The German Experience is Alive and Well in America

We’re in for a two-year winter of meanness. The elections last week stripped away the veneer of civility that characterized the last two years as Americans waited for Barack Obama to deliver the impossible.

Some German journalists made the same kind of predictions in 1935, and the Nazis slapped them in jail for it.

The press bears a heaping measure of responsibility for the emerging nativism, know-nothingism and ugliness we’re witnessing, nurturing as it has our obsession with politics instead of government. There is a big difference between politics and government, a distinction lost in press blather. The American press does not tell us what government is about, it tells us what politicians and bureaucrats say it’s about. And that is more true in most hometowns than in Washington. Our national capital is the great scapegoat of politicians who go to Washington after screwing people at home. It’s an easy target because it’s big and impersonal. But the truth is that the federal government works a lot better than most local and state governments. And the voters have just shown that they don’t know that, and they don’t know it because we have such a diminished press, grasping for short-term profit.

The press, because it refuses to spend money on consistent forensic journalism, has chosen to stir the political pot, feeding us endless streams of boring, predictable, agenda-driven punditry and acting as if its reporters and commentators understood what is going on and just might, if we are good little children, spoon-feed us some helpful information. For a people notoriously intolerant of smart asses we have become infamously tolerant of them.

And all the while the documents that tell the real story of what happens in our town councils, our county seats, state capitals and Washington agencies remain untouched, unexamined. The yak media, telling us that President Obama has decided to support India’s candidacy for a seat on the UN Security Council, could not even bother to tell us how significant it is to support the largest democracy in the world instead of caving in to pressure from authoritarian China. Nor could the mouth meisters be bothered to explore the significance of an American president willing to tell Israel that its quest for Liebensraum is not consistent with its avowed quest for peace.

Would you rather hear George Will utter yet another mindlessly predictable bon mot or discover who profits from our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Would you rather hear Robert Reich repeat what he said a thousand times when he was a Clintonista or find out how the Navajos are faring or how much the banks are making on war debts or how the credit card pirates are planning to sting us again?

The press is as phony as a three-dollar bill. It isn’t giving us news, it’s giving us pretentious chitchat, but seasoning it with smarm, snideness, and portentousness to make it seem important-and this hot sauce has given us a bad case of national acid reflux. The press is heating up the political environment to disguise its abject failure to investigate government at every level. There is only one reason the sub-prime mortgage crisis ambushed us-the press was feeding at the troughs of the predatory lenders and developers.

In a fairer world, television and tabloid news would be required to offer the same caveats pharmaceutical advertisements must provide: this information is as likely to kill you as help you. The breathtaking chutzpah of these advertisements is equaled only by the hyprocrisy of a press that benefits from them.

The information we need to know is not in the self-seeking words of politicians or the self-promoting words of pundits but in the documents in our town and city halls, in our county seats, capitals and Washington departments and agencies. The press knows this, but will not spend the money or suffer the imagination to inform us properly. As a consequence we don’t know what is going on, but we are fed the illusion that we do. An ill-informed electorate has just sent its lookalikes to Washington where the press will dutifully report their inanities, shedding as little light as possible. But the record of Democratic and Republican skullduggery alike is there to see.

When I was a young reporter for The Providence Journal I spent days culling through the records of a cemetery fund run by a town. The town had to let me see the records, but its officials weren’t about to help me understand them. It took me months to figure out the fund was being pilfered by elected officials. When have you last seen that kind of newspapering in your hometown? Similarly, I once ran into a city solicitor who had to certify to a city council that it was safe to buy a certain parcel of land for a new school, safe because he could find no cloud on its title. He then sold title insurance to the school department.

When I asked him about this seeming anomaly he said it was standard practice, a wise precaution. I had to quiz a dozen school systems around the country to find out it wasn’t standard practice. I had to read up on Rhode Island law. I had to search hundreds of files to find out how often this had happened and how much the solicitor had profited. When did you last see that kind of journalism in your hometown? And yet without this kind of reportage the politicians will go on hornswoggling voters into thinking that all the trouble comes from Washington. Well, it doesn’t, and the politicians we have just elected know it and are hoping you won’t figure it out. They’re hoping you won’t figure out that they could have given you local and state tax relief a long time ago, but instead they chose to pin the tail on the donkey.

We don’t need the press to tell us what’s going on. It would be nice if the press did its job, but don’t hold your breath. The press is not a public service, and it has progressed since the early 1980s from being a responsible business to a swindle. The documents that spend our dollars and shape our lives are there for the looking, but we prefer the hypocrisy of the press and the politicians to the truth that is there for our inquiry. The press would have us believe that it can’t afford to do its job the way The Providence Journal and many another regional newspaper once famously did their jobs. But that’s like saying we can’t afford a democratic republic anymore, it’s just too messy and expensive. There are other business models, and they need to be explored. Premium television is one. I believe people will pay for decent journalism the way they pay for HBO.

The press told lies in the last election and dutifully parroted the lies of politicians. The media hid in a cloak of objectivity as if that relieved it of its responsibility to call a lie a lie. I am 76 years old and I cannot remember a more mendacious election campaign. The mainstream press operated as a vendor of French fried lies, accepting no moral duty to parse them, to explore them, to challenge them. It is this smarmy amorality that our citizenry must now decry. The alternative is to subscribe to Caesar’s ancient lie that the republic is a luxury we can’t afford.

If the phenomenon that some people are calling citizen journalism becomes a reality, public documents will reveal more than a year of nightly broadcasts, Sunday crock shows and demagogic rant. One volunteer forensic accountant spending time in town hall can do more good than a gaggle of elected officials. He can share his findings on the web, the same way the web is being used to peddle lies. One retired hospital administrator, one retired journalist, one retired doctor, lawyer, programmer… instead of getting mad the electorate needs to get smart. Mad won’t pay the bills, but smart can reduce taxes and keep government straight.

Del’s book, Far From Algiers:

New review of Far from Algiers:

Artists Hill, Literal Latte’s fiction first prize:

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