Prairie Lights: Liberal media or just good journalism?

Old news.

I often buy old magazines at thrift stores and take them with me to the Y, so I can read them while working out on an elliptical machine.

Most of these “old” magazines were published in the previous 18 months or so, but recently I bought a New Yorker magazine dated Feb. 8, 1969. I took it to the Y, climbed up on the machine and started reading, beginning with a couple of shorter articles before turning to a piece titled simply, “The Whitmore Confessions.”

There were no photos, illustrations or graphics, but the story was so good that I almost forgot I was exercising. I didn’t even learn the author’s name — Fred C. Shapiro — until reaching the end, 56 pages later. Not 56 full pages, because back then the New Yorker often ran just one column of type per page, wedged between ads.

This article contained about 39 columns and (by my estimate) some 19,000 words. When I reached the end I also found this note: “This is the first part of a three-part article.”

The other two parts are available online, but only to subscribers of the New Yorker, which I am not. I thought I could ask a friend to download them and print them out, but half the fun was reading the actual magazine and enjoying the antique ads (lots of booze and perfume).


Ed Kemmick

So, what earth-shaking event was this three-part, 60,000-word article about? Vietnam? The Cold War? Space exploration?

Nope. It was about how a 19-year-old African-American man by the name of George Whitmore Jr. was coerced into “confessing” to the murder of three women in two separate incidents in New York City. I still don’t know what happens in Parts 2 and 3, but a little research informed me that Whitmore was eventually exonerated, and his case was cited by the Supreme Court when it issued guidelines that became known as the Miranda rule.

Shapiro’s piece in the New Yorker was not an indictment of the police, or an essay on the evils of racism. It was simply a finely told story, crammed with detail, showing in one case how wrong people can be in trying to do the right thing.

I bring this story up because it got me thinking about what is called “the liberal media.” It would be hard to classify Shapiro’s story as either liberal or conservative, given its calm, even tone and its meticulous, objective attention to detail. What he showed, at least in Part 1, was that racism was not as important a factor as the competition between police detectives in two New York boroughs.

But the impulse behind the story, the motivating force that carried Shapiro through so many interviews and so much research, can only have been what we would call liberal or progressive. The same impulse must have lain behind the decision of the New Yorker’s editors to devote so much valuable space to one story.

Which raises this question: Is there a single newspaper or magazine that consistently produces solid investigative reporting and long-form news stories — as opposed to opinion pieces — that would not be considered liberal or progressive?

Even at a newspaper like the Wall Street Journal, with its arch-conservative editorial pages, all the best news reporting fits the mold of reporting found in the Washington Post, the New York Times and the New Yorker.

From the “muckrakers” at the turn of the last century, who exposed the corruption of the political machines that ran big cities and the exploitation of workers by heedless corporations, to Watergate, the Pentagon Papers and beyond, all the reporting that really matters has been done by journalists whose work would be dismissed, these days, as “fake news,” products of the liberal mainstream media.

At Fox News, to cite the headquarters of conservative media, there isn’t much reporting of any kind. All of its marquee “personalities” spend 90 percent of their time rehashing a handful of talking points on topics that rarely stray far from the story of the moment at the White House or the Capitol.

Writing “Benghazi” on a blackboard 10,000 times is not long-form journalism. But what else is there in what is known as the conservative media? What is the conservative equivalent of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” or John Hersey’s “Hiroshima,” both of which first appeared in print in the pages of the New Yorker?

I’m not sure why this is. Does it take a liberal or progressive impulse to want to delve deeply into stories that explain the world to us? Do conservatives care only about the big picture, only about opinions, only about Washington politics?

There have been many brilliant conservative columnists and writers in my lifetime, which is why I used to spend a lot of time reading the National Review and the American Spectator, with occasional forays into the pages of Commentary and the Weekly Standard. But, again, there was very little actual reporting, as opposed to opinionating, in any of those magazines.

If there were no liberal media, what would we have left? A whole lot of hot air, apparently, and not much else.

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