American Pie 28.02.2006

By Jeffrey Blyth in New York

Is it time to stop televising the White House press briefings?

The question has been raised in the aftermath of the acrimonious exchanges between some of the newsmen and White House spokesman Scott McClellan that followed the Dick Cheney shooting incident.

Many feel that the press came out badly, that many of the questions were rude and ill-mannered. Equally there are many who feel the White House was hedging and trying to cover up the story. The live daily briefings, which go back to the days of President Clinton (and the Monica Lewinsky scandal) were originally intended to give the White House an opportunity to speak directly to the American public and for reporters to ask on-the-record questions.

But they have deteriorated into what some call “sessions of mutual distrust”.

“It’s constantly getting worse,” says Ari Fleischer, who was President Bush’s earlier press spokesman. He even suggested that some normally civil reporters turn into barbarians when they get into the briefing room. The reporters, in turn, claim they are driven to aggressive behavior because the White House is so tight-fisted with information. Many concede they get lots of abusive e-mails following a particularly heated session.

Mike McCurry, who was President Clinton’s press spokesman and initiated the live briefings, says today he kicks himself for ever allowing the briefings to be televised live. “It was a huge error on my part," he told the New York Times.

Nevertheless his current successor says he has no intention of unplugging the cameras. “They serve a purpose for both the White House and reporters” he insists.

◊ A bright British idea has made it across the Atlantic.

The Month, the CD-ROM supplement the Sunday Times pioneered in 2003, is being tried now in American papers. The first will be the Dallas Morning News which will start including a CD version of the magazine Hollywood Previews once a month in its Sunday issues beginning in April.

Like the British giveaway, it will be embedded in a folder that looks like a magazine cover and will include movie trailers, behind-the-scenes interviews plus music clips.

◊ One group of magazines in the United States that is defying the trend of declining sales and a drop-off in ads are the celebrity-oriented weeklies.

The circulation of Us was up almost 13 per cent in the last six months of 2005 and topped 1.6 million. In Touch did even better — up more than 15 per cent. Star magazine climbed over 12 per cent. Only People, which long been regarded as the most successful magazine in the US in any category, was only up slightly over 1 per cent but still outsold the others with an average of just under 3.7 million copies a week.

One of the big surprises in the latest figures is the drop of almost 10 per cent in the sales of O — the magazine of chat show host Oprah Winfrey — probably because the magazine recently raised its subscription rate. But it still remains one of the biggest sellers with an average of 2.4 million each issue.

The drop in sales, the magazine claims, had nothing to do with Oprah’s endorsement of a book by a confessed drug addict James Frey which subsequently turned out to be more fiction that fact. Equally Martha Stewart’s prison spell (for a Wall Street trading offence) did not, it seems, affect sales of her magazine. Martha Stewart Living reported an increase in sales of more than 4 per cent.

Only the newsweeklies and most business magazines remained flat. Time and Newsweek were both down a small percentage. Condé Nast publications did pretty well. Vanity Fair was up 8 per cent, the New Yorker and Vogue both up around 3 per cent. Cosmopolitan, probably America’s best-known women’s magazine, rose a modest 0.8 per cent. But still it sold an enviable average of just over 3 million copies each month.

◊ US newspaper sales continue to fall. The Los Angeles Times has lost nearly four per cent of its circulation in the last six months. The Houston Chronicle was down six per cent and the San Francisco Chronicle lost more than l6 per cent. Ad income is down, too.

But not small-town papers; their circulations are holding steady, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota (pop: 56,000) has remained level. The same is true of papers in towns like Caspar, Wyoming, and La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Of course one reason is that papers in such towns don’t have much competition. In Bismarck, for example, the nearest other paper is in a town 100 miles away. These papers generally also have more English-speaking readers and are usually older. In Bismark, for example, only two per cent of the population is foreign-born. In New York it’s 36 per cent.

The big question however is how long America’s small-town papers can hold out against the spread of the Internet. At the moment broadband internet access isn’t as widely available in rural communities as it is big towns and cities — but it is spreading. At the moment Bismarck is not even included in the list of the top 100 towns in the US whose residents have access to the Internet.

◊ It’s not the dangers, or so it’s claimed, but the cost these days of maintaining news bureaus in places like Baghdad and Beijing that is provoking a big cutback in the foreign coverage of many American papers.

One of the papers closing down its Baghdad bureau is the Boston Globe. It is giving up the room in the Hamra Hotel for which0it has been paying but which has been empty for the past six months. A spokesman for the Globe admitted they could no longer afford to maintain the necessary security.

Two other papers cutting back their foreign coverage are the Baltimore Sun and Newsday. The Sun has closed its Beijing and London bureaus. Closing the British bureau — which dates back to 1924 — was a hard decision, admitted foreign editor Robert Roby. The cutbacks leave the Sun with just three foreign bureaus – Johannesburg, Moscow and Jerusalem — each with just one member of staff.

Newsday is closing its Beijing bureau, which is one of its oldest – dating back to the early 1960s. But it has not had a staff reporter in China for more than a year. It has an office in Baghdad – but nobody has staffed it since December. The paper has even shut its bureau in Mexico City.

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