How savvy politicians take advantage of newspapers' woes. And Lisa Marie remembered.
By Gary Abernathy
Shrinking newspapers an opportunity for politicians
As a young reporter at a small Ohio newspaper in the early 1980s, a memorable assignment was covering a visit by John Glenn, the former (and future) astronaut then serving his second term as an Ohio Democrat in the U.S. Senate.
Like many in my generation, I grew up idolizing Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth two decades earlier. I don’t recall what issue Glenn was pushing, but I’m sure that my starry-eyed story was flattering and uncritical. Soon after, I encountered a Republican official who pointedly suggested that I should call her for an opposing viewpoint when writing about initiatives promoted by Democrats.
Indeed, I had disregarded a basic tenet of journalism, and throughout the ensuing years I tried hard to seek out opposing views when covering political events. But that objective became more challenging as journalists everywhere coped with shrinking newsrooms, especially at smaller newspapers.
Sometimes, producing comprehensive political stories is nearly impossible at newspapers decimated by budget cuts. There are column inches to fill, websites to be updated hourly and (corporate-mandated) social media teasers to be written -- often by as few as four or five frazzled staffers, or just one or two at the smallest papers. Making calls or composing emails seeking counterpoints to the pronouncements of visiting politicians is too often a bygone luxury.
Officeholders everywhere are well aware of the situation, and savvy ones take full advantage. It’s especially fascinating to watch a master at work – an opportunity afforded my wife and I as we spent some time in Florida recently, where Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) seems ubiquitous, relentlessly pushing his conservative brand of politics into media far and wide.
Not long after our early January arrival, DeSantis made the rounds promoting legislation blocking covid mandates and lowering prescription drug prices. Politically, I’m with DeSantis on mandates. But as a journalist, I want his feet held to the fire. Tracking the coverage online revealed some well-rounded stories featuring opposing viewpoints. Other times, stories too often featured little or no pushback, likely because of reporters too buried with work to seek out other views. Politicians with efficient PR teams know how to fill the gap with press releases and talking points that are often published verbatim — replacing good, independent reporting with one-sided spin.
Why? The answer lies at least in part in a 2020 story about a round of newspaper staff cuts in Florida that noted, “It’s the latest hit taken by Florida newspapers in a series of corporate-ordered staff cutbacks…” The article detailed other layoffs, including just the previous month when “the largest owner of Florida newspapers, Gannett, announced wide-scale staff cuts and furloughs at its properties..” which include about 20 Florida papers.
It's not a problem unique to the Sunshine State or Gannett. I spent most of my career at smaller Ohio newspapers, and cuts have hit hard at each one. They are all operating with a fraction of the staffing they once had. I empathize with small-market journalists everywhere and the obstacles they face. Still, politicians should never expect a free pass. Good journalism – and comprehensive government coverage -- should be universally practiced in equal measure regardless of market size or staff cuts.
To be clear, DeSantis is often covered aggressively and skeptically by Florida news organizations across all media platforms. And It’s especially commendable when reporters at small or midsize newspapers go the extra mile. A recent story in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, for instance, about DeSantis stacking the board of a local college with conservatives was admirably comprehensive, featuring comments for and against the governor’s actions, good historical background and a paragraph noting that efforts were made to reach additional sources, including “some professors (who) said they did not want to comment,” which is a comment in itself. Well done.
But such textbook reporting is too often sacrificed, especially at smaller newspapers struggling with cuts. A “60 Minutes” story tackling the issue last year of cuts across newspapers big and small – including the problematic trend of hedge fund newspaper ownership-- asked, “As local newsrooms and local news coverage shrivel up, to what extent does democracy shrink with it?” Interviewed was David Jackson, a longtime investigative reporter with the Chicago Tribune, who said, “I work with a lot of young people. And I tell them that we're leaving them [with] a smashed and broken system, but that they're gonna have to reinvent it because it's necessary. Journalism is necessary for the survival of American democracy.”
“Fake news” is not just reporting that is biased or inaccurate due to reporter prejudices and political agendas. Fake news also occurs due to reporting that is incomplete because of poor staffing as a result of budget cuts. Trouble is, journalism is so filled with people who are overly-sensitive to criticism — as we saw during the Trump years — that they even hesitate to admit how their depleted ranks impact the quality of their work. They hold up an unvarnished mirror to everyone but themselves or each other, and so the problems too often go unaddressed, even internally.
The demise of traditional journalism tracks the rise of the internet and its ocean of free but mostly unreliable content. Journalism needs a lifeline. Proposals involving government subsidies are potentially compromising to an independent press. Requiring tech giants like Google and Facebook to compensate local newspapers for content is a better place to start.
But newspapers can’t wait for a savior. For democracy’s sake, even the smaller newspapers – and their readers – must recognize that they can no longer cover everything. Tough choices must be made, but well-rounded political reporting cannot be among the casualties. A strong democracy requires that comprehensive reporting on government -- local, state and federal -- and the officeholders in charge take priority, even if other coverage is sacrificed. After all, few politicians are worthy of the lionizing coverage accorded to legendary star travelers descending from the heavens.
Trump rescued by classified docs of Biden and Pence
The revelation that former vice president Mike Pence’s lawyers discovered classified documents at Pence’s Indiana residence — on the heels of such documents being found at President Biden’s private quarters — brought home how overblown the whole reaction was to the Donald Trump classified doc issue. Only because it involved Trump did it become such a big story.
Is it a legitimate story? Yes. Is it something deserving of a raid at Mar-a-lago? No. And it WAS a raid, despite what I hear some commentators claim. The serving of a warrant and immediate law enforcement search qualifies as a raid.
This whole thing will soon fizzle out. There are no doubt classified documents in the personal possession of former or current officials far and wide where they shouldn’t be. People will be quietly, or publicly, returning them left and right. Move on, and be more careful in the future. After all, since Trump did it, people are watching now.
Talking police brutality and gun violence on ‘NewsHour’
With both David Brooks and Jonathan Capehart unavailable for their regular “Brooks & Capehart” Friday night spot, the Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus and I were asked to fill in for the “PBS NewsHour” discussion segment, moderated by co-host Amna Nawaz.
Ruth is actually to credit — or blame, depending on your point of view — for bringing me to the Post back in 2017, and it’s been nice to get to know and work with her over the years, and benefit from her guidance (and friendship). And so it was fun to be paired up with her for the segment. We agreed on the issue of the terrible police beating of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, but disagreed (respectfully) on what to do about guns in the wake of recent mass shootings.
You can watch out segment here.
Forgive the Cincy mayor for Bengals-Chiefs proclamation
In my new Washington Post column this week, I take on the subject of the heat being taken by Cincinnati Mayor Aftab Pureval for his ill-conceived proclamation leading up to the Bengals-Chiefs AFC title game.
Normally, I would have little inclination to side with Mayor Aftab Pureval on anything. As a progressive Democrat, he’s on the opposite side from me on most issues. But when I first saw the dust-up over his flawed attempt to join in the fun of the Bengals’ big game with the Chiefs, I immediately felt bad for him. …
…Some fans are still blaming Pureval in online comments and memes. It’s the kind of faux pas that can lead a politician to wish that life offered do-overs. As he watched Sunday’s game, Pureval might have been envious of the Chiefs getting to re-play a third down after a clock error. “What about me?” he might have wondered. But real life doesn’t work that way. He will have to smile good-naturedly and even laugh along with everyone else — perhaps for many years to come, at least in Cincinnati.
Check it out here.
Is Jim Jordan now among the adults in the room?
In a WaPo column published earlier this month, I analyzed the interesting phenomenon of Ohio Republican Congressman Jim Jordan — usually a rabble-rouser — joining establishment Republicans to push Kevin McCarthy across the finish line as the new speaker of the House of Representatives.
The GOP’s majority is so slim that a handful of malcontents can disrupt it at any time. Jordan will be a crucial mediator to keep everyone in line. An important early test came with this week’s vote on the House’s rules package, which passed with surprisingly little drama.
Jordan will undoubtedly lead in typical firebrand fashion, but his metamorphosis from leader of the insurgents to loyal lieutenant is still striking. One longtime Ohio-based GOP operative who has worked with Jordan told me this week, “Jim has always had a pragmatic side. He knew it wasn’t a choice between McCarthy and someone more conservative. It was merely an issue of wringing out a few procedural concessions, with the risk of a coalition leader if they overplayed their hand. His being with McCarthy helped protect against that.”
Lisa Marie Presley’s passing brings a sense of finality
The passing of Lisa Marie Presley, the daughter of Elvis Presley, on Jan. 12 is the closing of a chapter. Her mother, Priscilla Presley — despite sometimes being portrayed as the grieving widow when, in fact, she and Elvis had been divorced for four years when he died in 1977 — is one of the few who is still living and who was personally close to Elvis. But as his only child, Lisa’s death robs us even further of the number of people who can claim to have known Elvis on a truly personal level.
Most of the “Memphis Mafia” — the name given to his close friends and personal assistants, such as Joe Esposito, Charlie Hodge, Red West, Sonny West, Lamar Fike, George Klein — and almost everyone else who were part of Elvis’ inner circle have all died. Jerry Schilling remains. He was one of the youngest in the group, but now he’s 80 (81 next week), still serving a role as faithful keeper of the flame. It was Jerry who escorted Lisa and Priscilla to the Golden Globes ceremony just a few days before Lisa died.
The other living Memphis Mafia member who can claim a special bond with Elvis to the very end is his first cousin, Billy Smith. Billy, who will turn 80 in April, and his wife, Jo, were truly close with Elvis. During Elvis’s last few months, it was usually only Billy or Jo, or both, whom Elvis wanted to spend time with, moving them into a trailer behind Graceland and often asking them to sit in his bedroom with him (and his girlfriend, Ginger Alden, or another female “guest”) as they watched TV, reminisced, told stories and laughed a lot. At the end, it seemed Elvis only trusted Billy and Jo.
But the Smiths have always been outcasts when it comes to official Presley Enterprises activities. When the “Elvis” movie came out last year, Billy and Jo shared their feelings in several commentaries and interviews.
They were especially hurt not to be invited to the Memphis premiere of “Elvis.” Jo said, “It’s almost like, ‘you’re not good enough, you’re not sophisticated enough, you’re not their Hollywood type, you don’t need to be there.’ Well, all those people had as much right as any of the rest of the family to be there. And the people that they asked that were not close to him, they took up family and friends slots. I mean, I’m just sounding off, but it just irritates me because nobody’s better than anybody else. When we die, if you’re cremated the hole is gonna be the same size for everybody, so take it.”
Indeed, Billy and Jo have often expressed the belief that they’re excluded because they’re just a little too “hillbilly” for Priscilla and others who have controlled the estate. It’s ironic, because while Elvis was a voracious reader and was deeply philosophical, the less cultured, more “country” side of the family represents Elvis’s nature and personality, too.
Also having reason to complain about their lack of official acknowledgment are two girlfriends, Linda Thompson, who spent about four years with Elvis after his divorce (well, mostly after — they hooked up before the divorce was official), and Ginger Alden, who started seeing Elvis after he and Linda split at the end of 1976 and was his last official girlfriend. Linda was actually very close with Lisa. When Elvis died, Lisa, age 9, picked up the phone and called a disbelieving Linda to break the news. And it was Ginger who discovered Elvis’s lifeless body on the afternoon of Aug. 16, 1977.
Elvis also had three step-brothers — “the Stanley boys” — who were the sons of the woman whom his father married after the death of Elvis’s mother, Gladys. David, Ricky and Billy Stanley were just kids, significantly younger than Elvis, when they came into Elvis’s life, but he treated them well, was generous with them, and actually employed them as road members on his 1970s tours when they got older. No one on the outside can ever know for sure, but there’s always been the feeling that their stories of their close relationship with Elvis were not necessarily reflective of his feelings. There was certainly some level of a familial relationship. Ricky, who became an evangelist, died in 2019 at age 65.
But Lisa’s passing closes a chapter. She held a place in Elvis’s life and lore that no one else can claim. From almost her first breath, her life was lived in public. As a kid, I remember seeing newspaper pictures in 1968 of Elvis and Priscilla emerging from the hospital holding newborn Lisa Marie. Tabloids loved publishing telescopic lens photos of Elvis playing with Lisa in the yard at Graceland or one of his Los Angeles homes, or her being out and about in Los Angeles with her mother post-divorce, and then after her father died and she entered her teen years.
After her parents divorced, Lisa treasured the time she spent visiting her father. Elvis, of course, was the “fun” parent, with Priscilla having to play the role of disciplinarian which, of course, made Priscilla’s life more difficult. Lisa was at Graceland when Elvis died, and the story goes that she came running into the bathroom where CPR was being administered. She was shunted away, but she ran around the corner and came in through another door. Those images were no doubt seared into her memory.
Lisa endured a troubled life, with well-documented marriages, divorces and drug problems. She dabbled in a pretty successful performing and recording career of her own, but it always seemed like an effort to get it out of her system rather than make it a lifelong vocation. In adulthood, joining her mother in keeping her father’s legacy alive seemed to be her top priority.
She had four children — a son and three daughters, including the well-regarded actress, Riley Keough — but her son’s suicide a couple of years ago was probably the final straw, something she herself indicated in public comments was almost impossible to overcome. She was thrilled with the new movie about her father, and did her part to publicize it. She became close friends with the director, Baz Luhrmann, and especially the actor who portrayed her father, Austin Butler. Both attended her funeral.
Butler, who recently won the Golden Globe for “Elvis,” was just nominated for the Oscar, but said last week it was “bittersweet” in the wake of Lisa’s passing.
It’s a sad end to a uniquely American story. I was somewhat surprised at network news devoting significant time to Lisa’s memorial service. But then again, the Presley saga has been a journey that impacts the nation, and much of the world, beyond the fans.
Elvis had a stillborn twin, but he was the only living child of Vernon and Gladys. Now he, his mother and father and his only child are buried together at Graceland. It seems like something profoundly over, forever gone in one way, but forever lasting in other ways, too.
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