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December 2000

The Year of
Stalemate and Sitzkrieg
It'll Be a Black Christmas Without You

Dispatches from the Front by Burl Burlingame

Michael Fisch
12/1/00 As Canadian publisher David Black overcame the last hurdle for buying the Star-Bulletin, and then purchased the press of Gannett rival RFD Publications and declared "Full speed ahead!" Gannett and Liberty do their best to sabotage the deal even at this late hour. As Gannett Advertiser publisher Mike Fisch declares, "We have a number of exciting things that we are planning." This includes a take-it-or-leave-it contract demand for Advertiser employees, with a 24-hour deadline. Gannett appeared willing to provoke a walk-out in the lucrative Christmas ad-sales season in order the undermine the Star-Bulletin, whose standing contract was being ignored until March 15. Gannett's Liberty office has also issued orders to Star-Bulletin management and staff that any transition planning or discussions are forbidden until after March 15, even though the transition happens March 16. This included long-range story planning for news that might occur after that date. Extra security guards were posted at the newsbuilding and library to ensure no such discussions take place. Even so, the announcement of the MidWeek purchase provided the first good day in 16 months at the Star-Bulletin. The playing field still wasn't level, but at least it wasn't vertical any more.

Al Portner
12/2/00 Liberty executive Al Portner became a full-time newsroom fixture to police newsroom discussions, and ejected editor emeritus Bud Smyser -- a 45-year Star-Bulletin employee -- from his office because it has a better view of publisher John Flanagan. This person was already being referred as the office "zampolit." On Nov. 30, a newspaper secretary was obliged to "cleanse" the newsroom of anti-Rupert Phillips/Liberty graffiti and transition information. The already mean-spirited working conditions were getting worse in the Star-Bulletin, and Gannett/Liberty was turning on its own employees. Portner was often visibly uncomfortable in this role.

12/3/00 A letter was received from Save Our Star-Bulletin executives:

Mahalo to all who helped
save Star-Bulletin

We want to express our appreciation to the citizens of Hawaii who have supported the efforts of Save Our Star-Bulletin (SOS) to continue publication of two statewide daily newspapers. Special kudos to the thousands of citizens who signed the SOS petitions; the Oahu Neighborthood Boards; Gov. Benjamin J. Cayetano; Attorney General Earl Anzai; the Hawaii state Legislature; Mayors Jeremy Harris, James H. Apana, and Stephen K. Yamashiro; the Honolulu and Hawaii County Councils; the leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties; the Hawaii Newspaper Guild; the ILWU and other unions; and, of course, to the staff of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin who refused to give up inspite of the tremendous stress that they no doubt felt.
Now it is up to all of us to continue to support the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. SOS will be vigilent in watching the actions of Gannett during the months leading up to March 15, 2001, the date of the actual transfer of ownership to Black Press, Ltd., so as to ensure that the people of our state will continue to have two statewide daily newspapers.

Richard Port, Alice Clay, Thomas P. Gill, Kekoa Kaapu, Jean King, Ah Jook Ku, A.Q. McElrath, David Eyre, Philip Mayer and Richard S. Miller.

12/4/00 A few days after he safely left town, Gannett Advertiser editor Jim Gatti wrote a personal column in which he revealed that he read online information about the Star-Bulletin closure, but that he seemed to have trouble understanding it. There are enormous holes in the article and his memory is selective, but most of it seems to be a three-year-old defense of why he screwed up the "Broken Trust" revelations. The column was widely ridiculed as misdirected sour grapes.

Saundra Keyes
12/7/00 New Gannett Advertiser editor Saundra Keyes laid the groundwork for future relations: she promised "scorched earth" remaining for citizens who read the Star-Bulletin. She also discouraged cursing in the Advertiser newsroom. Despite such tough talk, Advertiser staffers had so far found her personable and down-to-earth, a change from the more autocratic Gatti.
12/8/00 It had become a common sight to see street hawkers selling the morning Honolulu Advertiser well into the afternoon because the Star-Bulletin was being withheld from them by Gannett distributors.
12/13/00 In a special speech to the Honolulu Media Council, next Star-Bulletin owner David Black revealed that Gannett was violating the terms of both the JOA agreement and the court-ordered injunction. This included a refusal to reveal subscription lists and carrier routes, disrupting the news staff's daily routine, neglecting to stock news stands, recruiting from the Star-Bulletin newsroom, banning discussions among the staff for transition planning or even long-range story planning, locking away the shared assets such as the library and sabotaging the delivery of breaking editions of the newspaper.
12/18/00 An Advertiser editor, interviewing candidates for the many positions now available, urged new employees to "kill, kill, kill!" the Star-Bulletin.
12/20/00 In time for Christmas, Gannett's newsroom-security guards were required to take workplace-violence training.
12/22/00 The Gannett Advertiser offices were swarming with dozens of new hires, new newspaper sections were added and prizes given away to subscribers. The Advertiser was allowed to pummel the Star-Bulletin with resources three months ahead of the transition, while the Star-Bulletin staff was banned from even discussing the change-over. On the plus side for readers, the Advertsier had become a better paper than it was even a year ago.
12/28/00 Long-time Star-Bulletin staffer, editor emeritus Bud Smyser, was ambushed by Gannett executive Mike Fisch at a reception for Gannett's traveling "Newseum" before an audience of Hawaii business executives. One of very few Star-Bulletin employees invited -- others, such as the spouses of journalism instructors, are dis-invited when they RSVP'd -- Smyser was startled to discover that he was required to share the stage with Fisch and debate him over the newspaper's fate. Fisch, prepped ahead of time for the presentation, arrogantly offered Smyser employment at the Gannett Advertiser.
12/29/00 I decided to see the Newseum for myself and let Star-Bulletin readers know what they're in for. What good is an educational exhibit that only stops in each state for a few days? Sounds more like a stunt than an honest attempt at educating the public.
Your first clue that things aren't exactly as advertised at the traveling "Newseum NewsCapade With Al Neuharth" exhibit is that admission is free, but it'll cost you at least $10 to get in.
That's because the exhibit is set up on the pier next to battleship Missouri, and the only way to get to it is to buy a ticket to the Ford Island attraction, via trolley from the USS Bowfin museum. Admission is $14, and $10 for locals and military, and have your photo ID ready because the ticketsellers are nonplussed whan anyone local wants to go to the
The trolley runs every 20 minutes or so over the nation's ugliest bridge to Ford Island. After presenting your ticket, you have to hunt for the Newseum -- it squats wharfside, just past the battleship's graceful bow.
It's not easy to get a handle on the Newseum structure, which is podgey and tentlike, but then it's a travelling show, broken down into a couple of moving vans and erected on site like a circus big top. The good stuff is on the inside.
Which brings us to a cards-on-the-table disclaimer: Journalists don't much like to see the "process" of the business examined too closely. Journalism is, after all, part tradecraft and part magic, inchoate from birth and yet requiring expertise accreted like rings on a tree. You either get it or you don't, like art or baseball.
Which means we're not likely to be fair judges of the Newseum, which is pitched low and squarely at a largely unsympathetic public, like a sugar-coated campaign commercial, a propaganda, a warm-and-fuzzy sermon. Journalists generally hate things that make us feel good about ourselves. It makes us suspicious, because that's our nature.
The Newseum is the primary physical presence of the "Freedom Forum," an organization created by the Roman emperor of the newspaper business, Al Neuharth. Once the head of Gannett Newspapers, Neuharth got into an alpha-dog urination war with the newspaper giant when he retired, and there was some sort of stock manipulation and slick lawyering going on, and the FF resulted as a kind of Gannett-charity stepchild.
Currently located in Arlington, VA, the Newseum is soon taking over the last available public-exhibition space in Washington, D.C., beating out the U.S. Army's plans for a national museum inside the Beltway. The "NewsCapade" road-show version is what's landed here in the islands, the last leg of a 50-state tour. The title is reminiscent of Neuharth's "BusCapade" and "JetCapade" nation-wide tours in the '80s as king of Gannett, incredible corporate boondoggles created to feed his sense of self-worth.
This background is necessary to understand the design imperative of the exhibit, which is vintage Neuharth. It's glitzy. It's has the highest tech that money can buy. It's bite-sized but not chewy. It's shiny. It's as slick as soap on a doorknob and as shallow as an anchor's pancake makeup. It's filling but not nourishing. Much of it is callow up-with-people propaganda in the grooviest package imaginable.
Imagine this: Listed as among the greatest journalism feats of all time is "1982 -- Al Neuharth reinvents newspapers with USA Today." Like USA Today, if you enjoy it, you will hate yourself in the morning.
But some of it is way cool.
The gimme-tech includes a bank of touch-screen computers with nattily designed interactive scenarios. They're chockablock with swirling graphics, crisp, seamless video, well-designed directional icons, and they work well. But the content, the content...
An example: On the subject of "Risking Lives for Stories," former ABC-News reporter Marlene Sanders looks gravely into the camera and says, simply, "The outside world drops away and you are only there living in that moment and what you are doing." That's it.
OK, then.
I tried a game called "Be an Editor!" in which you have to beat the deadline clock and "confer" with various section editors about which stories to run. These pudgy, Polyester "editors" include recognizable newsroom types such as the gruff female sports editor and the swishy male features editor. They all speak to you as if they're Mr. Rogers and it's a wonderful day in the 'hood.
A "professional editor," some apple-cheeked old coot from Norman Rockwellish Ames Daily Tribune, said I did "excellent work!" as an editor wannabe, apparently because I chose the giant cheese-factory fire as the main story rather than the mutant-frog story. Can I put this on my resume?
There's a panorama of spectacularly dull photos called "1999 -- The Year in Pictures," virtually all of which seemed to have been taken by remote control at managed photo ops. The best ones are at the far right, Brandi Chastain whooping and whipping off her shirt as her team won, and the Eiffel Tower ablaze at the 2000 New Year's.
There are a number of artifacts. A Microsoft keyboard autographed by Bill Gates. An antique Remington typewriter. A "Tokyo Rose" microphone that, upon reading the caption, had no apparent connect to the real Iva Toguri. TV correspendent Ike Pappas' jungle bootys from Vietnam. Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee's cheesy-looking, lime-green press pass from 1972. A souvenir-sized chunk of the Berlin Wall.
The most powerful artifact is an old-fashioned block of lead type, used to print 700 copies of "Romania" in 1988, a political tract that earned its publishers Romanian jail time.
The notion of "freedom" is hammered upon time and again, like a sales pitch. Also the import of the First Admendment on an informed electorate, which is pretty amusing, given Gannett lawyers' use of the First as an inalienable right to rub out journalistic competition.
There's a movie as well, called "What's News?" filled with memorable images, lovingly crafted into a montage, set against soaring gospel harmonies. It's like Journalism 101 recreated as a Mickey-D commercial.
The lion's share of the short film focuses on war and outer space -- the sexy stuff, image-wise. Working journalists know that the real definition of "news" is that it's simply what a reporter didn't know yesterday.
The Top Ten Stories of the Century are listed, and number three is the attack on Pearl Harbor, right here in our own backyard. OK, that was big in the US, not elsewhere. As a matter of fact, the entire exhibit is American-centric. It's like "news" stops at our borders, unless we leave to country to blow things up. (Number-One story, naturally, is the bombing of Hiroshima.)
Next to this is a locally-made exhibit, complete with punctuation problems, called "From the Archives of the Honolulu Advertiser," headed up by their version of the Pearl Harbor attack story, headlined SABOTEURS LAND HERE! in giant type. I wonder if they're retracted that one yet?
But what's this over here? A bank of famous newspaper front pages, including the Honolulu Star-Bulletin's classic WAR! Pearl-Harbor attack issue, possibly the best-known newspaper cover in history. And the caption notes that the issue was produced in only an hour or so, in the midst of the attack. And it's labled as a prime example of "public-service journalism."
Hey, cool! This exhibit is all right.
NEXT! January 2001
Black at the End of the Tunnel

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