In Your Neighborhood/Opinion

In times of great darkness, it takes more than good reporting

Before there was Donald Trump, there was a bully named Frank Rizzo

Image courtesy of Richard Asinof

In 1973, the reporter shaking hands with Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo in front of the seal of Philadelphia, following a news conference at City Hall.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 4/22/19
More than just courageous reporting, the willingness of Congress and the courts to uphold the rule of law will be critical in preserving American’s democratic experiment.
What are the biggest gaps in media coverage in Rhode Island? Why is there such a dearth of full-time health care reporters, given the dominance of the health care industry sector in Rhode Island? How many news outlets cover the Innovation beat? In a time of growing threats from climate change, which news outlets have a full-time environmental reporter covering climate change? What would be the response from corporate headquarters if Channel 10, owned by Sinclair, led with a 6 p.m. news story calling President Donald Trump a liar? How many news outlets include the voice of high school students as part of their news coverage?
Monday, April 22, is the 49th anniversary of Earth Day, and right on schedule, Gov. Gina Raimondo has scheduled a “news event” on the State House lawn in the morning with Ørsted co-CEO Jeff Grybowski to announce a “major” investment in Rhode Island’s growing offshore wind industry and the Revolution Wind project. Call it perfect media management of messaging. Will any of the reporters present ask the Governor about the status of the Invenergy project in Burrillville?
The week before, The Providence Journal hosted one of its Publick Occurrences events, entitled: Climate Change: The Search for Solutions. At the event, one of the protesters holding up a sign asked pointedly, in response to the moderator’s prompt: “Why are we not talking about a Green New Deal?”
For all the talk about “solutions” at the event, there was apparently an absence of conversation about the Green New Deal or the need to develop a blue tech innovation sector to address issues of ocean sustainability. Imagine if the editor of ecoRI News, Frank Carini, had been invited to participate in the conversation, and how that would have changed the dialogue.
As Thomas Pynchon once wrote, if they can get you to ask the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about the answers.

PROVIDENCE – In 1972, I cast my first vote for President as a 20-year-old, after 18 year olds had finally been given the right to vote. We already had the right to die fighting in Vietnam.

That was the year that President Richard Nixon swept away the Democratic candidate, Sen. George McGovern, in an Electoral College landslide, 520 to 17 [one electoral vote that year went to the Libertarian candidate], with only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia voting for McGovern.

The crushing Nixon victory led to the creation of the infamous bumper sticker: “Don’t blame me, I’m from Massachusetts.”

During the 1972 Presidential election campaign, in a speech to a conference of UPI editors, McGovern had admonished the editors, calling the Nixon administration “the most corrupt administration in history,” adding: “And every one of you in this room knows it.”

Yet, McGovern’s accurate description of the Nixon administration and the courageous reporting by The Washington Post on the Watergate break-in and its subsequent cover-up did little to sway the election outcome.

Two years later, in August of 1974, Nixon would be forced to resign, with House Judiciary Committee having voted in favor of articles of impeachment, in large part because of Nixon’s role in the Watergate break-in and his efforts to cover it up. The tipping point was the U.S. Supreme Court decision to release the tapes of conversations recorded in the Oval Office, capturing Nixon and his cronies discussing their cover-up efforts. So it goes.

The myth of heroic news coverage by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein [later portrayed by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in the movie version of All the President’s Men], which had been championed as the cause-and-effect of Nixon’s downfall, made for compelling cinema. But the reality was much different: most of the nation’s news media were complicit in Nixon’s re-election in 1972, because of the objectified, he-says-this, she-says-that manner in which they covered the Presidential race. What brought about Nixon’s downfall was the willingness of members of Congress and the judiciary to uphold the rule of law.

For those who may be too young to remember, watch Rep. Barbara Jordan’s brilliant speech before the House Judiciary Committee in 1974. [See link below.]

Why was the media so blind to what was occurring under Nixon? The answer lies in part with the inherent dictates of corporate journalism, the consolidation of media empires, and the incestuous relationship between advertising revenues and news coverage. Ben Bagdikian, who played a key role in The Washington Post publishing in 1971 what were known as the Pentagon Papers, later described the treatment of news about tobacco and related health issues as “one of the original sins” of the news media, because for decades, there was suppression of medical evidence. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “The strivers vs. the patricians.”]

The release of the redacted Mueller report last week about Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election and the report’s detailed litany of efforts by the Trump administration to cover up and discredit the investigation into such efforts bears an uncanny resemblance to what occurred in the Nixon White House.

As with Watergate, there has been plenty of courageous reporting. The Mueller report, much like the Nixon tapes, needs to be seen in full, along with the accompanying evidence. What has been lacking to date has been the willingness of members of Congress to uphold the rule of law and the Constitution.

Reporting in a time of darkness
1972 was also the year I covered my first national convention, the Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach, with credentials as an editor of my college newspaper. I sold my first story to a national publication, Seventeen, “Notes on my first convention.”

That fall, on Election Day, I reported on the day’s events for The Drummer, an alternative weekly in Philadelphia, where I worked as a staff reporter. During the day, I had traveled with a representative of The Committee of Seventy, a poll-watching group, to voting precincts throughout the city.

That evening, I covered the festivities at Nixon headquarters, known as the Committee To Re-Elect The President, or CREEP, on Chestnut Street.

What made that election night memorable was when a heavyset man, drunk, dressed up in an elephant costume, describing himself as the official mascot of the Republican Party, pinned me to the wall with his trunk and threatened to kill me. [Yes, five decades before Trump, the news media was considered to be an the enemy of the people, to be attacked.] A fellow reporter, Bill Vitka, the news director at WMMR, the city’s leading FM radio station, saved me from bodily harm, pulling me away from the rampaging elephant mascot.

The reign of Rizzo
In the City of Brotherly Love, with Mayor Frank Rizzo, the former police commissioner in charge, a reporter quickly learned to take such threats seriously; call it my reporter’s education on the streets of Philadelphia. Rizzo had once challenged the Black Panthers in Philadelphia to a shoot out on Broad Street, mano a mano.

As a reporter for The Drummer that fall, I had covered a Black Panther Survival Conference at an Episcopal church on the corner on 18th Street and Westmount, where free shoes and free bags of groceries were handed out to community residents in North Philly.

The night before, all the local leaders of the Black Panthers had been arrested by the Philadelphia police and were being held at the Roundhouse, the police headquarters and city jail. As a result, none of the Black Panthers were “available” for media interviews the next day.

Earlier that same fall, covering an impromptu performance by Pete Seeger and Holly Near in front of the CREEP storefront on Chestnut Street, I quickly learned that when the Civil Disobedience squad of the Philadelphia police told you to move away, bumping and pushing you, you quickly retreated, with the same kind of street smarts one learned to pay attention to observing sneakers hanging from the telephone wires when you entered the turf of the Haines Street gang.

I spent most of that election night writing four stories for the next issue of the weekly newspaper, including an analysis of the impact of the 18-year-old vote, banging away at Smith Corona portable electric, driving into the city the next morning to deliver my copy.

In a galaxy long ago and far way

It is hard for me not to reflect on my experiences reporting on past election campaigns as the revelations of how the Russian government interfered with 2016 Presidential election continue to reverberate in the efforts by the Trump administration to cover up and dismiss what happened.

In 1974, I spent an evening in January with Michael Dukakis as he traveled across Western Massachusetts during his first successful run for Governor of Massachusetts. I had written: “Another political season is upon us. As in professional sports these days, there are always too many candidates, too many top contenders, and too long a season. Grown men [and women] who end up playing for fortunes nine months a year and [who] spend the off-season in training. …All these years have passed since 1948 and the daily newspapers still cannot declare in lead headlines that Richard Nixon is a liar.”

[Question: How many front-page headlines have you seen in The Providence Journal that have called Donald Trump a liar?]

In 1975, I covered the primary election campaign of Mayor Frank Rizzo in Philadelphia. I had written: When you walk down Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, you normally don’t expect to hear “God Bless America” blaring from a sound truck. 
It was a muggy 85 degrees on a Tuesday afternoon in early June when Kate Smith’s booming voice echoed down the canyon of Center City storefronts. As “America, my home sweet home” faded into a deep, male baritone voice, I had my answer: “Mayor Frank Rizzo is the people’s candidate. Mayor Frank Rizzo loves Philadelphia. Vote today for Frank Rizzo…

The sound truck made its way toward the vacant lot on the corner of Chestnut and 17th streets, where it parked. The adjoining building had a large “Store for Rent” hung in its window. The building had once served as the headquarters for successive campaigns by Frank Rizzo for Mayor in 1971 and by Richard Nixon for President for President in 1972. The old brick façade on the side of the building had worn a four-story “Vote for Rizzo” painted slogan in 1971, and in 1972, the façade had been changed to a “Re-elect The President painted slogan in 1972 – which had lasted into the early summer of 1973 and John Dean’s testimony.

In 1975, the empty lot adjacent to the building then became a miniature golf course, constructed by a bank hopeful of attracting a potential developer. Instead, it had become a nightlife haven for some of Philly’s largest, well-fed rats, the size of cats, which could be seen scuttling across the lot at night.”
Rizzo, who first won in 1971, was re-elected mayor of Philadelphia with 57 percent of the vote, despite plenty of courageous reporting.

In 1976, I covered Pennsylvania Gov. Milton Shapp’s run for the Presidency and his losing effort in the Massachusetts primary. I had written: Walking into the Milton Shapp for President headquarters on the night of the Massachusetts primary, I have the distinct feeling I have discovered the opening scene of Saul Bellow’s next novel, where a successful Jewish businessman pursues the quixotic, if masochistic, dream of being elected President of the United States.

Also in 1976, I covered the Presidential debate in Philadelphia between President Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, the one where the sound went dead and the two candidates were left to smile at the camera for some 15 minutes.

In 1977, I also covered Carter’s inauguration. In the story with the headline, “I heard America singing.” 
I had written: “Aretha Franklin, the first lady of soul, ended a four-hour gala celebration of the arts at the Kennedy Center on Inauguration Eve by singing “God Bless America” a cappella. Her satin voice seemed to capture the emotional aura surrounding President Jimmy Carter’s inauguration as the 39th President, epitomizing that yearning populist spirit seeking to restore faith in our country’s myth.

If Gerald Ford had been re-elected President in 1976, Aretha Franklin would never have sung “God Bless America” for the final benediction of the Inaugural Eve ceremonies. Instead, Kate Smith would have lumbered onto the stage and belted out her classic, much as it were another Philadelphia Flyers game.”

The road could go on and on with a travelogue of past stories. But, it brings us to two and half years after Election Day on Nov. 8, 2016, and the release of the redacted Mueller report, which made me reflect on the similarities between Frank Rizzo and Donald Trump.

A nation divided
I found myself recalling an interview I did more than 30 years ago with the poet Robert Bly, in March of 1987, following a reading at the Iron Horse Café in Northampton, Mass.

Bly’s words still cut to the bone. “Americans like to be lied to,” he said in the interview. “We are still living in a Doris Day movie in which everything we do works out.”

[Of course, the Hollywood concept of a 1950s Doris Day-Rock Hudson romantic comedy was always a blatant lie, given that Rock Hudson was gay and would never ever be a partner to Doris Day.]

The exchange had been prompted by Bly’s reading of his poem, “The Teeth Mother Naked at Last,” with its memorable line: “And the Attorney General lies about the time the sun sets.”

In many ways, Bly’s compact, blunt observation captures the reality of the 2016 Presidential election, in particular the presidency of Donald Trump and his embrace of lies and distortions – and the way that the news media continues to report on them and repeat them as objective factoids.

And, the anger Trump exploits around the racial divisions in America, appealing to many white voters in the same way that Rizzo once appealed to white voters in Philadelphia, when Rizzo talked about his “fight against the criminal element” in the city.

The license to lie and to distort and to defame – and the enthusiastic response by Trump’s followers to believe in a blizzard of lies – is aided and abetted in large part by the willingness of the news media to repeat these distortions as legitimate news. It is also a result of Fox News trumpeting the Trump lies in a universe of alternative facts.

Make no mistake, the anger is real and dangerous – much like the anger of the Southern states that rebelled over the 1860 election of President Abraham Lincoln and seceded from the union over their states’ right to own slaves. It is similar to the anger that was exploited successfully by Frank Rizzo in the 1970s at the changing diverse complexion of Philadelphia.

However, the demographics of America have changed forever: we are becoming a much more diverse nation, where the children of minorities [a polite term for people of color] will soon become the majority population, with non-Hispanic whites becoming the minority.

Burying the lede
The first rule of newspapers, as my first editor, Al Robbins, repeatedly tried to drum into me back in 1972, was this: “Newspapers sell ads, not news. News is just filler.”

It was a hard truth to hear, one I did not want to believe. I was a 20-year-old cub reporter, writing for The Drummer, Philadelphia’s alternative weekly.

As a young, quixotic journalist, I wanted to believe that words mattered: what you reported in a story could change the world, even in a political world dominated by Mayor Frank Rizzo and his legions of police enforcing his rule of fear.

Much has changed in the last 47 years, yet so much remains the same: the basic cynical precept about newspapers still rings true, with one major amendment: Newspapers sell ads and digital subscriptions, not news; the news still serves as a sales vehicle for advertisers.

The recent hiring by The Boston Globe of three top Rhode Island reporters to build up their digital subscription base by expanding their coverage of Rhode Island, which some in the Twitter sphere have dubbed a potential newspaper war, with the alleged prize being better local journalism, are succumbing to a faux crusade in the name of the glories of preserving local journalism, in my opinion.

Despite the apparent weakness of The Providence Journal in its ability to invest resources in its journalistic talent, for its corporate owners, the newspaper remains very much a “cash cow,” where the profits are vacuumed back to the corporate hedge fund owners.

Second, The Boston Globe has its own circulation crisis, with limited capability to attract new subscribers within the Boston metro region, having reached a saturation point. The folks in Western Massachusetts have, for years, suffered under the failure of The Globe’s corporate leadership to deem that part of the state as being worthy of coverage. That is one reason why MassLive, the digital division of the Springfield newspapers, has emerged as a powerful competitor: they do a better job of covering the news, with much less attitude and arrogance.

The move into Rhode Island is a carefully calculated business expansion, not a heroic effort to improve local coverage. Will it work? Some, such as one R.I. state senator, have taken the bait, paying a hefty price for a Globe subscription, as the state senator told ConvergenceRI in a recent conversation.

“I know I’m a broken record on this but the term ‘2-newspaper town’ often skips over the fact that there are multiple ways to get info in 2019,” tweeted Gintautas Dumicius, the digital editor at the Boston Business Journal, in response to The Public’s Radio take on the moves by The Boston Globe to hire away three Providence-based reporters.

Precisely.

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