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Doubting A Public Trust

I have no idea who first declared “a newspaper is a public trust.” It is something all respectable journalists are taught to believe.

I believed it too, for many years, after I heard the expression at college. But I am not certain any longer that I know what this means, let alone whether I believe it. Does it mean accepting another journalism-school mantra, which is that the role of a newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable? This idea can be traced to the early 20th-century columnist Finley Peter Dunne. I will buy the idea that the afflicted ought to be comforted, but need we agree with Dunne that the comfortable deserve affliction?

One thing of which I am certain is that a public corporation is a public trust. Managers who run publicly owned companies must act on behalf of those public owners. Responsible management means taking advantage of opportunities to grow the value of the company over time, and paying a fair dividend in exchange for use of the shareholders’ capital.  If this is not possible, then the appropriate thing to do is return shareholders’ money by repurchasing shares, going private or selling the company.

Families such as the Sulzbergers, who control The New York Times Co., and the Bancrofts, whose control of Dow Jones & Co. includes The Wall Street Journal, invoke the newspaper-as-public-trust doctrine to justify their disproportionate voting rights. They ask other people to provide the bulk of the capital for their enterprises while they perpetuate their families’ ultimate control over the companies. This arrangement is supposed to promote better journalism. Shareholders are told they should accept lower economic returns in exchange for fine journalism because, well, a newspaper is a public trust.

The public is hardly impressed. Newspapers are bleeding readers, advertisers, profits and share prices. Family control is no guarantee of strong journalism: The Hearst and Pulitzer papers invented yellow journalism. Think of the Manchester (N.H.) Union-Leader in the early 1970s. The only liberal thing about then-publisher William Loeb was his use of the paper’s front page to promote favored conservatives and attack his opponents, most famously Sen. Edmund Muskie, D-Maine. Muskie’s choked-up protest outside the newspaper’s offices led to the implosion of a promising 1972 presidential campaign.

Or take a close look at the modern New York Times. The Sulzbergers produce a high-quality paper, but it often displays an editorial bias that can be insulting to the very readers — affluent, educated and interested in a wide range of topics — that the Times hopes to attract.

A search of the Times’ archives brings up 194 articles since 1981 that use the term “McMansion.” McMansion is a pejorative. It can be defined as any modern home larger than the largest home the writer hopes someday to buy. Most of these McMansion snipes were in the news columns, not the opinion pages, and many were extraneous to the stories in which they appeared.

Also consider Times sports columnist George Vecsey, who has doubtless watched many a game from a free seat in a press box, but who casts himself as a defender of the working stiff. At least a dozen times between 1993 and 2006, Vecsey has used the term “shrimp-eater” to describe anyone who occupies a luxury suite at a sports event. I cannot fathom how this could have happened more than once before some adult, somewhere in the Times’ editorial chain of command, might have suggested that Vecsey knock off the name-calling.

I will set foot in a luxury suite for the first time this month, when, after many years of hard work, I will treat my staff and some close family and friends to a night at Yankee Stadium. I think I will invite Vecsey to leave the press box and join us. No shrimp are on our menu, but he will be welcome to a hot dog. Maybe we will reminisce about the good old days when Red Barber called the games and the working stiff could afford to go to the ballpark. We can gaze out on 55,000 fans and nary a shrimp, and recall how Barber was fired for reporting one day in 1966 that the Yankees drew exactly 413 paying customers.

The rest of the public does not seem to mind sharing a ball game with the folks in the luxury suites. The public seems to have its own ideas about how to spend its time and money — more of each at the game, and less on the Times and its parent company’s stock.

Is The New York Times a public trust? The Sulzbergers and their employees say it is. Either the public does not think so, or the public does not care.

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