Power of Print

     Odd how a story can smoke in the press for years, and suddenly explode into a conflagration of scandal.
     I have been reading with rapt interest about the hacking scandal in England. The stories and lawsuits smoldered for a long time, fanned by a set of bellows in the form of all those who wanted revenge on the newspaper chain controlled by Rupert Murdoch.
     And finally, they coaxed the red embers into a roaring bonfire.
     But in back of that anger is something that is pretty much gone over here in America, the power of the print press. Unable to use television ads to campaign, English politicians remain dependent on newspapers to communicate with constituents.
     The main way I know that way of political life is through the trace remnants of it here, through a career amid the ruins of such a power.
     My first articles were written as a freelancer for the Herald Examiner in Los Angeles, part of the Hearst chain that could well be compared to Murdoch’s in terms of politics, union-busting and power.
     I wanted so bad to be working in that huge, open space that was the heart of the paper.
     But even then, the news room in the old Arabia-themed building was filled with empty desks. The Herald died a few years later, but not until it had done a famous series on the enormous amounts of emergency cheese stored underground in Los Angeles.
     Around that time, I started working in the press room in federal court, in a strategically perfect spot for courthouse reporting.
     The press room was on the third floor directly across from the jury rooms. Reporters could run down an emergency stairwell to the courtrooms one floor down to cover hearings and then catch the jurors for interviews after a verdict.
     On most days, we would troop from the press room down to the ground floor at the end of the day and look over the day’s new filings.
     News reporters are inveterate story tellers, and one that I remember was by an old hand from the L.A. Times who told us about drinking whiskey, smoking cigars and playing cards with a federal judge while they waited on a jury deliberating in a criminal case that had been all over the papers.
     That press room was later moved down the hall well away from the jury rooms, and then, about eight years ago, it was moved up to a room that looked out over a section of the roof.
     The same progression took place over in state court on Hill Street in Los Angeles. The press room was right next to the presiding judge’s chambers on the second floor, with a door that went into the small hallway into the presiding judge’s chambers.
     But a presiding judge who had previously practiced family law with Legal Aid Service decided a few years ago to make that convenient spot into a day care center. And the press was moved onto the roof of the building, behind the cafeteria, literally the furthest place from the presiding judge you could possibly be.
     In Detroit, Seattle, Houston, I have seen the same pattern, press rooms that were right next to the seat of power moved floors away, generally to the basement or the roof.
     I have long been convinced that the reason why reporters traditionally had primo placement in a courthouse and great access to information was because of the political power of newspapers at the time.
     As that power of print waned, the power of the bureaucrats waxed. And access to information at the courthouse deteriorated in synchrony with that change.
     That is why our reporting on California’s battles over who controls the judicial system bureaucrats or judges is so focused. I know from experience that when bureaucrats are ascendant, the ability of the press to get at information about government goes down bit by bit, inexorably.
     The central reason we fare better with judges, I believe, is because judges are trained in the adversity of ideas and recognize the benefit that generally comes from that conflict. They have a broader view, including, generally, a recognition of the role of the press in the combat of ideas that forms the foundation of a democracy.
     The salutary effect of the combat of ideas was on display in the English Parliament in debates over the English government’s ties to the News of the World, the Murdoch paper at the center of the hacking scandal.
     Illustrated by comedian John Stewart, he showed a little map of the English prime minister traveling back from Africa to defend himself. The English leader stood “in the pit” of Parliament, taking the verbal blitzkrieg from his opponents and giving back just as good as he got.
     Stewart then played a clip showing President Obama on a trade mission to Brazil having just declared hostilities against Libya. The president answers no questions and is shown kicking a soccer ball with kids.
     “We fought so hard to leave Britain because of their unaccountable, imperial leadership,” says the comedian. “And look at us now.”
     So while I have no regret over the decline in Murdoch’s influence, I see the video of the newsroom closing at the News of the World and it reminds me of the end of the Herald Examiner. And I wonder if it is an omen of another great decline in the power of print and a sign of danger to its companion, a great democracy.

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