networks, live-stream events and I host a podcast.
When I began my professional journey, regional newspapers like the Des Moines Register and the Courier Journal and Louisville Times helped inform the south and the Midwest. Once family owned, they’re now both part of the Gannett dung heap of once hallowed and now hollowed out journalistic trophies. The weekly community newspaper when I was growing up offered more comprehensive coverage than today’s Courier Journal.
I’ve written books, managed investigative teams, I’ve worked upper, middle and lower management positions, including time as an executive editor of a small community newspaper group. I’ve also been a staff reporter and freelance photographer. In my first professional experience I also had a turn selling ads – something I hadn’t done since my high school newspaper. I am not a salesman.
I love just being a reporter. The joy is in the experience of meeting all kinds of people, reporting the news and trying to help others by providing them vetted facts. This career doesn’t lead to outrageous wealth – for many it doesn’t even pay the rent. And for others it has carried a death sentence. Reporters die just trying to do their job. Reporters are jailed, beaten, shot (or in my case shot at), hauled before grand juries and arrested for speaking out. I've experienced all of that and more. I had to fight the Trump administration three times in court to keep my press pass.
Even If you do your job right, or most especially if you do your job right, then you’re going to piss off a lot of people. It isn’t for the faint hearted. But I very much would like it to continue and believe while many understand its value to our society in theory, the reality is that those of us who’ve done this for a while know that the rest of you still don’t get the point.
And I hate being the parent in the room. I would much rather be searching on a college campus for a bag of weed hidden in the bushes, or at least on stage playing with the band, but here’s the truth: The sun is setting on our chance to fix this. We can no longer pretend we’re attempting to fix the problem when we’re clearly not even addressing the problem.
The audience believes it knows the problem: we don’t do our job very well. They say we’re either bought by the left, bought by the right, or bought by those who just want to watch the fight.
Many don’t understand the key word in all of those descriptions is the word “bought.” It isn’t a partisan issue. It’s an economic issue. Journalism is a business that, in part, has fallen to the P.T. Barnum/gambler/con artist philosophy that tells us a sucker is born every minute. The problem in the press is we are too busy pandering to an audience that enjoys a sense of moral superiority in its ignorance.
As a result of the grifting, American journalism is in many cases, nothing more than bottom-dwelling entertainment; cheaply made, produced and sold. The “Free Press” is a national fast food franchise for the information and entertainment section of the authoritarian regime coming soon to a neighborhood near you.
Here is my message if you missed it:
Journalism needs help.
There must be government participation in finding a solution because we got into this pernicious Gordian Knot via government manipulation. Someone in government needs to step up and play Alexander’s role and cut the damn knot.
In the last 40 years the journalism business has spent an inordinate amount of time and money dealing with anti-SLAPP legislation (look it up), the removal of public notice ads, state laws to limit access to information, FOIA laws that were meant to give us access to information but do the exact opposite and deregulation that led to massive consolidation of the business. We’ve also seen the loosening of ownership restrictions through deregulation lead to huge ‘vulture’ capitol groups buying up and blowing up regional and community newspapers, television and radio stations. We have seen laws enacted that make it easier to jail reporters or allow “public” figures to easily sue and intimidate reporters. There have been a lack of economic incentives, few tax breaks and at the same time we’ve seen loan restrictions for startups that make running and operating internet content providers, newspapers, television and radio stations difficult if not impossible.
Oh, you can get a loan . . . but only if you don’t need one to survive.
Everything I’ve just mentioned and many more questionable and sadly laughable actions by government have combined to destroy independent journalism. Nearly every action taken toward the press (most especially those that have been enacted with claims of “helping the press”) in the last 40 years by local, state and federal government has paved the way for today’s media landscaped loathed by nearly everyone – including many of us still working in the industry.
There are those who want to argue this was all premeditated, and while I think good conspiracy theories are great conversation starters, I really don’t care about the motive at this point. A forensic analysis of the cause of demise is ill advised while the patient is still on life support. Best we heal the patient first. Otherwise we’re all complicit in its death.
This is a survival issue. How can a society survive when a growing number of people believe in facts that do not exist?
From vastly different backgrounds, beliefs and concerns, a majority of Americans – for those among us who like opinion polls – agree that today’s press is largely untrustworthy and wildly inaccurate. They all welcome change. It may be the ultimate bipartisan issue – even embraced by flat-earthers, conspiracy theorists, those who oppose teaching history, and most stray Druids and Wiccans.
Solutions are still available to us, but I think the window is closing on our ability to make the necessary changes.
We must focus on media literacy, media independence, and media competition.
Those who crave better accountability from the press and claim to be capitalists should understand that competition is the market’s way of making the journalism community more accountable. The more eyewitnesses to history the better. That’s a simple fact behind the concept of transparency. So, to get more reporters you need more companies. To get more companies we need to limit the number of outlets one company can own. It is government’s responsibility to encourage sustained competition. Then step back and let us do our job.
Let’s start with a public hearing (yes, that's an in-joke). We used to love covering those – when we had reporters trained in far more than the art of the “gotcha” question or fawning over celebrities, royalty, Aaron Rodger’s latest diva episode and anyone named Kardashian.
We need the participation of not just media owners, but reporters, independent writers, producers, photographers and anyone involved in the editorial process. In an ideal world we would have a presidential blue ribbon commission study and recommend changes that should include (in my opinion) the following: We would reinstitute the Fairness Doctrine and find a way to extend it to social media; study ways to make social media more factual; introduce ways to increase media literacy among the general population; and enact a federal “Shield Law” to protect investigative reporting while forcing the federal government to be responsive to FOIA requests.
We could explore enhancing non-profit reporting, giving tax breaks to small media businesses and even to an average taxpayer who subscribes to a daily or weekly newspaper. We can explore ways to subsidize the cost of newspaper publishing and multi-platform news production.
But we must also investigate ways to use existing antitrust legislation to break up media monopolies. Washington Post editor Ben Bagdikian (who was instrumental in the Post’s publication of the Pentagon Papers,) said there must be diversification of ownership in the press to ensure the best reporting possible. It cannot occur without breaking up media monopolies.
A growing number of people it seems (hint; I just gave you an opinion) believe it to be too late for journalists. The jaded and cynical public believes nothing will ever be done to support journalism. They only know that today it sucks and they can, sometimes remember a time when things were better.
During the last 40 years nearly every place I’ve worked has either closed, been sold, downsized, folded, or now only exists online with a fraction of its audience. There are twice the number of people on this planet than on the day I was born and probably half the number of reporters.
So, take a chance to help us out, or like Ron DeSantis come clean about your desire to destroy us. At least we’ll know. In theory journalism is protected by the Constitution, but in reality only if we take steps to ensure as much.
A more robust and freer press is beneficial to every American.
Please help us start the healing process before an autopsy is needed – not only for journalism but for its twin sibling – self-government.
Brian J. Karem