What does it tell us that a passionate voice like Jerry Kammer’s is no longer supported by a newspaper? In 2006, two Pulitzers were awarded for National Reporting. The New York Times won one, and the other was won by The San Diego Union-Tribune and Copley News Service, “with notable work by Marcus Stern and Jerry Kammer, for their disclosure of bribe-taking that sent former Rep. Randy Cunningham to prison in disgrace.”
This series, “Pulitzers lost, what a cost,” explores the impact of thousands of journalists losing their jobs by asking some of those who have shown themselves capable of producing work of the highest caliber - winners of the Pulitzer Prize who are no longer at a newspaper - for their reflections on what happened to them and how they view the future of journalism. Mr. Kammer’s is the fifth interview.
Previous interviews: Deborah Nelson, Andrew Schneider, Kim Komenich and Janet Reeves.
1. Name: Jerry Kammer
Last news organization: Copley News Service
2. What work did you winner Pulitzer for, when?
Our story was a Washington political scandal whose central figure was Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham. We told how he was bribed by defense contractors for whom he stuffed earmarks into appropriations bills. We also told the story of a broader network of politicians who provided earmarks while collecting big campaign cash not only from the contractors but also from the lobbyists hired to represent the contractors. It was a story of a perversion of democracy by a system twisted by the relentless need for campaign cash. The decadent excess of several of these guys added spice to the mix.
Here are the stories that were recognized with the 2006 Pulitzer for National Reporting:
3. Why did you leave your paper? When?
This is a little complicated. I took a buyout from the Copley News Service at the end of 2007, about a year before they closed the Washington bureau, where I worked. A few months later, I got a call from an editor at the Arizona Republic (where I had worked for 16 years) asking if I’d be interested in a part-time job helping to cover the election. So I worked from April through the election in November. Officially, I was employed by Gannett News Service, but nearly everything I did was for the Republic.
4. What are you doing now? Any reflections on life after newspapers?
I’m now doing research and writing for the Center for Immigration Studies, a DC think tank that advocates reduced immigration. I miss working with other reporters. I miss the buzz of digging. But I feel fortunate to be working on an issue in which I have been interested ever since I was a correspondent in Mexico for the Republic from 1986-1988. Here's where you can find my blog.
5. What do you hope to do going forward? Will you stay in journalism? How?
I’m hoping to do useful work at CIS. Our country needs an open, honest debate on immigration policy, which I have observed since I was the Arizona Republic's correspondent in Northern Mexico from 1986 to 1988. I’d like to provide good information to help inform the debate. I have two fundamental concerns about immigration trends of the past 30 years. First, we are on track to double our population in the next century, a frightening prospect but one welcomed by the employers of low-wage labor, who have formed an ad hoc coalition with some liberal groups to push for "comprehensive" reforms that will further accelerate the growth of our population. Second, the steady rise of illegal immigration of poorly educated people from desperate regions of the Third World is importing a new underclass. Many of these migrants are willing to work hard for poor pay at the bottom rungs of an economy that is losing many of its middle rungs. They are employed by businesses that grow wealthy, while pushing onto the rest of society heavy costs for health care, schools and social services. The process is widening the gap between rich and poor and threatens to bring us the social structure of Latin America. I'd like to provide information that will help inform the immigration debate. My motto for writing about immigration remains what it was when I was a reporter: Always hard-headed but never hard-hearted. Every immigrant has a story. But as Barbara Jordan said when she chaired a federal commission on immigration reform, we need an immigration policy that serves the national interest. Out thinking about immigration should be guided less by nostalgia for our grandparents and more by concern for our grandchildren.
6. What has the downsizing of your former newsroom or closing of your former paper meant to the quality of journalism in your community? For example, are there types of stories not being told? You could use your own experience to provide examples here.
The closing of Copley’s DC bureau (which at the end was the bureau of Copley’s flagship paper, the San Diego Union-Tribune) means that San Diego has no eyes to concentrate on its congressional delegation in DC. It means the paper would have missed the Cunningham scandal had it developed a few years later. But there are some fine reporters and editors who remain in San Diego after the brutal downsizing. I’m pulling for them. I’m also pulling for my old colleagues at the Arizona Republic. We had a great I-team there, back in what we Old Timers will always think of as a golden era, when we had a sense of mission and the money to carry it out. But that era started to fade well before the recession, craigslist and the Internet-writ-large began tossing neutron bombs into the newsroom. When Gannett bought the paper, they turned Arizona into a colony. As history shows, the purpose of a colony is not to provide for the well-being of the natives; it is to generate profits for the home country, which in this case was Gannett corporate headquarters. In the relentless pursuit of a greater return on investment, they siphoned off resources that had previously been spent on reporting, on making the paper the ARIZONA Republic and not just the Metro Phoenix News You Can Use If It Doesn’t Piss Off the Real Estate Industrial Complex. (Thanks for that name to Jon Talton, the tremendously talented columnist let go by Gannett because he kept on pissing off the REIC). The staff suffered layoff after layoff, and the quality of the paper declined in tandem. But I’m still pulling for the staff that remains, including some first-rate reporters and editors. They’re terribly overworked, but they’re making a great effort.
7. What, if anything, do you think your newspaper should have done differently to prevent the downsizing or closure that cost you your job?
I’ll take the question as an invitation to a utopian vision of newspapers. The best thing that could have happened would have been for newspaper ownership to have remained in the hands of local families who had a sense of noblesse oblige, who were more concerned about being members of their communities than about maximizing profit. Capitalism is a wonderful system, when the drive for profit is restrained by a sense of social obligation and rigorous regulation. Corporate ownership of newspapers has ripped the soul out of many newspapers. Look at what happened to the papers in Phoenix, Louisville, DesMoines et al after they were bought by Gannett. The Gannettoids aren’t uniquely guilty. They’re just part of the steady ascendancy of buccaneer capitalism in our country. Look at Wall Street, where the bastards went wild with the smiling benediction of Alan Greenspan, whose every non-move was directed by the Gospel of Ayn Rand. Look at our gargantuan food industry, especially the meat processing giants who have relentlessly driven down workers’ real wages while increasingly depending upon an easily exploitable workforce of illegal immigrants. Look at our Congress, where the drive for campaign cash puts our democracy up for sale to the big-money-boys who know how the game is played: Hire the right lobbyists and make the right campaign contributions and Washington is yours. We’ve got government of the lobbyist, by legislative machinations like earmarks and regulatory nips and tucks, for the campaign cash. Mr Lincoln would not approve. But he’s the man who said that “we here highly resolve…” Does anybody highly resolve anything these days—except to get re-elected or pick up that mega-huge year-end bonus?
I see I’ve turned this into a rant. I’ll wrap it up with this: I used to think my politics were moderate or slightly left-of-center. But the perversions of capitalism that I’ve seen during my career as a reporter (including several years covering Charlie Keating and the plundering of the S&Ls) have persuaded me that Karl Marx was right when he said capitalism would be destroyed by its own excesses. The excesses that continually torment our society are devastating in their cumulative, debilitating, demoralizing effect. We need to see our actions today through the lens of Americans 50 or 100 years from now, who will be dealing with the consequences of what we do today. One of journalism’s jobs is to craft that lens, to stimulate that crucial American capacity for self-criticism and self-correction. God bless the reporters and editors who take on that job. God bless the media owners who provide them the means to do it.
8. What would you advise young people wanting to pursue a life in journalism today?
I would definitely encourage a young person who likes to write and who believes that good journalism is a vital public service to enter the field. But I'm a little concerned about this intern culture that has evolved, in which young people who have both connections and talent want to start at a big paper and stay there. There are tremendous opportunities to do good work and to learn every aspect of our craft at small newspapers. I am so glad that my first newspaper job was at the Navajo Times, in Window Rock, AZ. I'd encourage young people to develop an interest in a particular issue and then develop an expertise in it. For example, it could be a great adventure to start at a small paper in Iowa and become an expert in telling stories of the evolution of agriculture because of such issues as global trade, federal subsidies, the use of ethanol. It would also be fascinating to go to the Mexican border, learn Spanish, and write about the turbulent interface between the two countries and cultures, developing an understanding of immigration along the way. Of course, such a job might not be possible for a young person who finishes college with a lot of debt strapped to his or her back. But those who don't carry that load should see the world, have adventures, take a few knocks, become a more complete reporter, citizen, human being. That will help them avoid the narrowness and self-importance of too many young products of the intern culture. Having taken that knock, I'd need to add that I've seen some first-rate people take the multiple-internship route. But my bias is for those who have a broader imagination and sense of adventure.