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

Sep 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "We now know the potentially appalling long-term effects of suffering cruelty from others, including damage to both physical and mental health. The benefits of being compassionate towards oneself, rather than treating oneself cruelly, are also increasingly recognised..... And the idea that we must suffer to grow is questionable. Positive life events, such as falling in love, having children and achieving cherished goals can lead to growth..... Teaching through cruelty invites abuses of power and selfish sadism. Yet Buddhism offers an alternative - wrathful compassion. Here, we act from love to confront others to protect them from their greed, hatred and fear. Life can be cruel, truth can be cruel, but we can choose not to be."
Sep 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "Over his incredible career, David Attenborough has seen more of earth’s natural wonders than almost anyone. To hear him talk, with such clarity, about how bad things are getting is deeply moving. Scientists have recently demonstrated what would be needed to bend the curve on biodiversity loss. As Attenborough says in the final scene, “What happens next, is up to every one of us”. "
Sep 15th 2020
EXTRACTS: "The Anglo-Australian multinational company Rio Tinto – the largest iron ore mining company in the world – demolished two 46,000-year-old Aboriginal rock shelters in May.......The Dampier Archipelago of Western Australia is home to thousands of Aboriginal pictographs, and perhaps the oldest surviving rock art in the world. Indeed, Australia’s Indigenous art represents the longest uninterrupted tradition of art in the world – going back over 50,000 years......Aboriginal people represent the oldest continuous culture in the world...."
Sep 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution was a defining event that changed how we think about the relationship between religion and modernity. Ayatollah Khomeini’s mass mobilisation of Islam showed that modernisation by no means implies a linear process of religious decline.....Reliable large-scale data on Iranians’ post-revolutionary religious beliefs, however, has always been lacking...........In June 2020, our research institute, the Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in IRAN...conducted an online survey......The results verify Iranian society’s unprecedented secularisation."
Sep 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Just as you can upgrade your old computer’s operating system, culture can evolve even if intelligence doesn’t. Humans in ancient times lacked smartphones and spaceflight, but we know from studying philosophers such as Buddha and Aristotle that they were just as clever. Our brains didn’t change, our culture did."
Sep 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Our lab in Cambridge, England, is working with a promising new family of materials known as halide perovskites. They are semiconductors, conducting charges when stimulated with light. Perovskite inks are deposited onto glass or plastic to make extremely thin films – around one hundredth of the width of a human hair – made up of metal, halide and organic ions. When sandwiched between electrode contacts, these films make solar cell or LED devices."
Sep 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Bryant, a black man, was sentenced to life in prison for trying to steal hedge clippers from a Louisiana carport storage room in 1997. He has already served twenty-three years for this petty crime, and on 31 July the Louisiana Supreme Court denied a request to review his life sentence. The denial followed a lower appeals court’s 2019 decision that concluded “his life sentence is final.” The only judge on the Louisiana Supreme Court to dissent (or even issue an opinion) was Chief Justice Bernette Johnson. She wrote a stinging rebuke, observing that Bryant’s “life sentence for a failed attempt to steal a set of hedge clippers is grossly out of proportion to the crime and serves no legitimate penal purpose.” "
Aug 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "In 2016, the Brennan Center for Justice reported that as high as 40 percent of prisoners should not be in prison—”behind bars with no compelling public safety reason.” There are literally thousands of young prisoners, Black and white, who are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for non-violent offences. It is unfathomable that we as a society are spending billions of dollars every year to sustain such pointless cruelty, to inflict needless pain on individuals, fathers and mothers, who pose no threat at all to the public."
Jul 31st 2020
EXTRACT: "From a Kantian standpoint discrimination based on race – or religion, or gender – is fundamentally wrong. It is wrong, first of all, because it is dehumanizing, a denial of human dignity. When I racially discriminate, I am denying the person’s intrinsic self-worth, I am, in fact, denying their very right to exist, whether I know it or not. The moral law demands that I treat every individual as a free person equal to everyone else. If the moral law grants each of us a kind of infinite worth, it does not grant someone greater worth than anyone else."
Jul 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Remember, your wellbeing is extremely important when supporting someone with depression. Take time for self-care so you can model positive behaviours and be replenished enough to provide this crucial support."
Jul 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "--- Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart, for his purity, by definition, is unassailable. --- Author James Baldwin’s words, written in the America of the late 1950s."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Numerous studies have shown that children who grow up in more deprived neighbourhoods tend to have worse physical health as adults compared to those raised in more affluent areas. This is the case even when researchers take into account family income and education, and whether or not parents have major illnesses. In order to address this health disparity, researchers need to understand how those living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods end up with worse health outcomes. Our team’s latest study has highlighted one potential way your childhood neighbourhood may influence your health for years to come. It might do so through changing how the activity of your genes is regulated."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Ruth Poniarski is a painter and the author of Journey of the Self: Memoir of an Artist (Warren Publishing, 2020), in which she tells the story of her decade long struggle with mental illness, a “spiraling malady” which led her into a “pattern of psychosis”. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Poniarski about her life and work, and how she eventually overcame her demons."
Jun 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "I know I’m good in a couple of things, really good in a few things, and that’s enough. My confidence is big enough that I can really let people grow next to me, it’s no problem. I need experts around me. It’s really very important that you are empathetic, that you try to understand the people around you, and that you give real support to the people around you."
Jun 27th 2020
An essay about the "the enormously influential 1940 'Head of Christ' painting by evangelical Warner E. Sallman" pictured below.
Jun 17th 2020
EXTRACT: "The diverse, non-human life forms that live in our guts – known as our microbiome – are crucial to our health. A disrupted balance of these contribute to a range of disorders and diseases, including obesity, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease. It could even affect our mental health..... It’s well known that the microbes living in our guts are altered through diet. For example, including dietary fibre and dairy products in our diets encourages the growth of beneficial bacteria. But mounting evidence suggests that exercise can also modify the types of bacteria that reside within our guts."
Jun 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Bonhoeffer’s life holds an important lesson for us today, regardless of our religious affiliation or lack thereof. And simply put it is this: you are called upon; you are called on behalf of your neighbor. When you are called to be responsible that is not an obligation which you can decline, discharge or acquit yourself of – it is an infinite responsibility, a “forever commitment” as Charles Blow recently put it. And we all must be prepared to make any sacrifice necessary when we are called."
Jun 11th 2020
EXTRACT: "People differ substantially in how much they’re affected by experiences in their lives. Some people seem to be more affected by daily stress, or the loss of someone close to them. On the other hand, some people seem to get through the same experiences relatively unscathed. Similarly, some people benefit strongly from counselling, or having a support system of close family and friends. Others seem better able to manage on their own. But understanding why some people are more sensitive than others isn’t just a question of how they were raised, and the experiences they’ve been through. In fact, previous research has found that some people in general seem more sensitive to what they experience – and some are generally less sensitive."
Jun 7th 2020
EXTRACT: " The root causes of anthropogenic climate change – which has led to the endangering of countless species across the globe – cannot be adequately grasped in isolation from the technological application of modern science. While Swedish activist Greta Thunberg was certainly justified in calling upon American legislators to “unite behind the science,” neither can we overlook the culpability of science in bringing about the environmental crisis. "
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The QAnon movement began in 2017 after someone known only as Q posted a series of conspiracy theories about Trump on the internet forum 4chan. QAnon followers believe global elites are seeking to bring down Trump, whom they see as the world’s only hope to defeat the “deep state.” OKM is part of a network of independent congregations (or ekklesia) called Home Congregations Worldwide (HCW). The organization’s spiritual adviser is Mark Taylor, a self-proclaimed “Trump Prophet” and QAnon influencer with a large social media following on Twitter and YouTube."