Monday, October 6, 2008

The W Kleptocracy and the Fourth Estate

It's been 30 years since Woodward and Bernstein "followed the money" and brought down one of the most corrupt and neurotic Presidents the American electorate ever sent to the White House. In some ways, those were salad years for investigative journalism. The American public distrusted the government, but they weren't nearly as suspicious of the press as they are now.

Part of the current suspicion has been richly earned, of course, and the proliferation of media ombudsmen suggests that most media organizations want to take a good look at the man in the mirror. It's true that many respected journalists - Jonathan Rosen, Maureen Dowd, Paul Krugman, David Brooks, add your own - haven't just busted down the door to the executive branch, they're now manning the velvet rope.

Also true is the fact that a staggering amount of terrible "public interest" journalism goes on these days. Skewed, sensationalistic and outright misleading articles too often make it past the writers and editors whose job it is to know better. (The media's fact standards may not have eroded, rather the public's standards and level of education have gone up.)

We, the American people, exist in a state of alienation from the popular press, a state of generalized apprehension.

Which is a shame, really, because the people who benefit (and certainly inflamed) this state of distrust are the very politicians whom the media wants to hold accountable. There's no need to analyze how the media has cannibalized itself, or where the downward spiral (vicious circle?) began. Here: two examples of how the mainstream press did the right thing, and why more people should care.

As a reporter on Capitol Hill, I attended a Congressional hearing about Dick Cheney's improper influence on scientific research. The Bush administration has attracted the serious ire of much of the scientific community for a) banning any medical research that offends its religious agenda and b) suppressing scientists who research climate change, even going so far as to fire some of them.

It will be another twenty years before the nation feels the full impact of Bush's regressiveness. But that Congressional hearing itself might never have happened had it not been for allegations raised by the Pulitzer prize-winning "Angler" series, by the Washington Post. The Angler stories got a lot of attention, and they deserved it. (Few things could have been more affirming than to realize, as a young reporter, that good reporting can and does affect government policy - this is not just an idealistic myth.)

The Chicago Tribune's equally famous "Pipeline to Peril" series revealed that State Department contractors had imported slave labor from Asia in order to complete building projects in Iraq. The Trib's reports forced the world to pay attention to the sleazy - and in fact, often outright disgusting - behavior of some US contractors, inspired to new lows by the Bush administration's moral blindness and idiotic insistence on cost-cutting.

Resulting investigations revealed that State Department officials knew about the coercive labor practices of their contractors, and merely didn't care enough to put a stop to it. More importantly, an official State report (bearing no less a signature than Condi Rice's) acknowledged that US taxpayer dollars had funded human trafficking. (Let me translate: George Bush's admistration admits that it used our hard-earned money to buy slaves - what does it say about us that we impeached Clinton for getting a blowjob?)

So either Americans have a pathological trust problem when it comes to the media or the so-called spin "pundits" are more right than they know - perhaps we are losing our values. In my eyes, it must be one or the other.

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