Oct 27th 2016

When the Sun went down over Baltimore

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

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.

 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Feb 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "The art historian George Kubler observed that scholars in the humanities “pretend to despise measurement because of its ‘scientific’ nature.” As if to illustrate his point Robert Storr, former dean of Yale’s School of Art, declared that artistic success is “completely unquantifiable.” In fact, however, artistic success can be quantified, in several ways. One of these is based on the analysis of texts produced by art scholars, and this measure can give us a systematic understanding of how changes in recent art have produced changes in the canon of art history."
Feb 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "The most politically sensitive option we looked at was the virus escaping from a laboratory. We concluded this was extremely unlikely."
Feb 16th 2021
EXTRACT: ".... these men were completely unaware that they had put their lives in the hands of doctors who not only had no intention of healing them but were committed to observing them until the final autopsy – since it was believed that an autopsy alone could scientifically confirm the study’s findings. As one researcher wrote in a 1933 letter to a colleague, “As I see, we have no further interest in these patients until they die.” ...... The unquestionable ethical failure of Tuskegee is one with which we must grapple, and of which we must never lose sight, lest we allow such moral disasters to repeat themselves. "
Feb 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "In 2010 Carlos Rodriguez, the president of Buenos Aires' Universidad del CEMA, created the world's first - and only - Center for Creativity Economics.  During the next ten years, the CCE presented a number of short courses and seminars.  But the most important of its events was an annual lecture by an Argentine artist, who was given a Creative Career Award."
Feb 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "It’s not hard to see why. Although AI systems outperform humans in tasks that are often associated with a “high level of intelligence” (playing chess, Go, or Jeopardy), they are nowhere close to excelling at tasks that humans can master with little to no training (such as understanding jokes). What we call “common sense” is actually a massive base of tacit knowledge – the cumulative effect of experiencing the world and learning about it since childhood. Coding common-sense knowledge and feeding it into AI systems is an unresolved challenge. Although AI will continue to solve some difficult problems, it is a long way from performing many tasks that children undertake as a matter of course."
Feb 7th 2021
EXTRACT: "When it comes to being fit and healthy, we’re often reminded to aim to walk 10,000 steps per day. This can be a frustrating target to achieve, especially when we’re busy with work and other commitments. Most of us know by now that 10,000 steps is recommended everywhere as a target to achieve – and yet where did this number actually come from?"
Feb 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "This so-called elite supposedly conspires to monopolise academic employment and research grants. Its alleged objective is to deny divine authority, and the ultimate beneficiary and prime mover is Satan.Such beliefs derive from the doctrine of biblical infallibility, long accepted as integral to the faith of numerous evangelical and Baptist churches throughout the world, including the Free Church of Scotland. But I would argue that the present-day creationist movement is a fully fledged conspiracy theory. It meets all the criteria, offering a complete parallel universe with its own organisations and rules of evidence, and claims that the scientific establishment promoting evolution is an arrogant and morally corrupt elite."
Jan 29th 2021
EXTRACT: "Ageing is so far known to be caused by nine biological mechanisms, sometimes called the “hallmarks of ageing”. In order to prevent ageing in our tissues, cells, and molecules, we need to be able to slow or prevent these hallmarks of ageing from taking place. While there are numerous treatments currently being investigated, two approaches currently show the most promise in slowing the development of age-related disease. .... One area researchers are investigating is looking at whether any medicines already exist which could tackle ageing. This method is advantageous in that billions of pounds have already been spent on testing the safety and efficacy of these drugs and they are already in routine clinical use in humans. Two in particular are promising candidates."
Jan 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "The ageing global population is the greatest challenge faced by 21st-century healthcare systems. Even COVID-19 is, in a sense, a disease of ageing. The risk of death from the virus roughly doubles for every nine years of life, a pattern that is almost identical to a host of other illnesses. But why are old people vulnerable to so many different things? It turns out that a major hallmark of the ageing process in many mammals is inflammation. By that, I don’t mean intense local response we typically associate with an infected wound, but a low grade, grinding, inflammatory background noise that grows louder the longer we live. This “inflammaging” has been shown to contribute to the development of atherosclerosis (the buildup of fat in arteries), diabetes, high blood pressure , frailty, cancer and cognitive decline."
Jan 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "Anthropos is Greek for human.... The term is used to convey how, for the first time in history, the Earth is being transformed by one species – homo sapiens. ...... The idea of the Anthropocene can seem overwhelming and can generate anxiety and fear. It can be hard to see past notions of imminent apocalypse or technological salvation. Both, in a sense, are equally paralysing – requiring us to do nothing. .. I consider the Anthropocene as an invitation to think differently about human relationships with nature and other species. Evidence suggests this reorientation is already happening and there are grounds for optimism."
Jan 7th 2021
EXTRACT: "During the second world war, Nazi Germany banned all listening to foreign radio stations. Germans who overlooked their duty to ignore foreign broadcasts faced penalties ranging from imprisonment to execution. The British government imposed no comparable ban which would have been incompatible with the principles for which it had gone to war. That’s not to say, though, that it wasn’t alarmed by the popularity of German stations. Most effective among the Nazis broadcasting to the UK was William Joyce. This Irish-American fascist, known in Britain as “Lord Haw-Haw”, won a large audience during the “phoney war” in 1939 and early 1940, with his trademark call sign delivered in his unmistakable accent: 'Jairmany calling, Jairmany calling'. "
Jan 6th 2021
EXTRACTS: "The revelation of Trump’s hour-long recorded call with Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s Secretary of State, over this past weekend crossed a new line – a line that not only set a high-water mark of moral reprehensibility, but a legal line as well, specifically in his pressuring Raffensperger to 'find the 11,780 votes' that would hand Trump the state and his veiled threat (' it’s going to be very costly…') if Raffensperger failed to comply. ........ Raffensperger – who has been forced to endure intense pressure, intimidation and threats – has proven himself to be a man of integrity and principle."
Jan 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "A final, perhaps more sinister, possibility is that Johnson knows exactly what he is doing. His political style evokes a unique blend of dishevelled buffoon and privileged Etonian. He is someone who likes to bring good news and doesn’t take life too seriously. Making tough, controversial decisions threatens this persona and so hiding in the shadows until his hand is forced helps him to reconcile his identity threat."
Dec 21st 2020
EXTRACT: "The resultant loss of land, the growing impoverishment of its citizens, and the hostile actions of Israeli occupation forces and settlers have forced many Bethlehemites to leave their beloved city and homeland. Given these accumulated violations of human rights and their impact on Christians and Muslims, alike, one might expect Christians in the West to speak out in defense of these residents of the little town they celebrate each year.  That, sadly, is not to be – most especially (and I might add ironically) among powerful Christian conservative groups in the US which, after all, claim to be the defenders of their co-religionists world-wide."
Dec 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "Worldwide, people donate hundreds of billions of dollars to charity. In the United States alone, charitable donations amounted to about $450 billion last year. As 2020 draws to a close, perhaps you or members of your family are considering giving to charity. But there are, literally, millions of charities. Which should you choose?"
Dec 1st 2020
EXTRACT: " The Museum of Modern Art is currently presenting Félix Fénéon: The Anarchist and the Avant-Garde – From Signac to Matisse and Beyond, examining the immense influence of this art critic, editor, publisher, collector and anarchist............A crucial feature of anarchism is the emphasis on the individual as the fundamental building block, the essential point of departure for any human association whatever. The individual was characterized by Grave in 1899 as a social creature who should be “left free to attach himself according to his tendencies, his affinities, free to seek out those with him whom his liberty and aptitudes can agree.” "
Nov 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "As the pandemic raged in April, churchgoers in Ohio defied warnings not to congregate. Some argued that their religion conferred them immunity from COVID-19. In one memorable CNN clip, a woman insisted she would not catch the virus because she was “covered in Jesus’ blood”. "
Nov 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "Here are just a few ways exercise changes the structure of our brain."
Nov 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "Perhaps it is Piller’s discovery that when it comes to war there is no such thing as innocence...."