- - Monday, October 31, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

THE LIFE OF KINGS: THE BALTIMORE SUN AND THE GOLDEN AGE OF THE AMERICAN NEWSPAPER

Edited by Frederic B. Hill and Stephens Broening

Rowman & Littlefield, $38, 299 pages

Old news reporters like nothing more than to gather in a dingy fake-Irish pub and yarn about their escapades among the great and powerful of the past.

There is a lot of that colorful atmosphere in this pleasant collection of memories by 27 former editors and reporters of the Baltimore Sun. But even if one has never read the newspaper or spent much time in the town that calls itself “Charm City,” this is a book worth reading. It is a cautionary tale of the decline of the American daily newspaper and its once salutary if sometimes abrasive impact on our democracy.

What is today called the media justly suffers the same abysmal reputation among the general public as a member of the U.S. Congress, but it was not always so. For more than a century until well into the 1970s, nearly every American city of any size had at least two daily newspapers. Each at least on the masthead and editorial page identified itself as either a Republican or Democratic in affinity. But whatever the affinity on its commentary pages, nearly all the dailies adhered to a rough standard of integrity and at least the appearance of objectivity in the news provided the reader.

All that has vanished from much of the nation. What has replaced it as our democracy’s information base does not bear thinking about. We are cursed with a slew of broadcast and cable news simulations that replace public affairs with celebrity sensation. Instead of gatherers of facts and insight, our citizens are lectured by a collection of faces uniform in their bland unattractiveness and their ignorance of history or the realities of politics. The alternative known as the internet once offered the prospect of wholesome competition but instead has been captured by zealots of all stripes of mental aberration.

With the exception of a few — and I include this august journal — the hard task of informing the public about both what is going on in their communities and in the world has gone absent without leave. Among the other exceptions I can name the Baltimore Sun which was for 100 years — and remains in somewhat reduced state — still a purveyor of both local and world news worth the reading. In the years before this respected publication came on the scene, Washington, D.C. dailies were a sad lot — one was a tabloid full of nonsense, there was an afternoon daily that paid scant attention to national news and a third that refused to recognize that the local community had any affairs worth mentioning.

But the Baltimore Sun in its prime managed to do it all. This collection of essays gives one an enjoyable remembrance of a daily that was truly a national journal of Washington politics even as it covered the goings-on of the Baltimore criminal courts, the clash of the city’s ethnic politics, the endemic corruption of the state snake-pit in Annapolis and the broader affairs of the Chesapeake watershed.

That the Sun did all this with a cheeky style can be credited to its longtime patron saint H.L. Mencken who pushed the paper to maintain a presence in the nation’s capital even as it competed with two other Baltimore dailies for Maryland readers. It helped that for more than 50 years of this golden era the irascible Mencken was the cultural arbiter of the nation’s intellectual elite. With a stiletto wit and an unparalleled grasp of the American language, he skewered the bigot, the pompous and hypocritical sparing neither a succession of presidents nor Bible-thumping bombasts.

In the meantime, while Mencken’s ghost continued to hover, the reporters and editors of the Sun adapted to the changing times, expanding news bureaus abroad even as it came — somewhat belatedly — to address vital domestic issues such as civil rights for African-Americans and later the emergence of women in the workplace and in its own newsroom.

Among the essays that are worth the book’s price are memories by Muriel Dobbin, the first woman reporter assigned to White House coverage. Ernest Furgurson, the Sun’s Washington bureau chief during its apogee, chronicles its struggles during a fraught period of the paper’s evolution while Gilbert Lewthwaite captures the excitement and frustrations of a foreign correspondent.

The last word rightly belongs to the late John Carroll, whose career at the Sun and other dailies in Philadelphia and Los Angeles was studded with Pulitzer Prizes. His question, “What Will Happen to Newspapers?” is a sober reminder of what we have lost and some well-reasoned thoughts on how we can regain an informed democracy.

James Srodes has been the Washington bureau chief for both Forbes and Financial World magazines.

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