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Make way for fluff.

I'm worried about journalism. Seems like every day there is more and more fluff--and less and less news. And when good reporters do tackle tough subjects, their editors are backing down with depressing regularity.

The current pattern began in the early 1980s when Abe Rosenthal of The New York Times banished reporter Ray Bonner to the business section after Bonner exposed the El Mozote massacre in El Salvador. At El Mozote, U.S.-trained soldiers killed hundreds of civilians. A few years later, Newsweek followed suit by easing out Robert Parry, who had done pathbreaking work on the Iran-contra scandal.

In the last two years, the trend has intensified. The San Jose Mercury News sounded the retreat after its investigative reporter Gary Webb linked the contras, the CIA, and the crack cocaine epidemic. When The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Los Angeles Times decided to tear apart Webb's story instead of pursuing it, the executive editor of the Mercury News issued an apology and sent Webb off into obscurity, Webb took the hint and quit the paper.

Webb made some mistakes, but he advanced an important story with a lot of solid reporting. The story deserved a correction, not a retraction and an all-out war on Webb's reputation.

Next to fall was The Cincinnati Enquirer. In May, the paper ran a blockbuster story on Chiquita, which is based in Cincinnati. The piece highlighted several questionable practices by the company in Latin America, including allegations of paying off officials, busting unions, spraying pesticides banned in the United States, and brutalizing peasants.

But late in June, the paper issued an apology and agreed to pay Chiquita more than $10 million not because the story was inaccurate but because the Enquirer said one of its reporters may have stolen voicemail messages from Chiquita. In exchange for the apology and the payment, Chiquita said it would not sue the paper.

Certainly, reporters are not above the law. But the Enquirer reporter says he received the voice mail from whistleblowers inside Chiquita. (By the way, the CEO of Chiquita is Carl Lindner, who used to own the Enquirer.)

There is an old and noble tradition of editors backing up their reporters when they challenge the powerful. That tradition lies in tatters.

Meanwhile, editors are sending out their reporters to chase the latest tidbits of the Clinton sex scandal, at times reporting idle gossip as if it were news. You don't see editors retracting these stories and firing the reporters. No, the editors just ask for more.

It's easy to go after Monica Lewinsky. It's even easy to go after Bill Clinton. Your bosses will make allowances if you mess up. But if you slip while going after a huge corporation or while taking on U.S. national-security policy, you may be out on your ear. Just ask the producers at CNN who lost their jobs over the Vietnam nerve-gas story.

While every editor must be vigilant about getting the facts nailed down, and we take great care to do so here, I'm afraid the latest retreats signify a greater surrender.

Take James Fallows, editor of U.S. News & World Report, who got the axe on June 29. Though he did his share of Monica chasing, Fallows tried to give the weekly more of a serious edge. I remember reading a great investigative piece in U.S. News last fall about how coal-mining companies in West Virginia are chopping off mountain tops and destroying the villages below. It was a story I would have liked to run here. The week of his firing, Fallows printed a good cover, Sexual Harassment: The New Rules. (Compare that with Newsweek, which had this cover: Katie's Story: TV's morning star on `Today,' her life now, and that $7 million contract.)

Fallows said one of the reasons he was canned was because he didn't give enough coverage to the killing of fashion mogul Gianni Versace.

When I joined The Progressive fifteen years ago as an associate editor, I soon began putting together a package on the state of the labor movement. It was called Labor's Uphill Struggle, and it ran in our August 1983 issue.

It is still an uphill struggle, but there are positive signs. The AFL-CIO is under new (and less calcified) leadership, and it is devoting more resources to organizing. A Labor Party has formed, and it is raising important issues. And many unions are seeing the need to work together with their counterparts in other countries to challenge the massive power of multinationals.

David Bacon reports on these solidarity actions in support of Mexican workers. And Jane Slaughter, who has been reporting on labor for us since before I got here, files her story from Flint. These stories aren't about Katie Couric or Gianni Versace. I hope you'll forgive us.
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Title Annotation:editors and journalists fail to pursue important stories
Author:Rothschild, Matthew
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Aug 1, 1998
Words:806
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