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Two New Essays from the Paperback Edition
"A Time for Anger"
We arrived early at New York’s Riverside Church one recent morning for a memorial service in tribute to an old friend. In the quietness of the hour I picked up a Bible from the pew and opened it randomly to the Gospel of Matthew where the story of Jesus of Nazareth unfolds chapter by chapter: The birth at Bethlehem. The baptism in the River Jordan. The temptation in the wilderness. The Sermon on the Mount. The healing of the sick and feeding of the hungry. The parables. The calling of disciples. The journey to Jerusalem. And always, embedded like pearls throughout the story, the teachings of compassion, forgiveness, and reconciliation: “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.” “Whoever slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other to him also. . . . And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two.” “If you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”
In these pages we are in the presence of one who clearly understands the power of love, mercy, and kindness—the “gentle Jesus” so familiar in art, song, and Sunday school.
But then the tale suddenly turns. Jesus’ demeanor changes; the tone and temper of the narrative shift, and the Prince of Peace becomes a disturber of the peace: Then Jesus went into the temple of God and drove out all those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the moneychangers . . . and he said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer but you have made it a den of thieves.’”
No cheek turned there. No second mile traveled. On the contrary, Jesus grows angry. He passes judgment. And he takes action.
I closed the Bible and sat quietly, turning the text over and again in my head, absorbing the image of Jesus striding through the holy precincts, excoriating strangers (who earlier in the day had been asking, “Who is this man?”), upsetting their transactions, scattering their money across the floor, bouncing them forcefully from the temple. Indignant at a profane violation of the sacred, Jesus threw the rascals out!
Anyone who happened down the aisle at that moment would have found me smiling. It was good to be reminded there is a place for anger in the world. Good to remember some things are worth getting mad about.
Here’s one: Under a headline stretching six columns across the page, the New York Times reported on March 10 that tuition in the city’s elite private schools, kindergarten as well as high school, would hit $26,000 for the coming school year. On the same page, under a two-column headline, the Times reported on a school in nearby Mount Vernon, just across the city line from the Bronx, with a student body that is 97 percent black. It is the poorest school in the town: Nine out of ten children qualify for free lunches; one out of ten lives in a homeless shelter. During black history month this past February, a sixth grader who wanted to write a report on Langston Hughes could not find a single book about Hughes in the library—nothing about the man or his poems. There is only one book in the library on Frederick Douglass. None on Rosa Parks, Josephine Baker, Leontyne Price, or other path breakers like them in the modern era. Except for a few Newbery Award books bought by the librarian with her own money, the books are largely from the 1950s and ’60s, when all the students were white. A child’s primer on work begins with a youngster learning how to be a telegraph delivery boy. All the jobs described in the book—the dry cleaner, the deliveryman, the cleaning lady—are white. There’s a 1967 book about telephones with the instruction: “When you phone you usually dial the number. But on some new phones you can push buttons.” The newest encyclopedia dates from 1991, with two volumes—“B” and “R”—missing. There is no card catalog in the library—no index cards or computer.
Something to get mad about.
Here’s something else: Caroline Payne’s face and gums are distorted because her Medicaid-financed dentures don’t fit. Her appearance has caused her to be continuously turned down for jobs. Caroline Payne is one of the people in David Shipler’s new book, The Working Poor: Invisible in America. She was born poor; although she once owned her own home and earned a two-year college degree, Caroline Payne has bounced from one poverty-wage job to another all her life, equipped with the will to move up, but lacking the resources to deal with such unexpected and overlapping problems as a mentally handicapped daughter, a broken marriage, and a sudden layoff that forced her to sell her few assets, pull up roots, and move on. “In the house of the poor . . .” Shipler writes, “the walls are thin and fragile, and troubles seep into one another.”
Something else: A few months ago the House of Representatives—now a wholly owned subsidiary of the corporate, political, and religious right—approved new tax credits for children. Not for poor children, mind you, but for families earning as much as $309,000 a year—families that already enjoy significant benefits from earlier tax cuts. The editorial page of the Washington Post called this “bad social policy, bad tax policy, and bad fiscal policy. You’d think they’d be embarrassed,” said the Post, “but they’re not.”
Nothing seems to embarrass the political class in Washington today. Not the fact that more children are growing up in poverty in America than in any other industrial nation, not the fact that millions of workers are actually making less money today in real dollars than they did twenty years ago, not the fact that working people are putting in longer and longer hours and still falling behind, not the fact that while we have the most advanced medical care in the world, nearly 44 million Americans—eight out of ten of them in working families—are uninsured and cannot get the basic care they need.
Astonishing as it seems, official Washington appears in no way embarrassed by the fact that inequality in America is greater than it’s been in fifty years—the worst inequality among all Western nations. You can’t even get them to acknowledge that we are experiencing a shift in poverty. For years we were told that those people down there at the bottom were single, jobless mothers. For years they were told they would move up the economic ladder if they would only go to school, work hard, and get married. But now poverty is showing up where we didn’t expect it—among families that include two parents, a worker, and a head of the household with more than a high school education. These are the newly poor, whom our political elites expect to climb out of poverty on a downward-moving escalator.
The Stanleys and the Neumanns come to mind. The two Milwaukee families—one black, one white—lost their breadwinners in the first wave of downsizing in 1991 as corporations began moving jobs out of the city and out of the country. In a series of documentaries over the next decade my colleagues and I chronicled their efforts to cope with the wrenching changes in their lives and find a place for themselves in the new global economy. They’re the kind of people my mother would have called “the salt of the earth.” They love their children, care about their communities, go to church every Sunday, and work hard all week.
To make ends meet after the layoffs, both mothers had to take full-time jobs. Both fathers became seriously ill. When one father had to stay in the hospital two months the family went $30,000 in debt because they didn’t have adequate health care. We were present with our camera when the bank began foreclosure on the modest home of the other family because they couldn’t meet the mortgage payments. Like millions of Americans, the Stanleys and the Neumanns were playing by the rules and still getting stiffed. By the end of the decade they were slipping further behind while running harder, and the gap between them and prosperous America was widening.
What turns their personal tragedy into a political travesty is that they are patriotic. They love America. But they no longer believe they matter to the people who run the country. When our film opens, both families are watching the inauguration of Bill Clinton on television. By the end of the decade they were paying little attention to politics; they simply didn’t think their concerns would ever be addressed by our governing class. They are not cynical—they are too religious to be cynical—but they know the system is rigged against them.
They know this, and so do we. For years now a small fraction of American households has been garnering an extreme concentration of wealth and income, while large corporations and financial institutions have obtained unprecedented power over who wins and who loses. In 1960, the gap in terms of wealth between the top 20 percent and the bottom 20 percent was 30-fold. Four decades later it is more than 75-fold. Such concentrations of wealth would be far less of an issue if the rest of society were benefiting proportionately. But that’s not the case. The pressures of inequality on middle- and working-class Americans have grown more severe despite the general prosperity (which is why we called our documentaries about the Stanleys and Neumanns Surviving the Good Times). The economist Jeffrey Madrick writes, “The strain on working people and on family life, as spouses have gone to work in dramatic numbers, has become significant. VCRs and television sets are cheap, but higher education, health care, public transportation, drugs, housing, and cars have risen faster in price than typical family incomes. Life has grown neither calm nor secure for most Americans, by any means.”
It is a marked turn of events for a country saturated by paeans to the American Dream. America was not meant to be a country where the winner takes all. Through a system of checks and balances we were going to maintain a healthy equilibrium in how power works—and for whom. As Madrick points out, because equitable access to public resources is the lifeblood of any democracy, Americans made primary schooling free to all. Because everyone deserves a second chance, debtors, especially the relatively poor, were protected by state law against their rich creditors. Charters to establish corporations were open to most if not all (white) comers, rather than held for the elite. Government encouraged Americans to own their own piece of land, and even supported squatters’ rights. Equal access, long a hope, began to become reality for millions of us. Although my parents were knocked down and almost out by the Depression and were poor all their lives, I went to good public schools. My brother made it to college on the GI bill. When I bought my first car with a borrowed loan of $450 I drove to a subsidized university on free public highways and rested in state-maintained public parks. I was one more heir of a growing public legacy that shaped America as a shared project and became the central engine of our national experience.
A profound transformation is occurring in America. It has been documented in a series of recent studies. One—by the American Political Science Association—finds that “increasing inequalities threaten the American ideal of equal citizenship and that progress toward real democracy may have stalled in this country and even reversed (“American Democracy in an Age of Rising Inequality”). A second study by two independent researchers describes how the radical political elite who have gained ascendancy over politics has inequality as its mission and has organized “a fanatical drive to dismantle the political institutions, the legal and statutory canons, and the intellectual and cultural frameworks that have shaped public responsibility from social harms arising from the excesses of private power.” From land, water, and other natural resources, to media and the broadcast and digital spectrums, to scientific discovery and medical breakthroughs, a broad range of America’s public resources is undergoing a powerful shift toward elite control, contributing substantially to those economic pressures on ordinary Americans that “deeply affect household stability, family dynamics, social mobility, political participation, and civic life.”
You could have seen it coming by following the money. As a relative few have concentrated more and more of America’s wealth in their own hands, they have gained a power to be heard in politics that is denied to most citizens. Only 12 percent of American households had incomes over $100,000 in 2000, but they made up 95 percent of the substantial donors to political campaigns and have been the big winners in Washington since.
After a long career covering Washington, the veteran reporter Elizabeth Drew concludes that “the greatest change in Washington over the past twenty-five years—in its culture, in the way it does business and the ever-burgeoning amount of business transactions that go on here—has been in the preoccupation with money.” Jeffrey Birnbaum, who covered Washington for nearly twenty years for the Wall Street Journal, writes that “[campaign cash] has flooded over the gunwales of the ship of state and threatens to sink the entire vessel. Political donations determine the course and speed of many government actions that deeply affect our daily lives.” John McCain concurs. During his brief campaign in 2000, when he was ambushed by dirty tricks from the religious right in South Carolina and a flood of cash from George W. Bush’s wealthy cronies, Senator McCain said elections are nothing less than an “influence peddling scheme in which both parties compete to stay in office by selling the country to the highest bidder.” As I write, President Bush is being sworn in for a second term under a canopy of cash—$40 to 50 million—supplied for his inauguration by the very interests waiting offstage for the payback.
And such payback it is!
When powerful interests shower Washington with millions in campaign contributions, they often get what they want. But it’s ordinary citizens and firms that pay the price and most of them never see it coming. This is what happens if you don’t contribute to their campaigns or spend generously on lobbying. You pick up a disproportionate share of America’s tax bill. You pay higher prices for a broad range of products from peanuts to prescriptions. You pay taxes that others in a similar situation have been excused from paying. You’re compelled to abide by laws while others are granted immunity from them. You must pay debts that you incur while others do not. You’re barred from writing off on your tax returns some of the money spent on necessities while others deduct the cost of their entertainment. You must run your business by one set of rules, while the government creates another set for your competitors. In contrast the fortunate few who contribute to the right politicians and hire the right lobbyists enjoy all the benefits of their special status. Make a bad business deal; the government bails them out. If they want to hire workers at below market wages, the government provides the means to do so. If they want more time to pay their debts, the government gives them an extension. If they want immunity from certain laws, the government gives it. If they want to ignore rules their competition must comply with, the government gives its approval. If they want to kill legislation that is intended for the public, it gets killed.
I’m not quoting Karl Marx or Mao Tse-tung. I’m quoting Time. From the heart of America’s media establishment comes the judgment that America now has “government for the few at the expense of the many.”
You can understand why the Stanleys and the Neumanns were turned off by politics. They and millions like them have been the losers in a class war that first disarmed them of political influence, then betrayed them in the corridors of power.
It is a class war declared a generation ago, in a powerful polemic by the wealthy right-winger, William Simon, who served as Richard Nixon’s secretary of the treasury. In A Time for Truth he declared that “funds generated by business . . . must rush by the multimillions” to conservative causes. It was a trumpet sounded for the financial and business class to take back the power and privileges they had lost as a result of the Depression and the New Deal. They got the message and were soon waging a well-orchestrated, lavishly financed movement. BusinessWeek put it bluntly: “Some people will obviously have to do with less. . . . It will be a bitter pill for many Americans to swallow the idea of doing with less so that big business can have more.” The long-range strategy was to cut workforces and their wages, scour the globe in search of cheap labor, trash the social contract and the safety net that was supposed to protect people from hardships beyond their control, deny ordinary citizens the power to sue rich corporations for malfeasance and malpractice, and eliminate the ability of government to restrain what editorialists for the Wall Street Journal admiringly call the “animal spirits of business.”
Looking backward, it all seems so clear that we wonder how we could have ignored the warning signs at the time. What has been happening to working people is not the result of Adam Smith’s invisible hand but the direct consequence of corporate activism, intellectual propaganda, religious literalism in the service of a partisan agenda, and a string of political decisions favoring the interests of wealthy elites who bought the political system right out from under us.
To create the intellectual framework for this regressive assault on the American Dream, they funded conservative think tanks that churned out study after study advocating their agenda.
To put muscle behind these ideas, they created a formidable political machine. One of the few journalists to cover the issues of class, Thomas Edsall of the Washington Post reported that “during the 1970s, business refined its ability to act as a class, submerging competitive instincts in favor of joint, cooperative action in the legislative arena.” Big business political action committees flooded the political arena with a deluge of dollars. And they built alliances with the religious right—Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition—who zealously waged a cultural holy war that became a smoke screen behind which the economic assault on the middle and working classes would continue unabated.
The results are in. In Daniel Altman’s recent book Neoconomy, he describes a place without taxes or a social safety net, where rich and poor live in different financial worlds. “It’s coming to America,” he announced. Sooner than later, if the reigning political class has its way. In the words of Warren Buffett, the savviest investor of them all: “If there was a class war, my class won.”
Look at the spoils of victory:
Two trillion dollars in tax cuts—tilted toward the wealthiest people in the country.
Cuts in taxes on the largest incomes.
Cuts in taxes on investment income.
And cuts in taxes on huge inheritances.
More than half of the benefits are going to the wealthiest one percent. According to the New York Times last year, nearly 3,400 of the tax returns of people earning $200,000 or more showed they owed no federal income taxes—an increase of nearly 45 percent over the previous year. You could call it trickle-down economics, except that the only thing that trickled down was a sea of red ink in our state and local governments, forcing them to cut services and raise taxes on people who live paycheck to paycheck.
Deficits have been part of their strategy. The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan tried to warn us, when he predicted that President Reagan’s real strategy was to force the government to cut domestic social programs by fostering federal deficits of historic dimensions. President Reagan’s own budget director, David Stockman, admitted as much. Now the leading right-wing political strategist, Grover Norquist, says the goal is to “starve the beast”—with trillions of dollars in deficits resulting from trillions of dollars in tax cuts, until the United States government is so anemic and anorexic it can be drowned in the bathtub. Recently the Government Accountability Office issued a report that Bush’s economic policies “will result in massive fiscal pressures that, if not effectively addressed, could cripple the economy, threaten our national security, and adversely affect the quality of life of Americans in the future.”
There’s no question about it: The corporate, political, and religious right is achieving a vast transformation of American life that only they fully understand because they are its advocates, its architects, and its beneficiaries. In creating the greatest economic inequality in the advanced world, they have saddled our nation, our states, and our cities and counties with structural deficits that will last until our children’s children are ready for retirement; and they are systematically stripping government of its capacity, in time, to do little more than reward the rich and wage war. Long after George W. Bush is living back in Texas, Americans will be struggling with shrunken resources to reverse the unraveling of our social contract which his radical and reckless policies deliberately hastened.
If instead of practicing journalism I was writing for Saturday Night Live, I couldn’t have invented the things that this crowd has been saying. The president’s chief economic adviser says shipping technical and professional jobs overseas is good for the economy. His Council of Economic Advisers reports that hamburger chefs in fast food restaurants can be considered manufacturing workers. His labor secretary says it doesn’t matter if job growth has stalled, because “the stock market is the ultimate arbiter.” And his Federal Reserve chairman says that the tax cuts may force cutbacks in Social Security—but that’s okay, we should make the tax cuts permanent anyway.
You just can’t make this stuff up. You have to hear it to believe it. This may be the first class war in history where the victims will die laughing.
But what they are doing to middle-class and working Americans and the poor—and to the workings of American democracy—is no laughing matter. Go online and read those transcripts of Enron traders in the energy crisis four years ago, discussing how they were manipulating the California power market and gloating over ripping off “those poor grandmothers.” Read how they talk about political contributions to politicians like “Kenny Boy” Lay’s best friend, George W. Bush. You’ll find other examples online of similar shenanigans: Citigroup, fined $70 million for abuses in loans to low-income, high-risk borrowers—the largest penalty ever imposed by the Federal Reserve. A subsidiary of the corporate computer giant NEC, fined over $20 million after pleading guilty to corruption in a federal plan to bring Internet access to poor schools and libraries. Missing millions among contractors in Iraq. Untraceable funds disappearing behind the facade of faith-based initiatives. The unmitigated plunder of the public trust has spread a spectacle of corruption across America, and for its equivalent one has to go back to the first Gilded Age, when historians tell us in The Growth of the American Republic, “Privilege controlled politics” and “the purchase of votes, the corruption of election officials, the bribing of legislatures, the lobbying of special bills, and the flagrant disregard of laws” threatened the very foundations of democracy. It was a time, as now, that the great captains of industry and finance could say, with Frederick Townsend Martin, “We are rich. We own America. We got it, God knows how, but we intend to keep it.”
I have been back to Riverside Church from time to time since that memorial service and the random encounter with Matthew’s Gospel. I have sat in that same pew and reflected on how in the past generation, as the number of poor increased, wages fell, health and housing costs exploded, and wealth and media became more and more concentrated, prophetic religion has lost its voice. The religious right has drowned out everyone else.
And they hijacked Jesus. The very Jesus who stood in his home-town and proclaimed, “The Lord has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor.” The very Jesus who told 5,000 hungry people that all—and not just the people in the box seats—would be fed. The very Jesus who challenged the religious orthodoxy of the day by feeding the hungry on the Sabbath, who offered kindness to the prostitute and hospitality to the outcast, who said the kingdom of heaven belongs to little children, who raised the status of women, and who treated even the hated tax collector like a citizen of the kingdom. The indignant Jesus who drove the money changers from the temple has been hijacked and turned from a friend of the dispossessed into a guardian of privilege, a militarist, hedonist, and lobbyist, sent prowling the halls of Congress in Gucci, seeking tax breaks and loopholes for the powerful, costly new weapon systems, and punitive public policies against people without political power.
Yet it was this very Jesus—the Jesus aroused to indignation by the profaning of the sacred—who inspired a Methodist ship-caulker named Edward Rogers to crusade across New England for an eight-hour work day; called Frances William to rise up against the sweatshop; sent Dorothy Day to march alongside auto workers in Michigan, brewery workers in New York, and marble cutters in Vermont; roused E. B. McKinney and Owen Whitfield to stand against a Mississippi oligarchy that held sharecroppers in servitude; summoned a young priest named John Ryan—ten years before the New Deal—to champion child labor laws, unemployment insurance, a minimum wage, and decent housing for the poor; and summoned Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis to march with sanitation workers in their struggle for a living wage (I owe this recollection of witnesses to an anonymous sermon circulated on the Web. I checked the facts but could not identify the source.
The struggle for a just world goes on. It is not a partisan affair. No matter if we’re liberal or conservative; God is neither. No matter if we’re Democrat or Republican; God is neither. To see whose side God is on, just go to the Bible. It is the widow and the orphan, the stranger and the poor who are blessed in the eyes of God; it is kindness and mercy that prove the power of faith and justice that measures the worth of the state. Kings are held accountable for how the poor fare under their reign; prophets speak to the gap between rich and poor as a reason for God’s judgment. Poverty and justice are religious issues, and Jesus moves among the disinherited: “‘For I was hungry and you gave me food. I was naked and you gave me clothing. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him: ‘Lord, when was it we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them: ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of those who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”
This is the Jesus who challenges the complacency of both political parties. If he found himself among Republicans, he would shame them. If he appeared among Democrats, he would shake them up. He drove the money changers from the temple of Jerusalem; we must drive them from the temples of democracy. Piety and prayer go so far. Some things are worth getting mad about.
"Journalism Under Fire"
A spirited debate broke out in 2004 midway through the political season: Just who is a journalist? It was triggered by bloggers—those Lone Rangers of cyberspace—who sought official access to the action at the Democratic National Convention in order to work alongside the reporters, producers, columnists, and crews from established media companies. The newcomers carried the day and for the first time a national political party granted credentials for bloggers to cover a convention.
No one makes a better case for bringing bloggers in from the cold than Daniel Gillmor, a national columnist for the San Jose Mercury News who also publishes a daily weblog. In his new book We the Media, Gillmor argues persuasively that with their independent, unfiltered reports “citizen journalists” are transforming news from a lecture to a conversation. He’s on to something. As I prowl the wilds of the Web I feel at times as if I were back in the early days of the republic when a feisty and free press provided the new nation with vociferous voices clamoring to be heard in the raucous debates of the time.
There were well over a thousand such independent presses by 1840. They were pugnacious, passionate, and often deeply prejudiced; some spoke for Indian haters, immigrant bashers, bigots, jingoists, and land-grabbers. But some called to the better angles of human nature, as Thomas Paine did in his pamphlet, Common Sense. Paine’s passion was to reach ordinary people—“to put into language as plain as the alphabet” the idea that they mattered and could stand up for their rights.
Like those early mavericks of the press, the Internet has enlarged the conversation of democracy. But it has not stilled the debate over who is and who is not a journalist. The very question arouses disdain from some bloggers. One recently wrote in Rupert Murdoch’s Weekly Standard: “A bunch of amateurs, no matter how smart and enthusiastic, could never outperform professional neurosurgeons because they lack the specialized training and experience for that field. But what qualifications, exactly, does it take to be a journalist? What can they do that we can’t? Nothing.”
I come down on the side of Tom Rosenstiel, founding director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, who, meditating on the dispute over the blogger media credentials, concluded that the proper question is not whether you call yourself a journalist but whether your work itself constitutes journalism. And what is that? Rosenstiel answers: “A journalist tries to get the facts right,” tries to get as close as possible to the verifiable truth—not to help one side win or lose but “to inspire public discussion.” Neutrality, he concludes, is not a core principle of journalism, “but the commitment to facts, to public consideration, and to independence from faction, is.”
Of course this alone does not make journalism a profession. As the noted editor of the Los Angeles Times, John Carroll, recently reminded us, there are “no qualification tests, no boards to censure misconduct, no universally accepted set of standards” for journalists. But there is an ethical imperative in journalism that requires a professional ethos—an imperative of which the public is aware only when we violate it. (Think Janet Cooke of the Washington Post, Jayson Blair of the New York Times, Stephen Glass of the New Republic, and Jack Kelley of USA Today, among others, whose fabrication of their stories created a public uproar and got them rightly fired.) Any newsroom that takes seriously this imperative to be fair and accurate will be “marinated in ethical conversation,” writes Ed Wasserman, a former editor who now teaches at Washington and Lee University. Our obligation “to try to understand and reconcile strong competing claims, sift patiently and fairly through untidy realities, measure the claims of affected people, and present honestly the best available approximation of the truth” makes journalism an ethical practice.
Such journalism is under fire today, constantly targeted by ideologues. The worldview of ideologues is immune to change because they inhabit a closed belief system on whose door they have hung a warning: Do not disturb. Any journalist whose reporting and analysis defy this official view of reality—and the apologists and polemicists who purvey it (say, Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and the yahoos of talk radio)—is damned to purgatory, at the least, and if ideologues really had their way, would be dispatched to Guantánamo on a one-way ticket. Limbaugh, for one, took journalists to task for their reporting on the torture at Abu Ghraib, which he attempted to dismiss as a little necessary sport for soldiers under stress, saying on air, “This is no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation. . . . you ever heard of people [who] need to blow some steam off?” The Limbaugh line became a drumbeat in the nether reaches of the right-wing echo chamber from which many millions of Americans now get their news. Such propaganda is treated with an unblinking acceptance accorded the book of Leviticus by a literalist preacher. Small wonder that in a nationwide survey conducted by the Chicago Tribune, half of the respondents said there should have been some kind of press restraint on reporting about the prison abuse and just as many “would embrace government controls of some kind on free speech, especially if it is found unpatriotic.”
With the most ideological administration in our history now exercising a monopoly of power in Washington—backed by an ideological partisan press that has no scruples, standards, or shame—we are witnessing a rapid mutation of America’s political culture into the secret rule of government. The American Society of Newspaper Editors lays it all out in a recent report on the “zeal of secrecy pulsating through government at every level,” shutting off the flow of information from all sources and resulting in “the single greatest rollback of the Freedom of Information Act in its history.”
The litany of examples is long and lamentable. The president arbitrarily and unilaterally postpones the release of thousands of declassified documents. His chief of staff orders a review that leads to the removal of thousands of documents from government Web sites. For the first time in history the vice president is given the power to decide what is classified or not. The Defense Department bans photos of military caskets being returned to the United States. To hide the influence of Kenneth Lay, the corporate power of Enron, and the identity of other energy moguls, Vice President Cheney stonewalls his energy task force records with the help of his duck-hunting pal on the Supreme Court. New controls are being imposed on space surveillance data once found on NASA’s Web site. The FCC restricts public access to reports of telecommunications disruptions. A provision in the Homeland Security Act makes it possible for a company to tell the department of Homeland Security about an eroding chemical tank on the bank of a river but prohibits the department from disclosing this information publicly or, for that matter, even reporting it to the Environmental Protection Agency. (And if there were a spill and people hurt or injured, the information given DHS could not be used in court!)
Secrecy is contagious. The ASNE report finds that curtains are falling at the state and local levels. In the tiny southern Alabama town of Notasulga, for example, officials decided citizens could see public records only one hour a month. And in nearby Florida the state legislature has adopted 14 new exemptions to its Sunshine and Public Records Laws. Over the objections of law enforcement officials, the legislators also passed a new law prohibiting police from making lists of gun owners and set a fine of $5 million for violating it.
Secrecy is contagious and scandalous. Nearly six hundred times in recent years, according to the Washington Post, a judicial committee acting in private has stripped information from reports intended to alert the public to conflicts of interest involving federal judges.
Secrecy promotes paranoia. The CIA has added a new question to its standard employee polygraph exam, “Do you have friends in the media?”
And secrecy violates basic rights. There have been more than 1,200 presumably terrorist-related arrests and at least 750 people deported, but it is impossible to ascertain their names or to find out how many court docket entries have been erased or never entered.
This “zeal for secrecy” adds up to a victory for the terrorists. When they hijacked those planes on 9/11, they were out to hijack our Gross National Psychology, too. By filling our collective psyche with fear, they would turn the imagination of each one of us into a private Afghanistan—as if we had been possessed by the Taliban itself—depriving us of the trust and confidence required for a free society to work. They would prevent us from ever again believing in a safe, decent, or just world and from working to bring it about. By pillaging and plundering our peace of mind they would panic us into abandoning those unique freedoms—freedom of speech, freedom of press—that constitute the ability of government to self-correct and turn the ship of state before it hits the iceberg.
The thought of the terrorists as enablers of democracy’s self-immolation struck me during the Republican National Convention in New York last year. My office is on the west side of Manhattan, two blocks from Madison Square Garden. From my desk I could see snipers on the roof. Helicopters overhead. Barricades at every street corner. Lines of police stretching down the avenues. Unmarked vans. Flatbed trucks. Looking out his own window, the writer Nick Turse saw what I saw and more. Special Forces brandishing automatic rifles. Rolls of orange plastic netting. Dragnets. Preemptive arrests of peaceful protesters. Cages for detainees. And he caught sight of what he calls “the ultimate blending of corporatism and the police state—the Fuji blimp—now emblazoned with a second logo: NYPD.” A spy in the sky, outfitted “with the latest in video-surveillance equipment, loaned free of charge to the police all week long.” Nick Turse sees in these things “The Rise of the Homeland Security State.”
Will we be cowed by it? Will we investigate and expose its excesses? Will we ask hard questions of the people who run it? The answers are not clear and the precedents are disturbing. In 2003 we witnessed the seduction of much of mainstream media into helping the government dupe the public to support a war to disarm a dictator who had already been disarmed. How easily that same press seems to have bought into the paradigm of a “war on terror” that our government employs to elicit public acquiescence in its policies while offering no criterion of success or failure, no knowledge of the cost, and no measure of democratic accountability. George Bush and Richard Cheney have America scared to death, and while we pull the covers over our heads, they are shredding the social contract and opening the treasury to plunder by their crony capitalists.
When Robert Musil asked in his diaries, “Who among us does not spend the greater part of his life in the shadow of an event that has not yet taken place?” he was referring to death, but it is possible that the fear of terror—of events that have not yet taken place—can produce a different kind of death, a death of the soul of liberty. We can be fearful or we can be free, but we cannot be both. Fearful people put themselves at the mercy of priests and princes and accept their conceits and usurpations as the health of the state or the means of salvation. Free people, on the other hand, have what John Adams called “an indisputable, unalienable . . . divine right to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge—of the character and conduct of their rulers.” For this right to be exercised requires a press that does not drop to its knees to take dictation from the powers that be. Yet the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, in another recent study, concluded that the public’s ability to exercise oversight of government operations is being eviscerated—to virtual silence.
Washington and Lee’s Ed Wasserman has looked closely at the growing conglomeration of media and its impact on journalism. “You would think that having a mightier media,” he writes, “would strengthen their ability to assert their independence, to chart their own course, to behave in an adversarial way toward the state.” Instead, “they fold in a stiff breeze.” Media owners have businesses to run, and “these media-owning corporations have enormous interests of their own that impinge on an ever-widening swath of public policy”—hugely important things, ranging from campaign finance reform (guess who ends up with those millions of dollars spent on advertising!) to broadcast deregulation, antitrust policy, and virtually everything related to the Internet, intellectual property, globalization, and free trade, not to mention minimum wage, affirmative action, and environmental policy. As a result, “the news business finds itself at war with journalism.” While acknowledging that some world-class journalism can still be found in America, Wasserman writes of “a palpable sense of decline, of rot, of a loss of spine, determination, gutlessness” that pervades the field today. His diagnosis is echoed by the former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon, whose reporting on urban life has inspired books and network series such as Homicide and The Wired. In a recent edition of the libertarian magazine Reason, Simons admits to increasing cynicism “about the ability of daily journalism to effect any kind of meaningful change.” He concludes, “One of the sad things about contemporary journalism is that it actually matters very little.”
But Francisco Ortiz Franco thought journalism mattered. A crusading reporter, he founded a weekly magazine in Tijuana with the motto, “Free like the Wind.” He was relentless in exposing the incestuous connections between wealthy elites in Baja, California, corrupt law enforcement agencies, and violent drug cartels. Several months ago Francisco Ortiz Franco died sitting at the wheel of his car outside a local clinic—shot four times while his two children, aged eight and ten, looked on from the back-seat. As Marc Cooper reported in the LA Weekly, the blood was still being hosed off the pavement when more than one hundred of his fellow Mexican reporters and editors marched quietly through the streets, holding their pens defiantly in the air. They believed journalism matters.
Manik Saha thought journalism mattered. A correspondent with the daily New Age in Bangladesh, as well as a contributor to the BBC’s Bengali-language service, Saha was known for his bold reporting on criminal gangs, drug traffickers, and Maoist insurgents. Increasing death threats couldn’t dim his ardor. It took a bomb thrown into his rickshaw to silence him. Manik Saha died because journalism matters.
José Carlos Araujo thought journalism mattered. The host of a call-in talk show in northeastern Brazil regularly denounced death squads and local figures involved with crime. On April 24, 2004, at 7:30 in the morning, as he was leaving his home, José Carlos Araujo was ambushed and shot to death—because journalism matters.
Aiyathurai Nadesan thought journalism mattered, too. A newspaper reporter in Sri Lanka, he had been harassed and threatened for criticizing the government security forces. When interrogators specifically warned him to stop writing about the army, he ignored them, and on the morning of May 31, near a Hindu temple, Aiyathurai Nadesan was shot to death—because journalism matters.
Cuba’s fledgling independent press has been decimated by the arrest and long-term imprisonment of twenty-nine journalists who are being held in solitary confinement, subjected to psychological torture, and forced to live on rotten and foul-smelling food. Because Fidel Castro knows journalism matters.
So do the Russian oligarchs. The editor in chief of the only independent newspaper in the industrial city of Togliatti was shot to death after reporting on local corruption; his successor was stabbed to death eighteen months later. Over the last five years a dozen journalists have been murdered in Russia and none of their killers has been brought to justice. While Vladimir Putin stifles the embryonic shoots of democracy, seeking to impose once again the iron rule of the Kremlin’s fist on the country, his minions stalk and harass the press—because journalism matters.
I could go on. The files of the Committee to Protect Journalists offer case after case, story after story, of journalists whose work cost them their lives. It is not recorded that they ever gathered with their peers in some local bar or at an academic symposium to debate who is a journalist. Nor is it recorded that they worried over whether they belonged to a profession. What is certain is that under fire they never flinched, because what they were doing mattered more to them than life itself.
It’s enough to keep the rest of us humble and on the job.