Alex Jones

The Pulitzer Prize-winning host of PBS's "Media Matters" eats lobster while explaining how he fled from, then embraced, the family business -- newspapers.


James Poniewozik
May 14, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Alex Jones' hands have poured molten lead. Dressed now in Levi's and an
open-collar shirt, the uniform of the amiable urban family guy, he
hardly looks like a heavy-machinery operator. But when he was 9 or
10 years old, the son of a small-town newspaper publisher,
he worked a Linotype machine, pouring off lead from melted-down
type into metal casts -- "things that you'd get arrested for now, I
think, if you had a child that age doing them."

Jones went on to become a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times media reporter, author and host of public radio's "On the Media" (1993-97) and PBS's "Media Matters." But he started his career literally making the news: keying in "slugs" when the term meant a metal bar of type and not a short phrase summarizing an article. I thought about this a little when I shook his hand at the end of our lunch, realizing that I was going home to type my account on a nicely cushioned keyboard, in an ergonomically correct chair, where I would risk, at worst, a cramp, but not, oh, let's say, a searing geyser of magma.

Advertisement:

"I got squirted," he tells me, cheerfully. "If one of the steel keys
doesn't go down flush, then there's a gap, and the molten lead squirts
through and hits the Linotype operator. It was very common."

Jones and I meet at Ocean Grill, a light, spare space with black
seashell light fixtures. It's a rare good restaurant on Manhattan's
Upper West Side -- land of a thousand brunches and nothing to eat --
which is where you probably live if you are, like Jones, a writer who moved to New York in the early '80s. "It's a lot of
families with kids now," he notes. "They're not as likely to go out
often."

Jones is promoting the fifth episode of "Media Matters," an hour-long PBS news program reporting on the media that's airing throughout May. "Media Matters" isn't only dry media reportage; the best segment of the current episode sends a team of editorial cartoonists to Cuba to spend time with government officials and average citizens. The piece captures several little-covered issues -- the work of cartoonists, the role of satire in the media, questions of foreign policy -- in one neat, entertaining package.

It's a heartbreakingly gorgeous spring day on the Upper West Side -- kids play in the cherry blossom petals by the natural history museum, a lunch-breaking construction worker brazenly smokes a spliff on Columbus Avenue, idle grown-ups from the neighborhood have aperitifs at the sidewalk tables. We sit inside.

I ask Jones how his family experience influences his view of the
profession he now covers. Jones is from the fourth generation
of a newspaper family in Greeneville, an east Tennessee mountain town
where Davy Crockett was born and where Andrew Johnson returned from
Washington. His father was the publisher; today, his brothers manage the
company, which includes small newspapers and radio stations. "It
was like another member of the family," Jones recalls. "I don't think a
dinner passed that my father didn't get a phone call from somebody who
was pissed off about something."

"How were you brought into the family business?" I ask.

Advertisement:

"I basically fled it," Jones says. He didn't write for his school papers. After he graduated from Washington & Lee, during the Vietnam War, he entered the Navy and was assigned to a stultifying office job on an aircraft carrier in the Gulf
of Tonkin. He started a small newspaper out of boredom, but didn't
take the work seriously until a major story broke right in front of him:
On a training maneuver, an Australian carrier rammed through an American
destroyer, killing 70 people. The thrill of covering the disaster,
he tells me, revived his interest in newspapering. After his tour --
and a stint of travel in Eastern Europe and Africa ("I got malaria,
dysentery, all that stuff.") -- he returned to edit one of his family's
papers.

So many journalism issues today are
business issues, I say. For instance, the current episode of "Media Matters"
covers the Chiquita scandal and Los Angeles Times publisher Mark Willes' recent decision to increase the business side's input into editorial decisions.

"A chain like Gannett might be motivated by money to settle with
Chiquita," I venture, "but a family-owned paper might never have taken
on a big business in the first place. Why's the old ownership
model any better?"

"What happened was the same thing that happened with Wal-Mart," he says. (Wal-Mart, to Jones, is "one of the worst things that ever happened to
this country, in terms of social fabric.") Family newspapers, good or
bad, were run by people who principally wanted "to have a newspaper and
speak their piece ... The idiosyncratic value systems people had were
reflected in the newspaper, and most people got into newspapers for
reasons other than simply to make money." Now, he says, when anyone sells a newspaper, it's usually to a
chain, not to another individual proprietor.

Advertisement:

He pauses and grins. "The thing I've never understood is, why would
anybody want to give it up? It's such a good life. It gives you the
ability to never be bored, to do interesting things, to have a
significant role in the community."

Jones' preference for family-owned papers jibes with his experience. Unlike a lot of reporters nowadays, he has spent the bulk
of his career with family papers. He made his name at the Ochs and
Sulzberger-owned New York Times and is finishing, with his wife, Susan E.
Tifft, a history of that family and newspaper, in the works for seven
years.

A jovial server with a razor-line of beard brings our lobster salads; two cold,
naked half-monsters on tossed greens.

Advertisement:

The real problem in media today, Jones tells me,
is depression among journalists, most of whom still
start out in the business for other than financial reasons. The White
House Correspondents dinner
-- Jones hasn't attended in years -- "is a
kind of self-hating. The thing that amazes me about it is, these are
the elite journalists, many of them, but they have no sense of dignity
about who they are or what they do."

This is because editors are becoming too business-minded, Jones explains. In the mid-1970s, the meeting of
the American Society of Newspaper Editors "was like a union meeting,
almost. The publishers were 'them' and the editors were 'us,' and we
were trying to figure out how to be editors in the face of 'them' ...
That's pretty much over." As a result, Jones tells me, "Journalists in America are extremely disheartened."

The thought makes Jones pensive. "I think journalism is a
really honorable and important job. I think journalists need to feel
that it's important. You asked me what the purpose of the show was. I
guess it's to take journalism seriously."

Advertisement:

Over decaf espressos I get in my last big-picture question: Isn't the
public -- with access to ever more media outlets and electronic
resources -- actually better informed than it was before? In theory,
yes, Jones says, but in practice, no. "Not because there's not enough
out there, because there's too much ... Television is a passive medium
and news requires more engagement." On balance, many would rather be
entertained, he says.

"The utopian flip side to that," I say, "is that if you want to, you can
flip around, you can be your own editor."

"And you can download the New York Public Library," Jones says. You
can't, so far as I know, but I see his point. You wouldn't even if you could --
it'd be too much to digest.

The Internet is one aspect of contemporary media Jones
brightens at: He imagines it could become the grass-roots news source
many local papers have stopped being and local TV never bothered to be.
He doesn't read online much -- until he and Tifft wrap up the book this
year, he's chained to the same computer he started it on in 1992 -- but
he's excited about a Times article he's just read about broadband
access. "I intend to get one of those fast deals," he says, eagerly.
"It's like being in the stacks of a library. You could spend your life
in there; it's very seductive."

Advertisement:

Another source of encouragement for Jones are his students at Duke University,
where he and his wife split a chair and he teaches twice a week. They're
"smart kids, interested in policy and journalism." Still, a media gap
occasionally surfaces in class. When the Starr Report was released, the
class watched an NBC newscast, which Tom Brokaw closed with a little
personal comment. "I asked them what they thought of that, and one of
them said, 'You know, that's exactly like what Jerry Springer does.'"
Likewise, in a discussion of Watergate, Jones says, the class went blank
when the name "Deep Throat" came up.

Recalling the class as a bit of spring air wafts
into the restaurant, Jones shakes his head over not one but two gaps in
his students' cultural knowledge.

"They didn't even think it was a pornographic movie!" he laughs.


James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

MORE FROM James Poniewozik



Fearless journalism
in your inbox every day

Sign up for our free newsletter

• • •