Richard Reeves

Freedom of the Press Is an Economic Issue

LOS ANGELES -- "The wall" is a major topic of conversation in these parts. But the chatter and gossip have nothing to do with Berlin, Jerusalem or Fenway Park. It is all about self-inflicted wounds to the usually thick hide of one of the country's best newspapers, the Los Angeles Times.

The story up till now:

The Times hired a new boss named Mark Willes three years ago from the cereal business -- General Mills, to be precise. He promised the many members of the paper's founding family, the Chandlers, that he would make their stock more valuable. And he has. The key to keeping that promise was the knocking-down of the traditional state-church wall between the separate departments that produce news and solicit advertising. He did that, too, having the newsies produce a magazine on a new sports arena called the Staples Center, with which, unbeknownst to the news side, the Times was splitting advertising revenues generated by the project.

There was big trouble when the news staff found out they were being used by the money folk upstairs. The trouble went exponential when the man who built the modern Times, Otis Chandler, wrote a letter to the newsroom saying that Willes and his Cheerio-counters were ignorant fools when it came to the traditions and principles of the craft called journalism, beginning with this one: Credibility above all.

Or, credibility sells -- at least over the long run.

I suspect most people outside newsrooms are not quite as excited about this as are the editors and reporters of the Times and their kin in journalism. And in truth, editors and reporters at other papers around the country have been waiting for the chance to cut Willes and his heresy down to size.

That said, there is a reason for "the wall" and an argument that journalists, a cranky, self-interested bunch, should have a certain freedom to bite the hands that feed them and anyone else foolish enough to rattle our cages. The reason was summed up last week on the other side of the continent by, of all people, the president of the World Bank, James Wolfensohn.

In Washington, Wolfensohn gave a speech that has been and will continue to be quoted by ink-stained wretches wherever and whenever they gather now and in the future. Sometimes, it seems, what you want to hear is what you should hear. And Wolfensohn reminded more than a few of us where we fit in and what we are here to do.

"A free press is not a luxury," he began. "A free press is at the absolute core of equitable development, because if you cannot enfranchise poor people, if they do not have a right to expression, if there is no searchlight on corruption and inequitable practices, you cannot build the public consensus needed to bring about change.

"When I came to the bank nearly five years ago, I was told we did not talk about corruption. Corruption was political. What could be more intrusive on politicians than a free press? ... But it soon became very clear to me that corruption and the issue of press freedom, while they may have political impact, are essentially economic and social issues. ... Corruption is the greatest single inhibitor of equitable economic development."

"Studies at the bank," he concluded, "show that the higher the level of press freedom in countries, the higher the control of corruption. Studies show, too, that there is a strong positive correlation between voice and accountability and measures such as per capita income, infant mortality and adult literacy. ... Poverty is not just about money. Poor people want to be able to express themselves."

That is what we -- the people in the crowd who shout that the emperor has no clothes -- think about what we do. It is surprising to know a banker does, too. What Wolfensohn of the World Bank has to say -- to Mark Willes of the Times -- is that if you tear down the wall offering some protection for freedom of the press, the bricks can be used to build prisons for the people everywhere who have no voice.

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