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Published:April 9th, 2006 09:54 EST
Serve the invisible people,find the alternative story

Serve the invisible people,find the alternative story

By Djelloul (Del) Marbrook (Editor/Mentor)

The trouble with being a reporter is that the people you write about don’t leave much room for the people who count. The politicians, celebrities and criminals—sometimes they’re interchangeable—squeeze out the invisible people. You know, the ones who lose their jobs, get sick and can’t pay their bills, default on their mortgages, can’t pay their kids’ college tuition, buy lemons, get screwed by people in suits, that sort of invisible person. So when a developer files a plan for some huge new project, ask yourself how many trees are going to be cut down, how many people are going to be worked over by municipal governments in the pockets of big shot developers, how high are taxes going to have to climb to provide services for the big shot’s scheme. See if eminent domain is going to be misused to betray homeowners. Ask yourself about the invisible people nobody is talking about.

Then find a way to talk about them. The press is complicit in creating and feeding two sick mindsets: • Everything is a race with winners and losers. We’re obsessed by polls and focus groups. We want to know who’s ahead even when there’s no race. • Who needs to have a life when we have celebrities living life for us? Society, if it’s going to be humane and just, isn’t about winning and losing, and it’s not about Tom Cruise jumping up and down and telling us who he loves this month. It’s about millions of invisible people trying to make their way in the world as decently as possible and often being betrayed by the people they look up to. It’s about ordinary decency. Everywhere you look there are heroes, but we need to be careful how we define heroism.

Does it always involve action, or can it apply to our elderly facing ill health and poor finances with dignity? What about the Wall Street analyst who refuses to bend to his bosses’ desire to boost certain stocks? What about the cop who refuses to bury a scandal? What about parents holding down two and three jobs to send their children to college? Aren’t they heroes? What about the writers and artists who refuse to bend to the dumb-down commerciality of the day? Jargon is always an attempt to make these folks even more invisible than they already are. Bafflegab, gobbledygook and legalese are the enemies of the common man because they try to make him common when he’s not. Some pundits are puzzled by the disconnect between what seems to be the mood of the country, as suggested by the polls, and the behavior and decision-making of Congress. But why should it be puzzling when we have given the rich, famous and greedy corrupt license not to play by the rules that bind their adulators?

There are disconnects more worthy of our attention. For example, we’re concerned about the desecration of the flag or by illegal immigrants flaunting the Mexican flag, but where is the outrage when our corporations prove their lack of patriotism by moving their headquarters to Bermuda to avoid paying the taxes they’ve already paid an army of lawyers to evade? The shopworn argument for corporate tax evasion is that our corporations need to keep more of their money to invest in technology, to compete overseas in the global game. But is this where the money goes? Or does it go into the bank accounts of CEOs and shareholders?

Business stories, for the most part, are woefully underreported, and yet the global economy cries out for more incisive business coverage. Reporters must develop techniques to avoid being dependent on self-serving CEOs, analysts and investment bankers for their information, because with this information comes spin and skew. This is a major challenge for today’s young journalists. They must learn where to obtain data and interpretation to challenge the self-interest of their traditional sources. What is the moral to young journalists of this story? Could it be, Always look for the alternative story, the one all the hoopla is raised to conceal. Look for the irony, the paradox. Beware of people in public life who take up too much room. They’re trying to turn voters, fans and just plain folks into wallpaper. Keep trying to let the air out of them so that there will be room for the rest of us. This means puncturing their obfuscations, insisting that they make their activities clear to the people affected by them. There’s room for celebrity journalism. It’s a venerable trade. But in an era of painted gods it becomes something of a non sequitur. Once you start rubbing shoulders with big shots their grandiosity is going to start rubbing off on you, so you have to be on guard against it. You are a man or woman of the invisible people to whom the First Amendment gives glorious and burdensome rights. It’s your job to carry the burden.

There’s a new museum in Chicago for people who want to celebrate their First Amendment rights and to understand their responsibilities for them. The McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum opens April 11 in the Tribune newspaper’s tower on Michigan Avenue. It focuses on the right to speech, religion, press, assembly and petition. Keep this in mind: without you it’s very difficult for the invisible people, the ones pressed to the wall by the big heads, to exercise these rights, because without you, if they were curtailed, nobody would know it. And some of them are being curtailed right now. Learn how to spot it when the invisible Americans who were given these rights are jerked around. Be aware of the ways they’re jerked around: committees and boards going into executive (meaning secret) session, politicians and preachers telling us who to hate and fomenting anger, bozos telling us things are too complicated to understand, celebrities acting like jerks as if they had no responsibility to go on earning their status, corporations acting like pirates, government trying to bury us in paper and incomprehensible rules. These are some of the tools used to muffle the spirit of the invisible people, your people. Reduce huge projects to the people they will affect, to one or two people just trying to live good lives. In that way you will be able to gauge how full of it the instigators of these projects are. If somebody wants to build a golf course or 200 condos somewhere, what’s it going to do to the watershed, to taxes, to highways, to water quality?

Yes, it’s true the money bags have to draft impact statements, and the politicians are going to tell you that all the proper precautions to protect the public and the environment are being taken. Don’t believe it. It may sometimes be true, but more often it won’t be. Be skeptical without being cynical. Who will be hurt? That’s what you have to ask yourself. You are a patriot-skeptic, and whenever someone tries to convince you that your skepticism isn’t patriotic and isn’t in the public interest, ask yourself what his game is—it’s not a patriot game even when it comes wrapped in the flag.