Layoff Silences an Important Voice

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

Philip Brasher, one of the last Washington-based reporters focused entirely on agriculture and food policy, has lost his job at the Des Moines Register. Brasher, along with 12 other Register reporters, fell prey to a mandate by parent company Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper chain, that it’s 80-some properties lay off 700 workers (link is behind a paywall.) This is the fourth round of layoffs at Gannett in three years. Decimating the ranks of those who inform the public has become epidemic in the newspaper industry. Invariably, the reason given is declining advertising income because of the rise of Internet news sites.

But Gannett makes that excuse hard to believe. Des Moines TV station WHO reports that

In March, Gannett disclosed that CEO Craig Dubow was paid $4.9 million in 2010, double his 2009 pay. He also received a cash bonus of $1.75 million for implementing cost-cutting measures, including company-wide layoffs in 2010.

Why should you care that the only DC-based reporter covering the US Department of Agriculture is silenced? In an e-mail to Paula Crossfield at CivilEats.com, Brasher wrote

This is a critical time for food and agricultural policy because of the deep budget cuts that are coming and the choices that Congress is going to have make… about what money there is available. It’s vital that the public understands the impact of those policy choices and the tradeoffs they involve.

Brasher and Crossfield are not the only ones upset at Gannett’s abandoning on-site agriculture reporting. I asked Jerry Hagstrom, editor of the agriculture/rural-focused Hagstrom Report (content is for subscribers, behind a paywall), what he thought of the layoff decision. Hagstrom was in Rome to cover the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization conference, walking to dinner. With the bustle of Roman traffic in the background, Hagstrom called the firing

A tragedy for Iowans and for agriculture journalism. It eliminates one of the few remaining publications that are covering agriculture on a regular basis. There’s no substitute for an on-site Washington reporter.

There’s more to this story than one man’s career, or even the loss of a valuable source of food and agriculture policy information to Iowans and those elsewhere who read Brasher’s reporting in USA Today, another Gannett newspaper.  It’s also about how a government can tighten the screws so that the public goes ignorant about matters of pressing importance to life and health.

If I had ambitions to be a tyrant, and I had the power to make things happen, here’s what I’d do. I’d make the people in my country crazy with fear — fear of terrorists would be a good place to start. I’d spend every cent I could get my hands on, to the point of borrowing everywhere I could get a loan, to pay for as many wars as I could engage in without sparking outright rebellion at home. I’d make the people crazy with fear of such enormous debt so they would let me cut spending on everything they value — education from preschool through university, road repairs, public transportation, financial support for the poor and the old, police and fire protection, health care for those who need it most. I’d make money so tight you could hear it squeak, so that people could barely buy necessities. I’d destroy the reputations of news outlets.  If someone hadn’t beaten me to it, I’d call them “the lamestream media.”

As a byproduct of all this money fear, people would lose their jobs, or fear losing them. People would lose their homes, or fear losing them. They’d be so busy surviving that they couldn’t pay attention to the decisions their government was making against their best interests. They’d be so fearful, they wouldn’t say Boo if they knew their government was harming them.

On top of fear, I’d build a layer of ignorance — in the sense of the word that means not knowing what was going on. Then I, or the people who followed me in ruling the country, could do what they pleased without hindrance.

Gannett’s firing 700 people in one stroke is part of the ignorance-building. Tightening the money supply by capitalizing on people’s fear is part of Gannett’s perceived need to cut expenses by firing 700 people. So, too, is today’s culture of raw greed among the top 1 percent who own most of the nation’s treasure. Gannett’s $1.75 bonus to Craig Dubow for cutting costs by ruining people’s lives is part of today’s culture of raw greed.

Firing Philip Brasher is a piece of it, too. Work is underway on the 2012 Farm Bill.  People, especially in the mid-West, will find it harder to know what measures are under consideration, even harder to let their legislators know what they think about those measures.

If anybody wanted to destroy our democratic republic, they couldn’t be doing a better job.

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One Response to “Layoff Silences an Important Voice”

  1. Unfortunately many of our news editors sacrificed their integrity a long time ago in the major news media. Lots of people are now starting to abandon mainstream media. Alternative online media sources have become more popular than ever for getting a less biased – if often also un-professional, picture of the news. I think people now care more about honesty than credentials. Gannett is just playing the same game all the other big conglomerates are playing.   Frankly, I would be surprised to see anything else. And yes – I agree, the folks at the top like Craig Debow have been bought. The times have changed and we are all on shifting sand. It’s a good time to make some choices you can live with – or die for.

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