Astro-editorials and the state of the media

Yesterday was a huge traffic day here at Facing South, thanks to widespread interest in our post about the identical editorial that appeared, unsigned and looking like a local "house" editorial, in some 8-10 newspapers connected with the right/libertarian Freedom Communications chain (as well as a few Knight-Ridder papers).

The Op Ed had special significance, since it was a full-court defense of President Bush's repeal of the Davis-Bacon wage rules for rebuilding of the Gulf Coast that is now facing a sharp bi-partisan challenge in the U.S. House.

Just a couple quick followups. First, I think yesterday was a great example of the blogosphere/netroots in action. Research by commenters on our site and other bloggers quickly heightened our collective knowledge of what was happening. Word spread fast and furious. Papers that ran the editorials recieved a small avalanche of letters within hours, asking them what was going on.

The author of the Op Ed (Sean Paige, long-time GOP operative, former press secretary for the Alan Keyes for Senate campaign, and now editorial page editor of the Colorado Springs Gazette -- see a trajectory here?) even got in on the act, commenting on the blog, emailing me, and leaving an ominous message on my answering machine.

In other words, they took notice, and the blogging had impact.

Second, what did we learn? What this episode revealed was a practice that seems to be a trend among small media chains, especially those on the political right. As the Columbia Journalism Review Daily pointed out in their blog entry covering our post, Freedom Communications' practice of placing unsigned "house" editorials is similar to what Sinclair Broadcast Group (of anti-Kerry documentary fame) does with TV news.

It's called "joint content," a controversial practice which is sold as a way to help low-resource media outlets have access to material. But there are lots of reasons to question this trend.

In this case, at the very least, passing off these canned national articles as local content is dishonest -- a criticism made when they first started the practice. It's a lot different than the long-standing practice of syndication, which requires crediting an author and/or another media source, so that interested readers can put two and two together and realize it's an outside job.

I think it's also clear that these media companies understand the political function of making the public believe there's a spontaneous wellspring of common sentiment around their agenda. The company's media headquarters -- in Sinclair and Freedom's case, right-wing outfits -- can quickly and widely disseminate very particular news and perspectives. In this case, it allowed them to give the impression that the editorial boards of papers across the country had taken it upon themselves to write editorials that endorsed the slashing of wages of workers involved in the post-Katrina effort.

And finally, as CJR notes, it speaks to a broader and dangerous trend in the economics of the media:

Now, this isn't a capital crime, but when homogenized product is being pumped to so many communities scattered across the nation, it does speak to the larger issue of media consolidation. In this case, what appears to be the company line is being toed by newspapers from California to North Carolina, with readers none the wiser.

The local press is the backbone of the nation's media, and it used to be an institution that was proud to be the glue that held many a community together. In the headlong rush of vast corporations to buy up more and more discrete chunks of the media landscape, we are, step by step, losing that local voice in favor of partisan, corporate missives from on high.

These are things all of us should worry about.

(Some added links and clarification 8:50 p.m.)