ProJo wants it both ways on scrutiny of the media

There was a bit of unintended irony in the ProJo's publication yesterday of Sydney Schanberg's spot-on op-ed piece about Rupert Murdoch.

The main point of Schanberg, who has had a distinguished journalistic career at the New York Times and elsewhere, was that Murdoch's platitudes about preserving the editorial quality and reputation of the Wall Street Journal should be taken with a grain of salt. The writer based this point of view on Rupe's track record and how his promises "have a very short life span."

In fleshing this out, Schanberg described how, when he was an op-ed writer at the Times in the late '80s, he wrote a column about Murdoch, headlined, "The Tasmanian Devil." In quick order, Schanberg learned that Arthur "Punch" Sulzberger Jr., then the publisher of the paper, had called the editorial page editor, Max Frankel, to complain about the tone of the piece, and wanted it removed from later editions. Sulzberger was talked out of this by Frankel.

[Then] the publisher called a late-afternoon conference in his digs on the 14th floor. In a polite fashion, I was being called on the executive carpet. In addition to the publisher, Sydney Gruson, Punch’s right-hand man, was there, as was Max. Drinks were poured and Punch explained his stance. He felt that other publishers were our colleagues and therefore not proper material for critical columns. I posited that newspapers were major opinion shapers and therefore centers of power and that if my column was going to examine the establishment, media chiefs should not be left off the list.

Punch then got right to his point. “Sydney,” he said of Murdoch, “I have to do business with him.” I understood him completely and said no more.

The irony here is that the ProJo, which looks into any number of things in Rhode Island as its mission, doesn't much like being looked into itself. This was the case during the four-year labor dispute between management and the Providence Newspaper Guild, and it continues to be so, as demonstrated by the unwillingness of ProJo publisher Howard Sutton and other top execs to speak with the Phoenix.

Freedom of speech, of course, includes the freedom not to speak. Yet it's the height of institutional hypocrisy for the ProJo (which ran Schanberg's piece in cooperation with the Nation) to tacitly endorse scrutiny of the media elsewhere, while rejecting it at home. And the blame for this goes to the top man.

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