May 8th, 2007 08:19 EST
Lost Story Disease: Why Do Important Stories Get Lost?
(Transcript of Hot Copy #24, Del Marbrook`s weekly podcast)
Lost Story Disease is ravaging the planet. Its toll will be much greater than the Spanish Flu`s. While there are no cures for such diseases as cancer, there is a cure for Lost Story Disease. It`s called better reporting.
Here are some of the direst lost stories:
The Dow Industrials Average. Every day the television networks report the Dow average as if they were taking the blood pressure of a cardiac patient. If it`s up, the economy is purportedly good, if it`s down, the economy is iffy. If it`s up, some (empty-headed) anchor exclaims, That`s what we want to hear! Who`s we? And just what does the Dow tell us? It doesn`t tell us the rich are getting richer, the poor poorer. It doesn`t tell us the small investor has no way to hold Wall Street wheelers and dealers accountable. It doesn`t tell us anything about insider trading. It doesn`t tell us how hedge funds are run for the super rich. It`s like the best-seller list: there`s a lot less there than meets the eye.
Iraq. Were Americans ever told that a beautiful green-eyed redhead named Gertrude Bell created Iraq and loaded the dice in favor of the Sunni Arabs because she thought Shia Islam detestable? Would it have made any difference if Americans had been told about Gertrude Bell and her role in that squalid piece of nation-making?
With dozens of correspondents in Iraq did we really have to wait for an inspector general`s report to learn that billions of dollars in tax money have been wasted in Iraq on shoddy construction, design and engineering? Was it so hard for correspondents to learn that generators and turbines were defective, that hospital plumbing wasn`t working, that medical waste was being improperly disposed? Were the correspondents too busy listening to the official bullshitters inside the Green Zone to give us an inkling of these scandals?
Housing. Day after day we`re told housing is booming, housing is slipping, banks loans are easy, bank loans are defaulting. But what we`re not told is that an economy based on buying and selling each other houses with Chinese money may not be good for the country. We`re not told that hell-bent development is not in all cases good for us. Watersheds are threatened. Farms vanish, and produce from contaminated foreign sources sickens us. The housing story is complex and multifaceted, but what we get is a one-sided pro-development story, as if the economy depends on a never-ending home construction boom when in fact the economy needs to be considerably more diversified. Why? The developers buy a lot of advertising and they throw around a lot of money, some of which ends up in political pockets.
The press. The press isn`t telling one of the most important stories of our time because it would have to tell it on itself. Piratical media giants have stripped newspapers of their ability to cover the news in order to squeeze more money out of them for investors. The great newspapers are dying. The blogosphere is growing, but unless you read the blogs you`d hardly know it. And that isn`t the half of it. The consequences of such a debilitated press to our political health are profound, but don`t look to the media moguls to tell you so.
The Merchant Marine. We hardly have one any more. Why? Same old story. Corporate greed. Putting their ships under foreign flag enables owners to circumvent safety laws. But in times of war, or the kind of long-lasting terrorist threat we now live under, having virtually no merchant marine of our own leaves us naked to the whims of foreign nations. The U.S. Navy exists, in part, to protect ships that no longer fly our flag. Flying foreign flags means that foreign countries, which may or may not happen to be on good terms with us at any given moment in history, have something to say about their operation. Can this be good for us? No, of course not. But it`s good for corporations who don`t want to pay Americans decent wages or protect their lives. The result is our ships are crewed by poorly paid foreigners under flags of convenience, as they`re called. How often is this important story reported? As well, say, as Alex Baldwin`s latest conflict with Kim Basinger?
The predator class. We live in a predator state. But do we know it? And if we don`t, whose fault is it? Since the Gilded Age we have celebrated the exploits of robber barons. For screwing and sometimes even killing ordinary workers they have museums, streets and parks named after them. Now we elect their latter day incarnations to high office. We pretend they have our best interests in mind. And all the while a predator class of people who exist to hound and ruin us has been created. Just sit in a bankruptcy court, if you have any doubt about this. The banks pay people big bucks to figure out how to work us over for fee after fee. ATM fees, transfer fees, cancellation fees, bad check fees, good check fees, you name it and their hands are in our pockets. Then there are the collection agencies, the credit rating agencies, the mortgage boilerplate writers, the lying insurance adjusters, the crooked appraisers, the whole Dickensian money-grubbing, pilfering lot of them. But the press would have you believe that when such injustices arise they`re reported, and so sporadic instances of rapine behavior are reported. But the plain fact that Americans are everywhere being cheated and abused by these predators goes unreported. If the average American spent two days of his or her life in a bankruptcy court there might well be blood in the streets. And don`t think for a moment the press doesn`t know this.
Eminent domain. In the 1960s urban renewal became a buzz term for getting poor minority members out of the way so members of the predator class could make bundles of money building high-end homes and malls. The concept of eminent domain was often used (misused) to achieve this end. What typically happened is that business interests bribed elected and appointed officials one way or another to seize private property by a legal process called eminent domain, leaving the owners no choice but to sell for whatever price the government set. Sometimes the prices were fair, sometimes they were criminal. But they were never generous. Sometimes a bribe was actual money, sometimes the promise of money, or the promise of a job, or maybe putting in a good word at a good college for some official`s kid. Eminent domain was meant to be a last resort employed only when it was abundantly clear that taking property by such draconian means was in the public`s interest. That`s not easy to determine.
Back in the 60s public housing was often raised on waterfronts because they were deemed shabby and undesirable. Now, since James Rouse demonstrated that the key to a city`s revival often depends on a lively, festive waterfront, eminent domain is being used to reclaim those waterfronts. There are always the usual contentions that the community will do even better by its poor, but everyone knows the poor are once again being shoveled off the playing field by the predators. Does anybody want to make the case that this story is well covered?
The volunteer army. This much-vaunted concept is now being called into question by such politicians as New York Rep. Charles B. Rangel who says politicians would be less inclined to send our young people to war if they thought their own children might have to go. So Mr. Rangell proposes we return the draft. There has been a great outcry from the generals and the politicians against his proposal, even though our military is clearly stretched too thin. But do we know how many sons and daughters of the rich and powerful are serving in our military? I don`t know if there is a quantitative way to answer this question. But I know it`s a question that the press ought to be asking. We can certainly tell how many college graduates are serving. We can tell how many years of education our serving sons and daughters have had. We can certainly publish reports about whether the children of hawkish politicians are serving. Is this story impossible to write? I don`t think so. I think there is no serious will to cover it.
Immigration. Here we go again. He said, she said. The church said. The politicians said. But what has the impact of cheap illegal immigrant labor been on our legal labor force. How have illegal immigrants been used to bust unions, to deprive the middle class of its dream of security and education? Do we know? No. What we know is what the blabbermouths on both sides of the issue say. But we don`t know the actual facts any more than we knew until last week that the reconstruction of Iraq has turned into a monstrous and corrupt failure while the politicians back home have been hailing its success. Where has the press been in all this? Is this story too hard to cover? Impossible? I don`t think so. I think it`s a tough story, even an expensive story to cover, and therein may be the reason it isn`t covered. If the newspapers could replace their reporters and editors with illiterate illegals they surely would. As it is, asking them to cover this story fully and properly would be asking them to say dicey things about some of their biggest advertisers. You get the picture, right?
The civil service. Every night we hear the Washington press corps telling us what`s going on. Well, here`s some news for you. They`re telling what they`re being told is going on. The United States has the best civil service in the world. It actually works. It`s hardworking. It`s competent. It`s generally honest. But year after year politicians get themselves elected by telling us how bad our civil service is, how corrupt, wasteful, lazy, overpaid, over privileged, overstaffed, blah, blah, blah. For the most part, it`s baloney. Without the civil service the country would grind to a screeching halt. Services and information we depend on would dry up. The politicians know this. They`re lying to you when they claim otherwise. Yes, there is waste, corruption and incompetence, but it is every day vastly outweighed by effectiveness, integrity and devotion to country. But the civil service is an easy, a cheap target, and that`s why politicians from Jimmy Carter to George Bush have waged a deceitful war on what should be a source of great national pride. They need somebody helpless to run against and a civil servant is an easier target than your average dishonest banker or CEO. Civil servants at the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency could have kept us out of the disastrous Iraq war if the politicians had respected and listened to them. The nation would better understand its health and its destiny if the politicians would refrain from corrupting the statistical evidence so competently gathered and organized by various agencies. But where is this story in its grand and portentous outlines? As we celebrate Al Gore`s reinvention of himself as a prophet of global warming why hasn`t the press reported that in an earlier incarnation as vice president he demoralized the entire civil service while claiming to reinvent it? Why hasn`t the press reported that President Bush`s ill-advised and disastrous campaign to privatize government originated on Al Gore`s watch? Is this another one of those too hard-to-cover stories? The very data White House appointees try to corrupt and distort is the data the press corps serves up every night.
The sad truth is that the press doesn`t tell the country how the country works, how its economy works, how the system works, because the press is part of the system. Can this be good for us? Isn`t this as important a story as Don Imus`s cruel mouth and his fall at the hands of hypocrites?
Politicization of government. For a long time now the bureaus, agencies and departments of government in Washington and in the federal regions have been politicized by the party in power. This process, so reminiscent of the Nazis and Soviets, has accelerated to an unprecedented degree in recent years, and the consequences remain unexplored in the public arena. Many people have seen the memorable German film Das Boot. It`s about a U-boat crew whose operations are spied on by a Nazi Party politico who has been given rank as a member of the crew. The consequences are awful. Think of this film whenever you hear about our government being infiltrated by "layered in" politicos. The trouble is you won`t hear much about it from the press. These apparatchiks come to the agencies as political appointees, but over time the system is finagled to give them civil service credentials. The practice is compromising the integrity of the government, which is supposed to serve the public, not the political party in power and its agenda. These hidden stooges distort data, rewrite findings to suit their party bosses, and intimidate honest civil servants. Have you thought about this much? If your answer is no, it`s probably because the press hasn`t bothered to tell you much about it. It`s so much easier, you see, and cheaper, to just get some blatherer to feed us a sound byte or two. This isn`t journalism, it`s a con, a con perpetrated by media bosses who have no intention of living up to their special obligations to the republic under the First Amendment of the Constitution. Remember Das Boot, and remember that our government is being salted with similar apparatchiks while the press plays blahty-blah-blah.
Forensic accountancy. Piratical capitalism threatens our society as much as terrorism. It lies at the heart of the destruction of the middle class, the immigration debate, the health care disgrace, the corrosive power of the insurance and oil lobbies, and many other ills which we are only beginning to seriously examine. But all the Fourth Estate does about this issue is to synopsize events and deliver the usual he said-she said reports that pass for legitimate journalism. What is really needed is a high degree of forensic accountancy. The power of business lobbies is so great that we can`t count on the government to expose and prosecute corporate corruption. Occasionally it happens, but more often it doesn`t. The corporations are not only not paying their fair share of taxes, they are corrupting a society that has too long patted itself on the back for its compassion. There is a serious question as to how patriotic the behavior of our corporations is, and yet when the issue of patriotism is raised by politicians it is usually to bully dissenters. The loyalty of the big corporations belongs to shareholders rather than the society that has made their successes possible. There is no way to curb this trend, to fashion for ourselves a caring kind of capitalism, without forensic accountancy. But who will be the accountants? How will they derive their authority? Who will pay them? These are questions the press isn`t raising, and we all suffer the consequences. The public needs to know what makes this country and its foreign policy tick. Only forensic accounts and economists are able to explain this, and yet this is just the kind of journalism we`re not getting.
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