Friday, April 17, 2009

The Closet Good Guy

First of all, this reference has nothing at all to do with sexual preferences. That's significant, I guess, because the first public figure I ever heard discuss the concept of "the closet good guy" was the estimable Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.)

Frank was talking to reporters about a celebrated Washington economist who made his name in the 1980s helping Ronald Reagan wreck the economy and jury-rig the tax code in favor of the well-to-do.

All the time, Frank said, this chap was whispering to those who thought trickle-down economics was taking the middle class off a cliff that he was in fact laboring behind the scenes to make it better, to mitigate the damage. Wink, wink, nod, nod. I'm on your side. Really.

The closet good guy.

Which brings me to my former line of work - the newspaper business. These days the media landscape is littered with closet good guys (and good gals, of course). They're wringing their hands on CNN and MSNBC, furrowing their brows in think tanks and posh universities, typing on the oped pages and yakking on NPR about "What's Wrong" with newspapers.

Most of the answers are already in play. The Internet. Giving away the product. Missing a few fundamental changes in the society. The primacy of shareholder value. Turning the newsroom over the marketing folks. A culture with the attention span of a twitterer.

Most importantly (to me), a loss of faith in the mission and the role of the newspaper. And a pathological need to ignore the base, as they say in politics, and pursue folks who were never, ever going to buy and read a newspaper.

I spent 16 years as a columnist and reporter for the Chicago Tribune. I had a messy divorce from that paper in 1996, long before manufactured-housing mogul Sam Zell and his happy band of new media nitwits took control of the "World's Greatest Newspaper." And what I am suggesting is that the short-sightedeness, arrogance and institutional well-poisoning in the newspaper game didn't get its start in last three years or so.

My experience - and that of many former and current scribes in other papers - is that many editors and managers didn't need a Sam Zell or some equivalent villain to ease them down the road to perdition.

Lots of scrappy reporters who raged over shrinking budgets and shrinking newsholes, unreasonable deadlines, gutless editors and the dumbing down of the product got right in line when they moved into positions of newsroom authority.

Suddenly, the money guys were making a lot of sense when they questioned the need for this bureau or that beat. Sure, an extra copy editor or an editorial cartoonist or an in-house TV critic was nice, but, hey, we gotta start running this place like a business.

From there it was easy.

Now, many in this crowd are numbered among the media commentariat. To hear them tell it, they were all doing the right thing right up until the moment they took the buyout. And there was no back door at the Alamo, either. Everyone died a hero.

So the next time you see a former editor or an ex-publisher or columnist chin-stroking their way through a lofty discussion of the sad state of daily newspapers, consider that they might not have been born in a manger.

It's altogether possible that back in the day they were not strangers to downsizing and closing bureaus, advancing mini-stories and treating disagreeement as insubordination. They might have a newsroom history of their own, and one that will not hold up to much scrutinty.

The truth is, the first time I heard it said in a newsroom that "your job is your perk" was sometime in the late 1980s, about the time that economist was telling Barney Frank they were all on the same side.

1 comment:

  1. Got a bailout-blessed McClatchy lackey we'll call Howard the Duck who comes to mind as the other side of the Closet Good Guy coin -- a sellouot who stays bought, an honorable thing in Chicago circles. This guy is now pissing on folks who got the chop or are still in the trenches as benighted dullards who just didn't get on board with the grand corporate vision quick enough to avert disaster. Punishing debt from the hubris-fired deal to buy the bigger K-R chain? Nah, still your fault. Can't get my facts straight about your newspaper being a profitable enterprise before MC bought it? Nope, still your fault.