American Pie 25.03.04

How long will it be before we need to drop the word “news” from newspapers? Not that long, predict some pundits here who have studied the decline in hard news in newspapers – and the growing distrust of many readers. For example, the number of households that buy at least one newspaper has declined from 117 per cent in the Forties (that meant many homes took more than one paper) to 53 per cent today. Circulation since 1990 has gone down 11 per cent. The credibility of newspapers has also declined from 80 per cent in 1985 to under 60 per cent today. At the same time there is perceptibly less hard news in most US papers. There are also fewer journalists. Since 1990 the number has dropped by 2,200 and the number of foreign bureaux is down by half.

It’s always been hard to bring a libel suit in the US. Which is why many Americans try to bring suits in the UK or other places abroad. Nevertheless, the number of libel cases has been declining significantly here – from an average of 24 cases annually in the Eighties, to 23 in the Nineties to an annual average of 12 between 2000 and 2003. The media are also winning more cases: 35 per cent in Sixties, 42 per cent in the Nineties and 54 per cent so far this decade. At the same time though when a news organisation loses, the damages these days are much higher. An average award now is usually well over $3m (£1.6m).

What will restaurant critics do to conceal their identity? William Grimes, who has just retired as the restaurant reviewer for The New York Times, reveals he used two different wigs to try to delude restaurant owners. It didn’t always work. Often a restaurant owner or maitre’d would see through his disguise and greet him heartily by name. It didn’t help, he claims, when the New York Post ran his picture in its gossip column one day. He claims that some restaurants even turned their security cameras on him while he was dining so all the staff would know of his presence. His biggest complaint: When he commented critically about the taste of Cornish pasties he claims he was denounced by The Times and a US flag was burned outside a bakery in Cornwall.

It is somewhat ironic that, just as the name of Martha Stewart is being dropped from the title-piece of Martha Stewart Living in the wake of her conviction on Wall Street trading charges, the magazine should be nominated for a top award by the American Magazine Publishers’ Association. It is the first time that Stewart’s magazine has been nominated for the top award.

It will be Pulitzer Prize time soon. The 18 members of the nominations committee are vetting the recommendations. One oddity this year is there have been few commendations for reporting from Iraq. Of the 42 nominated stories only six are war stories, only one by an embedded reporter in Iraq.

Despite criss-crossing the country and numerous appearances on TV talk shows, Jayson Blair, the reporter who brought disgrace on The New York Times, has not sold very many copies of his book Burning Down My Masters’ House. A total so far of only 1,386. One belief is that, because he has shown no contrition for his lies and plagiarism, most journalists here are boycotting the book. Also, because Blair claimed to have received, among other things, sexual favours from PR reps for stories, The NY Times for one has cracked down on any sort of freebies. Times staff have been reminded: No gifts worth more than $25.

By Jeffrey Blyth

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