It’s not easy to witness the watchdog of our democracy being sadistically euthanized.
Another week, another wave of massive journalism layoffs. And with it, another round of hand-wringing and legitimate cries about what we stand to lose when newspapers — especially local newsrooms — are gutted.
As many have pointed out, it is hard to predict what exact corruption, injustice or malfeasance will go unchecked as a result of historically fewer journalists (as many as 45 percent fewer in newspaper newsrooms) covering our cities’ and states’ centers of power.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo once described the relationship between newspapers and government this way to me: “You guys uncover what’s wrong or broken, and then it’s our job to fix it.”
It seems simplistic, but it’s true. And it’s not always easy, as a reader or citizen, to discern when that dynamic is at play — or to understand how close we are to losing it.
On January 28th, the New York state legislature did what we as taxpayers pay it to do: Passed a bill into law. Business as usual in a state capitol. The Child Victims Act, however, was anything but usual. Its passage represented not only a victory for tireless advocates and victims who suffer in silence the horrors of child sex abuse, but a quiet triumph for journalism — and the perfect example of the invaluable work we stand to lose with every swing of the bloodied corporate media ax.
The CVA, which replaces one of the most arcane statute of limitations law in the country by extending the age to which one can file felony charges or seek civil damages against accused child sex abusers to 28 and 55, respectively (it previously was 23 for both), almost didn’t happen. Since its introduction in 2006, the bill wallowed in the state assembly, only to die in the Republican-controlled senate. In January of 2016, a Long Island foster parent named Cesar Gonzales-Mugaburu was charged with sexual abuse of eight of the 140 boys who had been in his care over the past two decades. (He was found not guilty by a jury in 2017). The DA said he thought there were likely more alleged victims, but that they would not be able to seek charges in those cases because the victims were now older than 23.
At the time, I was editor-in-chief of the New York Daily News and our coverage began, like most good pieces of journalism do, by asking a couple of simple questions: How is this possible? How could someone who was victimized as a child be denied due process? From there we set out to find answers by grilling lawmakers, examining the influence of donations to politicians from entities such as the religious and civic organizations that opposed changing the law, telling the tragic stories of victims and publishing compelling, fact-driven editorials and columns on why the law should be changed. We were flooded with responses from victims each time we published call-outs in the paper and on our website asking for their stories.
Dozens of reporters, editors, photographers columnists and graphic designers were assigned. Travel and freelance budgets were tapped frequently. What our nine-month series “Protect Kids, Not Predators” uncovered was powerful, emotional and devastating to most who read it. The rebuttals from opponents of the new bill — ranging from the Catholic Archdiocese of New York, to the Boys Scouts of America, to state politicians to Governor Cuomo, though he eventually became a champion for the cause — came across as inadequate, if not compromised by financial or political motivation. So we kept pushing and reporting. The relentless drum of stories exposed hypocrisy, conflict of interest and sheer political indifference. It kept the injustice at the heart of the old law a part of the daily conversation, preventing politicians from sidestepping the issue as pressure from readers and advocates increased in ways it never had during the bill’s previous 10 years of existence. Our front pages were searing and unforgiving in shaming politicians and religious groups for their inaction.
“Sometimes it’s uncomfortable to have to answer questions in a one-off way,” New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson says. “It’s even more uncomfortable to answer questions over and over again.”
What keeps lawmakers honest is the knowledge that the watchdog is going to be back tomorrow — and the day after and the day after and the day after — nipping at their heels. The ability to maintain that pressure can’t exist in newsrooms that are a ghost of what they were just a few years ago.
“The Daily News played a key role in getting the issue into the public eye. Especially in 2016,” says Gary Greenberg, founder of Protect NY Kids. “But I don’t think they would have the manpower to do it today.”
Greenberg’s not wrong. From the time I was pushed out at the News in October 2016 over disagreement about looming cuts to personnel (I was rehired at the News by new owners Tribune Publishing in January of 2018 for a five-month stint as editor before being let go as part of the bloodbath that reduced staffing by upwards of 60 percent), the paper has seen its staff reduced from approximately 230 to 80. Some reports cite it as low as 45. Those numbers are mirrored in newsrooms across the country.
The math is simple: Fewer journalists yields fewer stories. And with the never-ending fire drill of trying to catch whatever crumbs of digital revenue the parasitic behemoths Facebook and Google let fall from their golden plates, those fewer journalist have less time to focus on anything beyond the latest hourly news cycle. To make matters worse, the type of journalism at the heart of our CVA series didn’t make money. To the contrary, in protest against our coverage, the Archdiocese canceled a million-dollar printing contract with the News’ printing plant in Jersey City, New Jersey. There was a day when the News would have shrugged off that sort of loss and quickly found a comparable deal to replace it. But those days had long passed. Instead, it created intense pressure on the business side of our operation, which quickly trickled into my office. The owner at the time, Mort Zuckerman, and publisher, Bill Holiber, to their credit, stood by the work we were doing in spite of all this because they believed it was the right thing to do. I’m not confident, just three years later, that the financial landscape would allow that today.
Which is the precipice we find ourselves, as a democracy, teetering on today. There are signs of encouragement as not-for-profit newsrooms sprout up across the nation. But most of those, while staffed with great talent, are mostly smaller shops focused on a more narrow range of important beats, such as City Hall or the State House. But not every important story comes from those places. The CVA series was borne out of the News’ ability to cover a breadth of stories — in this case, a heinous allegation of serial child sex abuse in Long Island.
As legendary columnist Jimmy Breslin used to say, the stories get better the more stairs you climb. He despised reporters who were shackled to their desks and phones. He believed the stories that made a difference were the ones found in the least expected places. He was right.
That’s what we lose when newsrooms are gutted.
So the next time a CEO wistfully vomits on about how the dozens of layoffs he’s just announced is going to help better position his newsroom to do better journalism that its readers really want, remember exactly what is happening and what is being lost. Think of the victims of crimes and injustices who just became that much more likely to not have their stories told. Think of the powerful whose power is less likely to be checked. And think about this point from Council Speaker Johnson, which holds true for every elected official: “A lot of times, things uncovered by the press I didn’t know about and couldn’t act on until I read about them.”
Then, as you’re scrolling through Facebook, realize that it isn’t hyperbole to suggest our democratic society is in peril. And if we don’t come together as citizens, journalists and elected officials to find a real, viable solution, quickly, we will all be screwed in ways we haven’t even imagined yet.