Early this year, Baltimore's police department became the latest American constabulary to decide the public no longer has any right to know the names of officers who shoot, or even kill, civilians.
Naming them creates too much of a threat to the officers and their families, the force said.
It turned out the evidence the force offered to justify the decision was pretty unconvincing. But while The Sun, that city's ailing daily newspaper, ran an editorial opposing the new policy, nobody did the digging required to expose the flaws in the police department's self-serving arguments.
A few weeks later, an outraged former police reporter for the paper, David Simon, did just that. He wrote a piece for the Washington Post recalling the days when a more robust Sun met arbitrary decision making with resources and defiance.
"I had in my wallet, next to my Baltimore Sun press pass, a business card for Chief Judge Robert F. Sweeney of the Maryland District Court with his home phone number on the back," wrote Simon.
Whenever a minor police official balked at providing him with information to which the public is entitled by law — say, the main cover sheet on a police report — Simon would whip out the card and call the judge.
"And then I would stand, secretly delighted," wrote Simon, as a badge-wearing authority figure received some instruction on the law from a voice of even greater authority.
"You can't redact anything," the judge would tell the cop. "Do you hear me? Everything in an initial incident report is public. Give it to the reporter tonight or face contempt charges tomorrow."
The judge is retired now. David Simon has gone on to create an acclaimed TV series, The Wire. And the Sun, like just about every other newspaper in this country (and in Canada), has radically pared its reporting staff as revenues continue to shrink.
What reporters remain, Simon charges, are too busy dealing with basic news to spend hours or days digging and insisting and demanding.
A Sun editor I contacted told me he takes issue with some of Simon's assertions, but he did acknowledge the newspaper is about half the size it was seven years ago.
Others have it much worse. Several American dailies have simply folded or become online shadows of their former selves. More than a few are mortally threatened. Detroit's two big papers now deliver only a few days a week.
Now, some cheer this, especially those who decry the old, calcified "MSM" — mainstream media — with its many flaws.
For example, when Hearst Newspapers announced on its website that the San Francisco Chronicle might fold, among the avalanche of anonymous postings that now follow practically any online story were hurrahs from readers decrying the newspaper's "extreme left-wing bias" and "pro-homosexual" views.
We have our flaws
Now, admittedly, I'm a calcified, card-carrying MSM guy myself. But, still, I'm mystified at how anyone could perceive sickly newspapers as a good thing. I also question the enormous value news-oriented websites place on these anonymous public postings.
Some, to be sure, are thoughtful and do extend the discourse of the online item. But too many are just undisciplined gibbering, personal attacks or, at best, unresearched and unproven assertions that wouldn't make it past the most basic standards of journalistic editing.
The detractors of MSM would have us believe that these anonymous posters, or their more structured, yet often equally anonymous cousins, bloggers, are in fact the new reporters and that, as newspapers crumble, armies of these "citizen journalists" will step forward into the much more democratic ethos of the World Wide Web and collectively fill the gap.
They, we are told, will be the new "free press" that the constitution of this country so famously protects.
Well, I am perfectly prepared to concede that today's newspaper reporters and their MSM broadcast colleagues have always been a flawed bunch. We're often ridiculous actually, pretending as we do that our news lineups and front pages represent the most important stories in the world on any given day, rather than what they really are — the sum of all our well-compensated, Western, ethnocentric values and prejudices.
(I still love the title of war correspondent Edward Behr's memoir, based on something he heard a journalist hollering in a crowd once in the Congo: Anyone Here Been Raped and Speaks English?)
We are also hopeless self-aggrandizers and, as aggressive government media handlers well know, can be made to kowtow.
But I also know, having spent about 33 years in this dodge, 11 of them at three newspapers, that many of the people who govern us do not believe the public has a right to know very much at all.
It takes a pro to deal with these people, someone who deeply believes in putting information before the public and who has the training and, importantly, the resources to do so.
Controlling the news
Information is empowering, which makes its release politically risky. So, given a choice, those in power will hoard it. This is not a conservative or a liberal thing.
George W. Bush and his group were obvious stonewallers. But the Obama administration is, in some ways, even more controlling. Barack Obama has taken up the Bush practice of pre-selecting and notifying reporters in advance that they will be called upon at his press conference, leaving all the others to act as props. Obama's people are also famous for what's called message discipline, meaning no leaks.
In Canada, as my colleagues have noted, the Harper government has successfully gagged the public service. I can also remember Jean Chrétien once complaining to me that the problem with modern reporters is that you can't trust them to keep information confidential.
Yet the public does remain relatively well informed. And let's be honest, a great deal of the credit has to go to tenacious, persistent newspaper reporters.
They're the ones who, by and large, generate the thick bedrock of facts and statistics we tap into on the internet.
Were it not for newspapers, the American public would likely not know that its former president had authorized secret CIA "black" prisons abroad, where government operatives were free to torture detainees. Or that the U.S. government was wiretapping American citizens without judicial permission. Or that returning veterans, their minds and bodies shattered, were suffering in the dank squalor of a mouldy military hospital. If TV reporters were to tell the truth, they would say that in the vast majority of cases their assignments begin with a newspaper article.
Losing our way
So, as newspapers shrivel and disappear, we are all consequently disempowered.
The officials who govern us will no longer feel much need to tell their masters "there'll be hell to pay if the press finds out about this."
And, having once been a police reporter myself, I suspect the average "citizen journalist" working the phone from home won't stand a chance against a desk sergeant in Baltimore, or Toronto either, for that matter.
Much of the carnage in newspapers, of course, is self-inflicted. (As one media analyst put it, the decision to provide free online content was the "original sin.")
I don't know what the answer is. Maybe there should be some temporary relaxation of the anti-combines laws to allow competing newspapers to come up with a common plan. Maybe newspapers should get a handout from government, like the Wall Street banks and so many other industries.
All I know is that without newspapers, we are all of us more powerless and more vulnerable.