“The most epic and consequential story of the past 40 years”?

On June 19, Politico media reporter Joe Pompeo wrote that New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet and Washington Post Executive Editor Martin Baron “are the two most important newspaper editors in America right now, at a time when the news media are tackling the most epic and consequential story of the past 40 years.”

Concerning the United States’ ‘most important’ newspaper editors, I have no opinion. I try to sidestep argument about which human being is more important than his (usually, his) fellows. For one thing, this is grounds-of-conscience territory. For another, it is in poor taste. (I can be as stuffy as anyone else.) For another, I do not care. Also, ‘most important’ too often translates into ‘stupidest’. Take for example the context of the quoted statement, explained by Pompeo:

 . . . Baquet was being grilled by his own media columnist recently during a sardonically titled talk, “Covering POTUS: A Conversation with the Failing NYT,” when someone in the audience asked: “Better slogan: ‘The truth is more important now than ever,’ or ‘Democracy Dies in Darkness?’”

The former was from a brand campaign the Times kicked off during the Oscars; the latter was the Washington Post’s new motto, an old saying that had been invoked by owner Jeff Bezos in an interview last year with Marty Baron, the Post’s editor.*

Having fun with slogans is a good idea. As part of the new save-journalism movement, I have a couple of NYTimes and WaPo mottos myself. For the Times, how about ‘Judith who?’ For the newspaper I subscribe to, how about ‘Journalism Dies in Stupidity’? Or just ‘We killed the printers’ unions’?

Fun aside, it’s the last part of the quoted sentence that horrifies. Here it is again:

at a time when the news media are tackling the most epic and consequential story of the past 40 years.

There are two realistic explanations for this statement, and only two. The first is that the author really believes we are now in the midst of a story more important than the attacks of September 11, 2001; more important than the non-precedent Supreme Court ruling in Bush v. Gore that gave George W. Bush the White House; more important than the Washington Post Company’s epic and consequential financial stake in the Bush campaign and its ‘education reforms’; more important than the invasion of Iraq and the ensuing Iraq War and the rest of the ensuing carnage in the Middle East.

September 11, 2001

The other is that the author made a thoughtless comment without realizing the implications. I’m hoping for the latter, but even that means some lack of thought about the horror, tragedy, and dishonor blithely swept under the rug.

Backing away somewhat from the bloodshed of 9/11 and the Iraq War, let’s quickly review the past 40 years.

Well, June 19, 1977, featured Led Zeppelin and Elvis in concert. Pass.

Broadening the scope, 1977 and the late 1970s involved the continued unwinding of the Vietnam War, with its continuing suicides, substance abuse and other results of post-traumatic stress disorder, and strain on social services and on communities. The same period also involved climbing out of the recession of 1973-1975, the longest and deepest economic depression since the end of World War II according to the Federal Reserve. The climb was never completed. I recommend Wallace C. Peterson’s Silent Depression, which sounds like a psychology textbook but is actually a work of popular economics. Subtitled Twenty-Five Years of Wage Squeeze and Middle Class Decline, Peterson’s book narrates in persuasive detail some of the changes in the U. S. economy before and after 1973. The immense change was that the economy was expanding before 1973 and contracted afterward. The story can be read in the lives of everyone contemporaneous. We’re still feeling the effects today. We’re still paying for Vietnam, too.

The late 1970s including 1977 also involved the continuing development of U. S. feminism and some advances for women–not in regard to rape and domestic violence, but in the job market and in education. See Gail Collins’ When Everything Changed–the title a bit of an overstatement but the work a good chronological overview, with documentation.

That year and the late seventies also saw the collapse of the job market in higher education. With the draft (Selective Service) over and Vietnam winding down, undergraduate enrollment dropped rapidly. Troubles in the school systems didn’t help. Meanwhile, graduate school enrollment and the graduation of thousands of new Ph.D.’s continued–for a while. One result was that for at least a couple of years, there were some two thousand new Ph.D. grads in English literature and related fields, with not a tenth than many jobs in college teaching. (Someone computed the higher-ed unemployment rate the year I got my doctorate at 83 percent.) The secondary result was that the overflow went largely or partly into ‘adjunct’ teaching in higher education, a set-up again still with us today. This development coincided with the influx of more women into graduate programs, with the natural consequence that adjuncts were and are disproportionately female–especially in the lower-paying disciplines and in lower-division grinding classes. By the way, this entire phenomenon went virtually unreported in U. S. newspapers. The New York Times didn’t touch it for thirty years.

On a brighter note, the major movements of the sixties in environmentalism, civil rights and physical fitness and health more or less continued through the late seventies.

The above is just a thumbnail, only partly tongue-in-cheek, of part of one decade. No reason to go into detail on the Reagan years and other collapses of the eighties or on the continuing promotion of the Clintons and the Bush team in the nineties.


*Side note: Amazon head Bezos, who bought WaPo, is reportedly also going to buy the upscale Whole Foods grocery chain. A Whole Foods just opened in my region, to great fanfare about ‘jobs’, as in County Executive Rushern Baker’s touted economic vision of luring big and upscale employers like the Casino to the county. Amazon reportedly plans to automate grocery checkers out of their jobs. To its credit, the Washington Post reported this intent.

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