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Friday, December 29, 2006

Si Newhouse's mob story

Do you ever wonder why The Oregonian never runs stories about union or government corruption - ignoring it - as if it doesn't exist? There's a very good explanation that will help readers understand.

In the 1980's, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, a Newhouse paper that held a monopoly like in Portland, went through a humiliating ordeal that placed this topic off-limits.

Jackie Presser was an International Brotherhood of Teamsters official in Cleveland who became president of the mob-infiltrated union in 1983. Prior to his ascension, the Plain Dealer ran a lengthy, meticulously-researched exposé revealing that Presser had long been employed by the U.S. Government as an informant. But the Teamsters had endorsed Ronald Reagan's election, and if the story had been allowed to stand, Presser would likely have been "taken out" of the running, or worse.

Si Newhouse, at the behest of his boyhood friend and politically-connected mob lawyer Roy Cohn, ordered a retraction/reversal of the story, and the Publisher complied. As a result, there was a walkout and near-mutiny by the honorable professionals of the Plain Dealer who knew the denial was completely false. (For more on the Presser issue, see Time Magazine, 6/18/84.)

The editors of Newhouse papers, including The Oregonian, learned a lesson: do not ever risk incurring such censorship ordered by the owners. The safer path for obedient, risk-averse corporate managers is ... self-censorship. Thus, politically powerful groups in Oregon will never be the subject of investigative reporting - or even serious critique - by the state's dominant news organ. That treatment is reserved for the less-powerful, especially those who dare challenge The Establishment's entrenched interests. This unwritten policy goes well beyond advertiser favoritism. If you've read Newhouse chain papers like The Oregonian - you know who gets protection and who gets pilloried.

In the passage below, Thomas Maier sums up the Cleveland fiasco:

At the Cleveland Plain Dealer, there was the sense that the newspaper had sold out, compromising its standards of truth and fairness. This pattern seemed to extend from one generation of management to the next at the paper - with Newhouse's ownership as the common link.

Efforts to bury the truth about the Jackie Presser story lasted for years. In 1989, when Neff's book about Presser was published, the Plain Dealer commissioned a freelance review by Howard Bray, the director of the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism at the University of Maryland.

In his review, Bray paid particular attention to the Newhouse intervention on behalf of Presser and said the book "reveals how the paper's credibility fell victim to the influence of Teamsters-Mob powers" with a front page "editorial surrender" repudiating its own expose. But Bray's review never appeared in the Plain Dealer.

Accompanying a Journalism Review story about Neff's book, [publisher] Vail offered one of this few public comments about the Presser affair. "At no time did we apologize," Vail said, "No 'retraction' was ever printed. We just published a news story [to the effect that] the government, in a sense, had signed off on Presser, and we had an obligation to print that.

By then, however, the weight of evidence contained in government tapes and court documents detailing the interplay of Roy Cohn, the Newhouses, and the Mob made Vail's protestations seem hollow. When he left the Plain Dealer, Vail signed an agreement never again to discuss publicly what went on at the newspaper.

For his part, Si Newhouse would survive the Cleveland fiasco by typically refusing to talk about it. In his silence, there nevertheless some revelation into his character and his business methods. Perhaps the most significant was how much power was wielded by Si Newhouse, once viewed by outsiders as the black sheep in his family.

In the few published profiles about the Newhouses, writers would give the impression that Si's brother, Donald, was the dominant voice in running the family's $5 billion newspaper empire and that Si confined himself mainly to magazine and book publishing. On a day-to-day basis, this may appear so. But the signature on the Cleveland deal belied what most insiders already understood: In matters that count, Si Newhouse calls the shots in the family business, in the same way his father once did.

Newhouse's silence also underlined a more troubling problem within the American media, the fundamental questions involving accountability and public trust. No matter how much criticism there was about the Plain Dealer, there was never any reason for Si Newhouse to have to explain himself. In 1989, when the top-rated national television show "60 Minutes" reprised the Jackie Presser stories and the cover-up at the Plain Dealer, Si Newhouse still refused to comment. He didn't have to. Nor did he ever explain his part in the shutdown of the Cleveland Press. To hold the key to what millions of Americans read every day in Ohio's largest city, Si Newhouse needed only one credential: ownership of the Plain Dealer's printing presses.

This domineering grip on the dissemination of news was a far cry from earlier in the century when cities had several competing newspaper. "It is for this buying public that newspapers are edited and published, for without that support the newspapers cannon live, "Walter Lippmann wrote in 1922. "A newspaper can flout an advertiser, it can attack a powerful banking or traction interest, but if it alienates the buying public, it loses the one indispensable asset of its existence." With the collapse of competition and a certain lock on the market, newspapers like Newhouse's Cleveland Plain Dealer could afford a "take it or leave it" approach to serving the public.

The profound distrust of Americans toward the media in the 1990s, the nagging suspicion that local newspapers act too often as gatekeepers withholding vital information from the public, found its exemplar in Si Newhouse, the man whose newspaper in Cleveland housed the secrets of the mob, its crooked unions, and its own self-serving advertisers.

The public's skepticism about the tainted news they consumed, as readership surveys would repeatedly show, grew out of the belief that newspapers had become mere house organs for the wealthy, that the interests of the powerful held far greater sway than those of mere readers.

When it involved embarrassing matters to billionaires (or at least those with glossy printing presses and lucrative assignments to offer at the most elite publications in New York), the press often seemed perplexed or feigned disinterest. That was certainly the case in the media's examination of Si Newhouse's role in Cleveland.

And the press would be largely complacent again when Newhouse faced an ever greater legal challenge from the government, one that was aimed at the very heart of the family fortune.

(© Thomas Maier, "Newhouse", p.146-148)

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