There have been some disturbing happenings in the past year that hint at a growing challenge to the free press in our country. In November, 2014, the Senior Vice President of Uber threatened to dig up dirt on a journalist who was reporting on his company in a less than flattering way. It’s hard to believe that a representative of such a high-flying company would say this, but yes, this actually happened! It is true that the executive thought he was speaking off the record at a company event, but think of the implications here, and the audacity it took to say this out loud as a potential ‘strategic communications’ strategy.
The journalist, Sarah Lacy, was reporting on a lack of safety in Uber rides, and what she perceives as a misogynist attitude in the company. Uber could have ignored these reports, or factually countered them. The choice of this Uber executive to go on the attack and dig up personal dirt on the reporter demonstrates a factor that a free press may be up against when perhaps billions of dollars hinge how a company is perceived.
And what happens when a multi-billion dollar company decides to bypass the dirty business of private detectives and even blackmail, and just buys the media? Amazon’s purchase of the Washington Post did save the struggling newspaper, but the question that still remains to be answered is how this may affect the news. Do you think the Washington Post would ever do any hard-hitting reporting on its owner the way the New York Times recently did? How much power could Jeff Bezos and Rupert Murdoch wield in the newsroom to benefit their businesses?
Sometimes, powerful people can literally push the press around. At some of Donald Trump’s political events, security keeps the press in what they call the “pen”. This Trump pen prevents the press from walking around to observe and film protestors and events so that they can report on them fully and accurately. Believe it or not, the press are actually required to have a security escort when they leave the pen to go to the bathroom.
It takes boldness for a reporter to rip into a powerful corporation over and over again. It’s been encouraging to see some local Bay Area writers do this, and I applaud sports writers Tim Kawakami, Lowell Cohn, and Ann Killion. Sometimes sports is a window into the dynamics of our society–and these writers show the best of what can be seen through that window.
The San Francisco 49ers are a powerful corporation. Not only do the 49ers have millions of loyal fans, they also have a new stadium that is triggering the construction of a metropolis around it. But all of this power hasn’t stopped these writers from tearing into the 49ers ownership and front office when necessary.
Kawakami describes having GM Trente Balke “glaring” at him for his reporting, even calling it a “death stare”. Cohn says that team employees like announcer Ted Robinson, whom he has known for over 30 years, have stopped talking with him. When multiple writers receive such treatment for reporting on a billion dollar corporation, chances are it is a story that the public deserves to know about.
In my blog, Stay Classy, Santa Clara I wrote about the 49er follies back in August. Since then Jed and his team have only gotten more bizarre and comical. After allegations that Jed leaked negative stories to the press last year regarding Jim Harbaugh, somehow the press recently found out that earlier this season Blane Gabbert read his iPad playbook four to five times more than Colin Kaepernick. Obviously, the 49ers care enough about how they are portrayed in the media to leak information about a player’s personal computer usage. What’s next–leaking to the press how many sugars each quarterback puts in his coffee? It is naive of the 49ers to think that the public won’t realize that they were the ones who leaked this information. But there is a certain arrogance and smugness that the 49ers ownership has been showing since the so-called firing of Harbaugh, and it is refreshing that these reporters are not afraid to endure some uncomfortable moments to report on what is happening.
When corporations do ridiculous things like leak information to “win the press conference”, no matter how powerful and beloved by the public this company may be, it is a benefit to society for the press to be able to report this from many different perspectives. It is no secret that Fortune 500 companies are booming while American print journalism is financially struggling, and this only makes it more tenuous to displease big business. When an emerging billion dollar reputation is on the line for a company like Uber, or when millions of dollars may hang on a single news story, it is scary to think that at some point, a reporter might just decide that trying to use the so-called freedom of the press is just not worth the cost.
The last point I will make about challenges to the press and to accurate reporting is the advent of social media, where the line becomes more blurry as to what is a story and what is an individual blogger with an ax to grind. Mainstream news outlets are now more important than ever, because they are vetted analysts, and when they take a stand on an issue, it may not be the true story, but at least it’s more likely to be. In this case, the publications behind Kawakami, Cohn and Killion are the San Joe Mercury, Santa Rose Press Democrat, and San Francisco Chronicle. I hope these newspapers are ready to go after a local Fortune 500 company with the same zeal that they are going after the Jed York and the 49ers. If they are, the Bay Area free press seems in good hands–except when they are stuck in a pen.