It’s been the dirty little secret of newspapers for 150 years: Print all the news that’s fit to print except news about newspapers. Since the New York days of Bennett, Greeley, Pulitzer and Hearst, reporters have been sent out to stick their noses into everybody’s business but their own, something that has led to egregious press abuses.
When the Los Angeles Times urged on politicians a century ago to bring stolen Owens Valley water to Los Angeles and vilified anyone in opposition, it failed to report that Times owner Harrison Gray Otis was buying up land all along the water route.
So venal and self-serving was Otis (he called objectivity a form of weakness), that he provoked Gov. Hiram Johnson into one of great sesquipedalian calumnies of all time — made all the greater because it was completely improvised before a Los Angeles audience:
“In the city of San Francisco we have drunk to the very dregs of infamy. We have had vile officials. We have had rotten newspapers. But we have had nothing so vile, so low, nothing so debased, nothing so infamous as Harrison Gray Otis. He sits there in senile dementia with gangrene heart and rotting brain, grimacing at every reform, chattering impotently at all things that are decent — frothing, fuming, violently gibbering, going down to his grave in snarling infamy. He is the one thing that all Californians look at when, in looking at Southern California they see anything that is disgraceful, depraved, corrupt, crooked and putrescent. That … that is Harrison Gray Otis.”
The Times did not cover the speech.
The press’ maidenly modesty in not covering (or uncovering) itself is over. As the end grows near, newspapers have become, as we all do, obsessed with their own mortality. One can hardly pick up a newspaper today without reading more gloomy details about the approaching end.