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

May 1st 2021
EXTRACT: " The sad reality is that the Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent) were discriminated against from the day of Israel’s inception, whose Ashkenazi (European Jewish) leaders viewed them as intellectually inferior, “backward,” and “too Arab,” and treated them as such, largely because the Ashkenazim agenda was to maintain their upper-class status while controlling the levers of power, which remain prevalent to this day." ..... " The greatest heartbreaking outcome is that for yet another generation of Israelis, growing up in these debilitating conditions has a direct effect on their cognitive development. A 2015 study published in Nature Neuroscience found that “family income is significantly correlated with children’s brain size…increases in income were associated with the greatest increases in brain surface area among the poorest children.” "
Apr 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "We all owe Farah Nabulsi an enormous debt of gratitude. In a short 24-minute film, The Present, she has exposed the oppressive indecency of the Israeli occupation while telling the deeply moving story of a Palestinian family. What is especially exciting is that after winning awards at a number of international film festivals​, Ms. Nabulsi has been nominated for an Academy Award for this remarkable work of art. " 
Apr 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "When I crashed to the floor of my home in Bordeaux recently after two months of Covid-19 dizziness, I was annoyed. The next day I collapsed again. Now I was worried. What I didn’t know was that my brain was sloshing around inside my skull, causing a mild concussion. Nor did I know that I was in for a whole new world of weird and wonderful hallucinations."
Apr 13th 2021
EXTRACT: "Overall, our review has found that there isn’t evidence to back up the claims that veganism is good for your heart. But that is partly because there are few studies ....... But veganism may have other health benefits. Vegans have been found to have a healthier weight and lower blood glucose levels than those who consume meat and dairy. They are also less likely to develop cancer, high blood pressure and diabetes. "
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Pollock’s universe, the universe of Mural, cannot be said to be a rational universe. Nor is it simply devoid of all sense. It is not a purely imaginary world, although in it everything is in a constant state of flux. Mural invokes one of the oldest questions of philosophy, a question going back to the Pre-Socratic philosophers Parmenides and Heraclitus – namely, whether the nature of Reality constitutes unchanging permanence or constant movement and flux. For Pollock, the only thing that is truly unchanging is change itself. The only certainty is that all is uncertain."
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Many present day politicians appear to have psychopathic and narcissistic traits too. It’s easy to spot such leaders, because they are always authoritarian, following hardline policies. They try to subvert democracy, to reduce the freedom of the press and clamp down on dissent. They are obsessed with national prestige, and often persecute minority groups. And they are always corrupt and lacking in moral principles."
Apr 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "This has led some to claim that not just half, but perhaps nearly all advertising money is wasted, at least online. There are similar results outside of commerce. One review of field experiments in political campaigning argued “the best estimate of the effects of campaign contact and advertising on Americans’ candidates choices in general elections is zero”. Zero!"
Mar 30th 2021
EXTRACT: "The Father is an extraordinary film, from Florian Zeller’s 2012 play entitled Le Père and directed by Zeller. I’m here to tell you why it is a ‘must see’." EDITOR'S NOTE: The official trailer is attached to the review.
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "Picasso was 26 in 1907, when he completed the Demoiselles; de Kooning was 48 in 1952, when he finished Woman I.  The difference in their ages was not an accident, for studies of hundreds of painters have revealed a striking regularity - the conceptual painters who preconceive their paintings, from Raphael to Warhol, consistently make their greatest contributions earlier in their careers than experimental painters, from Rembrandt to Pollock, who paint directly, without preparatory studies."
Mar 26th 2021
EXTRACT: "Mental toughness levels are influenced by many different factors. While genetics are partly responsible, a person’s environment is also relevant. For example, both positive experiences while you’re young and mental toughness training programmes have been found to make people mentally tougher."
Mar 20th 2021

The city of Homs has been ravaged by war, leaving millions of people homeless an

Mar 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "There are two main rival models of ethics: one is based on rights, the other on duties. The rights-based model, which traces its philosophical origins to the work of John Locke in the 17th century, starts from the assumption that individuals have rights ....... According to this approach, duties are related to rights, but only in a subordinate role. My right to health implies a duty on my country to provide some healthcare services, to the best of its abilities. This is arguably the dominant interpretation when philosophers talk about rights, including human rights." ........ "Your right to get sick, or to risk getting sick, could imply a duty on others to look after you during your illness." ..... "The pre-eminence of rights in our moral compass has vindicated unacceptable levels of selfishness. It is imperative to undertake a fundamental duty not to get sick, and to do everything in our means to avoid causing others to get sick. Morally speaking, duties should come first and should not be subordinated to rights." ..... "Putting duties before rights is not a new, revolutionary idea. In fact it is one of the oldest rules in the book of ethics. Primum non nocere, or first do no harm, is the core principle in the Hippocratic Oath historically taken by doctors, widely attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher and physician Hippocrates. It is also a fundamental principle in the moral philosophy of the Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero, who in De Officiis (On Duties) argues that the first task of justice is to prevent men and women from causing harm to others."
Mar 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "Several studies have recently compared the difference between antibodies produced straight after a coronavirus infection and those that can be detected six months later. The findings have been both impressive and reassuring. Although there are fewer coronavirus-specific antibodies detectable in the blood six months after infection, the antibodies that remain have undergone significant changes. …….. the “mature” antibodies were better at recognising the variants."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Like Shakespeare, Goya sees evil as something existing in itself – indeed, the horror of evil arises precisely from its excess. It overflows and refuses to be contained by or integrated into our categories of reason or comprehension. By its very nature, evil refuses to remain within prescribed bounds – to remain fixed, say, within an economy where evil is counterbalanced by good. Evil is always excess of evil." ....... "Nowhere is this more evident than in war. Goya offers us a profound and sustained meditation on the nature of war ........ The image of a Napoleonic soldier gazing indifferently on a man who has been summarily hanged, probably by his own belt, expresses the tragedy of war – its dehumanization of both war’s victims and victors."
Mar 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "A blockchain company has bought a piece of Banksy artwork and burnt it. But instead of destroying the value of the art, they claim to have made it more valuable, because it was sold as a piece of blockchain art. The company behind the stunt, called Injective Protocol, bought the screen print from a New York gallery. They then live-streamed its burning on the Twitter account BurntBanksy. But why would anyone buy a piece of art just to burn it? Understanding the answer requires us to delve into the tricky world of blockchain or “NFT” art."
Mar 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "Exercise is good for your health at every age – and you can reap the benefits no matter how late in life you start. But our latest research has shown another benefit of being physically active throughout life. We found that in the US, people who were more physically active as teenagers and throughout adulthood had lower healthcare costs."
Mar 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "Although around one in 14 people over 65 have Alzheimer’s disease, there’s still no cure, and no way to prevent the disease from progressing. But a recent study may bring us one step closer to preventing Alzheimer’s. The trial, which was conducted on animals, has found a specific molecule can prevent the buildup of a toxic protein known to cause Alzheimer’s in the brain."
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. "