When the Sun went down over Baltimore

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson  spent four years in Moscow as a correspondent and also worked as a journalist in Paris, London and New York. 27.10.2016

In what may turn out to be a new genre in book publishing, 26 veteran American journalists have joined forces to produce a nostalgic look back at the good old days of newspapering that all went so suddenly “poof”. Their subject is the Baltimore Sunpapers, where they did their stuff and where such stuff happens less and less today.

The Life of Kings (Rowman & Littlefield) is no lament over a glorious past but rather a celebration of what big-city journalism was capable of in its heyday. The Sunpapers collected an array of Pulitzers and other prizes for their national, international and local coverage over more than a hundred years of history. This book is also a clarion call for new forms of online publishing to stay focused on accurate, thorough and investigative reporting.

As co-editor Stephens Broening, former Sun Opinion pages editor and diplomatic correspondent, writes in his introduction, “We can’t do much against the powerful economic forces at work. But we can recall the standards that made the Sun and other fine independent newspapers a bulwark of civic life for so long.”

The Sun team set out to recall what it was like to write and report in the golden age of American print, “when journalism sometimes seemed like ‘the life of kings’”. The title comes from Sunpapers sage H.L. Mencken who once wrote that news reporting was more fun than any other enterprise he was involved with. “It is really the life of kings.” The newspaper always enjoyed a special advantage by its proximity to Washington D.C. and its focus on national and international issues.

Insiders in this book like to remember the “fun” of the newsroom and a few of the contributors recall that aspect – adding that it was underpinned with serious purpose and quality results. But on the outside the paper seemed loaded with gravitas every day. One contributor says the design of the news pages was even more grey than those of the New York Times. And Time magazine noted some years ago that the paper was “aloof, aristocratic, old-fashioned, proud, and something of a snob – just the way Baltimoreans like it.” Profit was not a priority.

Today it is different. After a long history of benevolent family ownership, the Sunpapers have become a source of cash for corporate owners looking to maximize profit at any cost. The papers are living through a classic clash between two conflicting strategies that arise during a downturn: editorial management believes quality will prevail in the long term; the business side wants to cut costs by reducing editorial staff as quickly and ruthlessly as possible. The business side almost always wins.

“Now, all of a sudden (in the year 2000), we were being told that our job was not just to keep readers informed, but investors happy.… It fueled resentment, and over time the resentment many felt hardened into hostility,” writes Sandy Banisky, a 38-year Sun veteran who rose to deputy managing editor for news, in her 12-page history of the transition.

The numbers tell it all. The Sun was once the proud custodian of nine foreign bureaus; today there are none. Once a powerful voice in Washington and a favorite of presidents ranging from Woodrow Wilson to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter, today the 15-man Washington bureau is shut down. Newsroom staff has been slashed from about 400 to about 80. The news hole has shrunk from about 60 stories a day to about 20.

As Broening writes, “These are the results of a deliberate corporate policy to protect the balance sheet by cutting expenses. There is no longer any pretense of national prominence.”

The adventures and accomplishments related in this lookback are a reminder of swashbuckling journalism that no publication dares practice today. For example, former foreign correspondent Gilbert A. Lewthwaite writes of a meeting with the late executive editor John S. Carroll at which he was informed a new assignment was coming his way. “We want you to go to Sudan and buy a slave,” Carroll told him. As Lewthwaite pondered the offer, Carroll added: “Sometimes journalists have to take risks to get the story.”

Lewthwaite was teamed up with Gregory Kane, an African-American columnist on the Sun, to assess the dangers and plan the trip. They decided to accept and soon were on their way to southern Sudan where African slaves were being held captive by Muslim militias. Lewthwaite and Kane linked up with Swiss charity Christian Solidarity International and negotiated the release of two young Dinka tribe brothers who were being forced to work on a cattle ranch. The boys were released for a ransom payment of $1000, which the Sun paid. The story attracted international attention and won the reporters a Pulitzer Prize nomination.

As Lewthwaite observes, “At its best, in the mid-to-late twentieth century, the Sun was recognized, inside and outside America, as one of the world’s great newspapers.”

Broening’s own nine-page description of how he developed the paper’s first op-ed Opinion page contains a step-by-step description of how he proceeded from a blank page to a collection of perfectly-fit pieces of commentary that he commissioned or selected from contributions. Other papers kept order in their op-ed by following a fixed format  “I favored variety – surprise where possible,” he writes.

Among his newsmaking coups, he cites an interview with George Will in which he grilled Will on coaching Reagan who using purloined notes from the Jimmy Carter camp, not disclosing the subterfuge. “At the end, I asked if he conceded that he had made a mistake.” Will’s stammering response, “I think that’s a … well, I think … yes.”

He cites his most important catch as Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whom he had known while a correspondent in Moscow and whom Solzhenitsyn had praised for helping carry fresh manuscript pages through Soviet customs to the West. In the Sun, Solzhenitsyn called for Soviet emigres to supply him their personal reminiscences for posterity to warn again a recurrence of Soviet-style tyranny.

Broening was allowed carte blanche for his page, enjoying an “almost total absence of interference” from his betters. “I was putting out my own daily newspaper. I went to work cheerfully,” he recalls.

To be sure, the Sun has a somewhat checkered past in the implementation of civil rights legislation. As veteran local and foreign correspondent Antero Pietilä recalls, finding the first-born baby of each year was often a problem until the mid-1970s because babies were mentionable “only if born to a married white mother.”  Black newborns did not exist in the Sun pages. Editorially, the paper was rather conservative, he notes. “Decades before, it had voiced white supremacist opinions, but then slowly but steadily changed its opinion …”

The most convincing voice warning against the end of print comes from editor Carroll, who later moved to California to lead the Los Angeles Times but resigned in another dispute over cost-cutting. His views are featured in one of the most articulate chapters in the book. His speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 2006, reproduced in the book, Carroll raised many of the questions still being debated ten years later. Fearing the decline of print, he posited, “What will the public know – and what will the public not know – if our poorly understood, and often unappreciated, craft perishes in the Darwinian jungle?” And he asks, “Who—amid America’s great din of flackery and cant – will tell us in plain language what’s actually going on?”

The Sunpapers’ editorial staff of old have much to say for the value of their craft, be it investigations into local corruption, issues of national security, or projects that made news themselves. This book highlights the “stuff” that came out of the old Sunpapers and raises it to a level of world significance.

 

Another version of this review was published in American Spectator.

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