BOB GARFIELD: This week viewers of Black Entertainment Television witnessed a true media moment. On Tuesday BET's President Robert Johnson took an hour of prime time to explain why he'd fired high profile interviewer Tavis Smiley [sp?]. He explained that Smiley had violated his contract by selling an interview to ABC before he shopped it to BET. Plus his ratings were low. Then on the nationally syndicated Tom Joiner [sp?] program, Smiley shot back.
MAN: What's next? Ebony versus Essence? The very thought of this kind of black on black verbal nihilism sickens me! Black America can ill afford this kind of wretched public display of black on black character assassination and personal destruction!
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Many viewers who called or sent Mr. Johnson e-mails thought that if BET weren't owned by a conglomerate which cared more about MTV and CBS, Smiley's fame and journalistic reputation would trump ratings or contractual quibbles. Smiley saw it that way.
MAN: I find it even more curious that Mr. Johnson would move to dismiss me for selling one mainstream interview to a mainstream network when he sold the entire company to Viacom. Issue two: with regard to Mr. Johnson's allegation of Tom Joiner spreading information, my response is simple. If Bob Johnson still owned BET, Tom would have referred the calls to him!
BOB GARFIELD:Think about how remarkable it is for a network head to take an hour of prime time to explain a personnel decision. Once upon a time in the land of media, they canceled what they wanted to cancel and we just had to deal with it. But now the audiences are smaller and the stakes are therefore higher. In a way, it reminds me of the situation with San Francisco's newspapers. 14:30
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Conveniently we have the editor if the San Francisco Chronicle sitting in a studio in San Francisco.
BOB GARFIELD: But before we get to Phil Bronstein, let's talk about the San Francisco newspaper war. Like BET, like all media, a deep-pocketed owner is vying for the affections and therefore the attention of an audience. For 35 years the city's two papers, the Chronicle and the Examiner were journalistic competitors but business partners under a joint operating agreement. Then the owners of the Examiner bought the Chronicle. The Chronicle's new owner, the Hearst Corporation, merged the Examiner's staff with the Chronicle's. That's why Phil Bronstein went from being the editor of The Examiner to executive editor of The Chronicle.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:The story goes that when Mr. Bronstein was with The Examiner he once donned scuba gear to get an exclusive interview with an alligator that had taken up residence in a city park. That bravery [?] will come in handy as he tried to navigate the new newspaper landscape. Mr. Bronstein I want to begin by talking about your old paper. The Examiner still exists, but only so that The Chronicle can avoid a monopoly! The Hearst Corporation has propped it up with 66 million dollars and it's run by a politically-connected local family that are known for weekly shopping papers than Pulitzer Prizes. Is The Examiner real competition for The Chronicle?
PHIL BRONSTEIN: I would like there to be a competitive newspaper, but I can't say that the new Examiner has been a lot of competition journalistically.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:And leaving San Francisco out for a moment, do you agree with most of the media watchdogs who worry about two-newspaper and three-newspaper towns becoming one-newspaper towns?
BROOKE GLADSTONE:I think if the one newspaper that's left allows itself to settle in to complacency, it's a big concern, but I have to tell you that any newspaper and certainly for our newspaper, The Chronicle, that sees the competition only as c--other competing media is very shortsighted! The competition is for the hearts and minds of the readers! There's a - an emotional connection that is lacking between readers and their newspapers. The, the, the sense that this is my newspaper, dammit - it helps me tell me how to live my life - it in--instructs me - it informs me - it entertains me - and that is the biggest challenge that we face.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Well this battle for hearts and minds that you talk about seems to be a particularly arduous one in San Francisco. David Shaw the Pulitzer Prize winning writer for the L.A. Times wrote: this magical, mythical city by the bay has never had newspapers whose quality even remotely approached the aspirations of its populace. Why hasn't it?
PHIL BRONSTEIN: I think part of it was the joint operating agreement. You've got two masters, basically. Two different companies that each have a 50 percent share in this thing and there, therefore, neither one really has - is able to create an aggressive direction for the paper. We're free of that now! You know - now is really the test as to how much that was a factor. Then I think you've got a long history of a reputation - you know - the famous line from All the President's Men where they - you know - some wacky story and the - and the editor of the Washington Post says actually, you know, give it to the San Francisco Chronicle. I mean some of that reputation was because Scott Newhall who was the editor of The Chronicle in the '60s decided to make it a fun paper! And he's the guy who came up with the famous headline - you know - Great City Forced to Drink Swill which is about bad coffee! But it got the reputation of being goofy!
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Now you have a staff that is enormous! You have people who have long been assigned to the same beats now still covering the cheek by jowl. In the case of the Knight-Ridder owned San Jose Mercury, the publisher, Jay Harris [sp?] left because of an insistence by Knight-Ridder that the profit margin increase over what it was! The paper was making a profit. They wanted to make a higher profit, and that necessitated some massive staff cuts. Now Hearst isn't famous for resisting bottom line pressures either. Why wouldn't there be staff cuts, especially when the staff is now so huge?
PHIL BRONSTEIN: Well there was a promise when this whole ordeal started a couple of years ago that no one would lose their job; there'd be no involuntary layoffs, and Hearst is committed to that, and I know they're committed to that, and there haven't been and they're not gonna be! I mean yes, there's not only pressure because you've got - you've merged two staffs and you might have two widget critics, but you know there's pressure because the-- the economy is in a downturn! But we're still proceeding. We've got this brand new Sunday newspaper that we're going to debut on the 29th of April which is going to have new sections in it! If you build it, they will come.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So Phil Bronstein, how do you measure success? Is it scoops? Is it Pulitzers? Is it circulation? Is it profit margin?
PHIL BRONSTEIN:I, I suppose when - the next time we talk or there's an introduction, instead of talking about the goofy stunt that we pulled in the dog days of the summer between conventions, that you say you know he's the guy - he's a Pulitzer finalist for his work in the Philippines. Now I realize the alligator thing is much sexier in some bizarre way, but I would just like for the Great City Forced to Drink Swill reputation, the backwater of journalism reputation, to change! So-- people say the San Francisco Chronicle -- that is the Bay Area. I live in the Bay area. That's my paper.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much.
PHIL BRONSTEIN: Thank you!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Phil Bronstein is the executive editor of the San Francisco Chronicle.