Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.
Virtually ignored amid boosterish reports of the $13 billion in pledges and grants for Iraq secured by the US at the Madrid conference were the consequences for other impoverished regions. Development officials say that the sums cited by the World Bank and the US as necessary to meet Iraq's needs over four or five years (between $33 and 55 billion) dwarf what other poor, war-torn countries have received in the modern history of aid projects. It could also mean that what aid there is for these countries would effectively dry up.
As economist Jeffrey Sachs recently pointed out, it's crucial that the world development agenda be set by the world, not by the US alone. The Bush Administration obsessively views "every problem through the lens of terror and accordingly considers itself excused from the struggle against poverty, environmental degradation and disease."
As Sachs rightly argues, "The irony is that without solutions to these problems, terrorism is bound to worsen, no matter how many soldiers are thrown at it." More alarming, Sachs continues, "at the same time, the US is starving international initiatives in disease control, development assistance and environmental improvement."
If Iraq, according to World Bank and IMF estimates, needs $55 billion over the next four years for reconstruction, "what do the poorest countries need to keep their people alive and get a foot on to the ladder of economic development?" Sachs asks. "The US champions Iraq's needs while suppressing an honest evaluation of the needs of…dozens of other countries that are in desperate straits."
While making the war on terror the master narrative of its international agenda, the US has allowed other global problems to fester. But it's a crucial moment to make the case that the war on terrorism is only one of many wars and that the battles against AIDS, infant mortality, TB and Malaria and environmental degradation demand as much of the world's attention.
From the valuable listserv, " Democracy Dispatches," a project of Demos--the New York City-based Public Policy and Advocacy organization, which tracks and analyzes democracy issues in the states, comes news of a novel way to boost voter turnout.
The " Voter Reward" initiative in Arizona is designed to motivate people to vote by entering those who have cast ballots into a random drawing with a $1 million jackpot. (Before implementing the program, it would be necessary to change the Arizona law, which currently makes it illegal to pay people to get them to vote.)
Mark Osterloh, who helped pass the Arizona Clean Elections statute, is also the mastermind behind this idea. "Opponents will say we are bribing people to vote," he says. "We are not. What we are doing is rewarding behavior we want to encourage. The 'Voter Reward' program is not bribery; it is capitalism at its best." What's next? A recording contract and chance to sing on TV in return for pulling the lever?
What with Bush and his cronies on the road to raking in an unprecedented $200 million this campaign season, I admit it's hard to focus on small ticket outrages. But it's still worth looking at what's going on in South Carolina, where the state Democratic Party is considering allowing corporations to sponsor its next presidential primary.
It turns out that South Carolina is one of only two states that require the state parties to pay for the primaries, rather than picking up the tab itself. And, according to Democratic chief Joe Erwin, raising the estimated $500,000 in a soft economy has been tough. So, Erwin--a Greenville advertising executive--got the idea of soliciting corporate sponsorships, which he describes as a creative takeoff on the way ballparks sell ads on scoreboards or colleges name buildings after companies.
So, corporations could sponsor get-out-the-vote ads or signs outside polling places. According to the Charlotte Observer, the party originally considered allowing corporate sponsors to put their names on the ballot, but Erwin ruled that out. "It just didn't pass the common-sense test," he said.
Paul Sanford, counsel for the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics, said selling space on election materials is probably legal, though he's troubled by the possibility. "I don't really think it's a good thing to commercialize the voting process." As David Donnelly of Campaign Money Watch, adds: "Imagine if South Carolina had the ballot initiative process and there was a health care question before voters, and HMOs and pharmaceutical companies contributed big money to pay for the election, and then they sponsored get-out-the vote campaigns or ran ads at polling places?"
Democracy belongs to all of us. But, with so many public services being privatized--from education and sanitation pick-ups to incarceration and mass transportation, are privatized elections next? Without real reform, it's not hard to imagine that in the not-too-distant future we'll walk into our polling places to find ballots "Brought to you by Wal-Mart".
Can America Afford The Price Of Democracy?
Here's another under-reported story about money and politics. It turns out that the budget crisis has led some states to decide democracy is too expensive to maintain. Citing budget pressures, three states have cancelled their 2004 presidential primaries.
In Colorado, Governor Bill Owens (R) cancelled the primary on March 5th, saving the state $2.2 million. The Republican-controlled Utah legislature followed suit, cancelling the 2004 primary--a measure supported by their Republican Governor. And in Kansas, Democratic Governor Kathleen Sebelius cancelled her state's 2004 primary, saving approximately $1.75 million next year. But critics have pointed out that partisan politics also contributed to these measures because cancellations prevent the field of Democratic candidates from getting much public attention.
As Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano (D) said in vetoing Republican-sponsored legislation to cancel the primary in her state, "Arizona can well afford the price of democracy."
Now, Bush has vowed to sign into law legislation passed yesterday by the Senate that would ban so-called "partial-birth" abortions. As NARAL President Kate Michelman said, "The Senate took its final step toward substituting politicians' judgement for that of a woman, her family, and her doctor...No one should be fooled as to the real intentions of this Bill's sponsors; they want to take away entirely the right to personal privacy and a woman's right to choose."
With Bush in the White House, women's right to choose is in greater danger now than it has been at any time since the Supreme Court issued the Roe V. Wade decision thirty years ago. It is truly, as Senator Barbara Boxer said after passage of the ban, a "very sad day for the women of America." This latest assault on women's reproductive rights is part of a larger war--waged by the Republican Party with Bush as its general.
Click here for a top-ten list of Bush Assaults on Women and Families. And thanks to the many readers who have sent me their own contributions to this list, which I'll be publishing in the coming weeks. (Click here to share your thoughts with me. I'll keep a running tally of Bush assaults as we head into 2004.)
What with the Bush White House leaking like a sieve these days, it wasn't difficult to obtain a copy of George W.'s secret birthday message to the venerable historian and former Kennedy aide Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
Sources say that it was delivered by former Kennedy speech-writer and master toastmaker Ted Sorensen at Schlesinger's 85th birthday party at New York's Century Club on October 15th. The small group of revelers included actress Lauren Bacall, Jean Kennedy Smith, former NY Cultural Commissioner Schuyler Chapin and author Philip Howard.
October 15, 2003
From: The Oval Office, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, DC
For: Mr. Arthur Schlesinger, c/o The Century Club
Dear Dr. Schlesinger,
Warmest felicitatitudes from the all-White House.
Sorry this is late, but I could not find your address. It must be out there somewhere with Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, his weapons of mass destruction and the White House leaker--I'm certain they're all out there somewhere.
Karl Rove tells me that you and I have a lot in common.
--That each of us is named for a famous father; although, to tell you the truth (that's a phrase I picked up here in the White House) I don't know your father's name.
--Next, he says each of us served in the White House without ever being elected President.
--I hear you served every president's administration for the last half century, but, unlike Clinton, you were unable to perform between the Bushs'.
--Also, you have written six books, exactly the same number that I have...read.
--When I was a kid, I loved your book on the half-man/half-horse, "The Vital Centaur."
--I also tried to read your book on Kennedy. I got halfway through, about 500 days--and my lips got tired.
But I am most interested in your periodic poll of historians on our greatest presidents. I have no doubts that my administration will go down in history...
Sincerely,George W. Bush
*Sources also tell us that Sorensen is not only a brilliant speechwriter but a masterful writer of birthday toasts.
Pandering of the highest sort was on display last Friday, as President Bush announced that his Administration will "target" Americans who visit Cuba in violation of US laws. In addition to making it much more difficult to visit the country, Bush has instructed the Department of Homeland Security to step up its inspections of travelers and shipments between Cuba and the US. (This is at a time when the department can't even effectively handle security at US ports.)
Bush's policy has nothing to do with our security, or with democratic reforms in Cuba or with common sense. It is designed to win Cuban-American votes and money in the key electoral states of Florida and New Jersey; it is another piece in the "Bashcroft" assault on Americans' civil liberties. It also reveals the power that a handful of unrepresentative reactionary oligarchs in Miami have to restrict the movements of other American citizens.
As Cuba expert Peter Kornbluh told me, "I see this latest Administration act as a sign of its weakness on Cuba, its inability to do much substantive to mollify the hardline crowd in Miami which has been screaming about the fact that intercepted refugees are being repatriated and the Administration is not encouraging hijackers from Cuba, indeed is sending them back...This Administration doesn't want another Mariel boatlift, so it can't ease up on the illegal migration issue. It has little latitude to say it is toughening its stance except to cut back on travel. For domestic political reasons, of course, the White House is curtailing the one thing the US can do to help Cuba evolve--people-to-people contact."
The travel ban is just the latest example of how the decades-old embargo is a failed, hypocritical, inconsistent and self-defeating policy--demeaning to the American people, damaging to the rule of law, harmful to the interests of the Cuban polity, and beneath the dignity of a great country. Who really believes--even those like myself who protested the recent political arrests in Cuba and are concerned about the fate of dissent there--that restricting US citizens from traveling freely to Cuba (when they are free to travel to such nations as North Korea and Iran--both "axis of evil" countries) will produce democratic change in that country? What happened to encouraging the free flow of people, ideas and commerce?
If there is any good news it is that a bipartisan majority in the House understands that America needs to change course. In September, the House of Representatives countered the Administration's crackdown by passing an amendment to end the travel ban to Cuba. It also passed a less sweeping amendment that would restore permits for educational and cultural visits. (Bush has vowed a veto.)
"For more than forty years now, our Cuba policy has had the same effect as beating our head against a wall," says Representative Jeff Flake (Republican-AZ). "By tightening enforcement of the travel ban, we will essentially just be beating it harder. At some point," Flake says, "we need to concede that our current approach has failed and try something new."
Earlier this month, another voice of sanity spoke out against the US's counterproductive embargo. Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, architect of policies that dramatically changed his country, and a man who knows something about reforming Communist systems, called for the US to restore exchanges and contacts with Cuba.
In an October 4 Washington Post op-ed, Gorbachev drew a parallel between the Berlin Wall and the wall of the economic embargo imposed by the US on Cuba forty-three years ago. "I urge President Bush to tear down the wall of the embargo now, in order to lay the foundation for a new relationship with Cuba." That act, Gorbachev wrote, "would complete the unfinished business of the Cold War in the Western Hemisphere."
It will be a cold day in hell before this Administration changes course but it's a good issue for one of the Democratic candidates to take off and run with. Many Cuban Americans who traditionally backed punitive measures against Cuba are increasingly calling for dialogue between the two nations. The rightwing Miami Cubans who wag the dog of Florida's twenty-five electoral votes have less power, as polls show that most Cuban Americans (particularly younger ones) would like to take the first steps to heal the wounds of the past forty-three years by an increase in contact between the two nations. (And, the way this Administration's deficit is bleeding social security, Cuba may not be the big issue in Florida in 2004.)
There's also increasing bipartisan (as well as corporate) support for ending travel and commercial restrictions. Calling for a lifting of the embargo would be both politically savvy and the right thing to do.
So far, however, only Dennis Kucinich has come straight out and said he's for an immediate lifting. Dean was against the embargo, but now says it's the wrong time to lift it because we'll look like we're rewarding Castro; Lieberman is firmly pro-embargo; Edwards and Gephardt are against dropping it now; Kerry is in favor of opening up travel but not lifting the embargo; And the Clark campaign says that he needs more time to study the issue. (Neither Sharpton nor Mosely-Braun's campaigns provided information on this issue.)
Every day brings more evidence that this http://www.thenation.com/directory/view.mhtml?t=000706 "> Administration and its rightwing cronies want to unmake everything good about this country, from Head Start to habeas corpus.
Their aim, as our national affairs correspondent William Greider has argued, seems to be to destroy New Deal programs like Social Security and Medicare, unravel our already frayed social safety net and roll back the hard-earned rights and liberties of the 20th century.
Don't believe me? These goals are clearly laid out in the 2002 Republican Party platform of George W's home state of Texas, which calls for abolishing the income tax, wiping out the social security system, repealing the minimum wage, rescinding US membership in the United Nations, and cancelling the War Powers Act. (Click here for full text of this document.)
Remember that this is the platform of the party which was instrumental in electing Bush to the Governorship of Texas. And don't let people tell you it's only a piece of paper. Texas GOP leaders take this document seriously. The Party's Executive Committee has been directed "to strongly consider candidates' support of the platform" when granting financial or other support. And all candidates "for a public or party office" must "read and initial each page of the platform" and sign a statement affirming he/she has read the entire platform."
Particularly troubling, as Ralph Nader pointed out in a letter to Bush on August 2, is the fact that key elements of the document contradict existing federal law, which the President of the United States is sworn to uphold. The media has been virtually silent on this potential political conflict of interest. But don't American citizens have a right to know whether Bush endorses his own state party's extremist stands?
While tales of Arnold's physical harassment of women should keep him out of the Governor's seat, George Bush's assaults against women nationwide--and around the world--should ensure that he is ousted from the White House in 2004.
Since he arrived in DC, he has been waging a not-so-quiet war against women and families. Several of his most extreme actions--for example, the global gag rule--have received some media scrutiny. But how many people know about these other assaults?
With all due credit to Emily's List, here's a top-ten list of Bush Assaults on Women and Families. (If you have your own list, click here to share it with me. I'll keep a running tally of Bush assaults as we head into 2004.)
10. Bush chose Nancy Pfotenhauer, president and CEO of the conservative Independent Women's Forum, to serve on the National Advisory Committee on Violence Against Women. (The IWF is a rightwing group actively opposed to the Violence Against Women Act.)
9. Bush appointed Diana Furchgott-Roth as director of the Federal Housing Finance Board. Furchgott-Roth, a former fellow at the far-right American Enterprise Institute, co-authored a book denying the existence of a wage gap and glass ceiling, and arguing that women are no longer affected by discrimination in the workplace.
8. The Republican-backed Personal Responsibility, Work and Family Promotion Act of 2003 increased from thirty to forty the number of hours that welfare recipients are required to work--while also providing $200 million annually to promote marriage and $50 million to promote abstinence.
7. Bush tried to eliminate contraceptive coverage from federal employees' health plans. (Democrats fought back and won.)
6. Bush in intent on nominating judges who are staunch opponents of abortion rights. His most recent nominee to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, Claude A. Allen, has gone so far as to claim that abortion is causing genocide of the black population. Allen has also been a vocal supporter of abstinence-only education programs and the Bush Administration's decision to remove information about condoms and teen pregnancy prevention from the Center for Disease Control's website.
5. Bush appointed Wade Horn as assistant secretary for family support in the US Health and Human Services Department. As President of the National Fatherhood Institute, Horn said that low-income kids whose parents aren't married should be last in line for Head Start and other benefits.
4. Bush policy prohibits military women stationed overseas from receiving safe medical abortions at military hospitals, even if they pay for the procedure with personal funds.
3. Bush slammed the door shut on the White House Office for Women's Initiatives and Outreach, which worked with women's advocacy groups on public policy and political issues. His 2004 budget eliminated funding for the Women's Educational Equity Act to promote equity for girls and women in education.
2. Bush nominated Dr. David Hager to chair the Food and Drug Administration's Reproductive Health Drugs Advisory Committee. (Hager has written about Christ's ability to heal women's illnesses and reportedly refused to prescribe contraceptives to unmarried women.) The good news? Hager did not become chair. The bad news? He became a member of the committee.
1. Under the pretense of helping working families, particularly working mothers, the Bush Administration proposed the so-called Family Time Flexibility Act to abolish federally mandated overtime pay for workers, allowing employers to offer comp time instead. The Democrats prevented this bill from coming to the floor but there's talk that Republican legislators may try to bring it back in different form.
Don't let George W. hide behind his image as the protector of a country that is, in fact, becoming increasingly less secure--not to mention less fair, less compassionate and less just--under his shrinking stewardship.
General Wesley Clark's candidacy is still a work in progress. In his debut debate on September 25th, the Man from NATO said he needed more time to hammer out policies on healthcare, trade and social security. But what if he had been asked about his favorite song? (When journalist Farai Chideya posed that seemingly trivial question in the previous debate, the replies turned out to be far more interesting than expected.)
Would Clark have had a clear and resolute answer? Maybe. After all, he quotes Bob Dylan's Blowin' In the Wind toward the end of his memoir, Waging Modern War, and writes affectionately about the protest music (Peter, Paul and Mary, Trini Lopez and Dylan) that he used to love to listen to as a young man. Of course, Clark could play it safe and select a traditional military fave: Garryowen (the song of the seventh cavalry and the most famous fighting song in the US Army), or the Theme from Superman or Off We Go Into The Wild Blue Wonder.
But, it's much better to answer from the heart than to have your expert advisers focus group the question to death before coming up with the politically correct answer. So I hope the general will stick with Dylan, although he may want to opt for Don't Think Twice, It's All Right over Desolation Row, Sitting On A Barbed Wire Fence or You Ain't Goin' Nowhere.
The Dalai Lama recently ended a twenty-day trip to the United States that at times resembled a rock tour more than the series of scientific, spiritual and political meetings which took up much of the Tibetan leader's time in this country.
And whether he was talking to scientists at M.I.T. studying the impact of meditation on human happiness, delivering a sermon on nonviolence and compassion to tens of thousands in New York City's Central Park or conducting an all-day series of discussions about the "ethical revolution and the world crisis," with politicians, activists and media figures at Manhattan's Town Hall, the Dalai Lama drew tremendous (and mostly reverential) attention wherever he went.
The Town Hall event, held on a torrential Tuesday, was organized by Tibet House and its founder Robert Thurman and featured a four-part series of conversations on environmentalism, the media, the politics of war and the ethics of business. The invitees might be best be described as eclectic: Presidential candidates Al Sharpton, and Dennis Kucinich, Co-founder of Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream Ben Cohen, environmentalists Randall Hayes, David Crow and Paul Hawken, Nobel Peace Prize nominee Helen Caldicott, hip hop mogul and entrepreneur Russell Simmons and socially responsible investor Amy Domini. I joined Democracy Now's Amy Goodman and actress Susan Sarandon on the media panel.
Sarandon kept the leader of Tibetan Buddism laughing loudly with jokes about the Compassion Diet and what a bundle the Dalai Lama could make if he played his cards right. More seriously, she addressed the fear instilled in people by this Administration and the failure of the press--though she kindly noted a few exceptions, touching my knee and looking at Amy--to investigate and expose the deceit we confront everyday.
Goodman spoke in compelling terms about different September 11 anniversaries around the world--from Chile to Guatemala--and vividly stressed the contrast between what was happening in Town Hall that morning and what was going on across town.(Bush was addressing the UN.) She also made an impassioned case for the importance of independent media through the story of the Pacifica Radio Network and the role it has played these last decades, in allowing voices of dissent to speak against the grain--for example, the great Paul Robeson, who was given a voice on Pacifica when he was shut out of the mass media of his time. (Through his interpreter, the Dalai Lama asked, what years were those?)
Through this, the Dalai Lama sat cross-legged on a striped silk armchair, wrapped cocoon-like in a saffron monk's robe listening carefully. The Dalai Lama is a very good listener. He also seemed very human, yet spiritual; political, yet apolitical; humorous, yet full of a sadness that comes from being the leader of an occupied country; but also joyful, with a mischievous laugh. And, after each set of remarks, he'd respond, sometimes briefly and directly to the point; other times at length in digressive, yet pointed messages.
He confessed that he was a fan of BBC World News ("I trust it more than CNN."); that while he is a resolute opponent of violence he felt the use of force by an elected government is preferable to its use by stateless organizations, and that he has aspirations of drawing together a Nonviolence Swat Team comprised of Nobel laureates who could be mobilized quickly to be dispatched to the world's hot spots.
He responded to Goodman's comments about the US government's brutal interventions abroad by noting how good it is that we Americans have the freedom to criticize our own government. (And he joked that even if anyone was to be arrested for this meeting, at least he'd be on a plane the next morning!)
In the short time I had to offer remarks to the Tibetan spiritual leader, I tried to make sense of the theme of media and ethics while also addressing the Dalai Lama's call for compassion and nonviolence.
Following is an abbreviated version of my remarks:
I want to be honest. I edit a weekly political magazine and these are times when our politics fill me with what you call afflictive emotion--anger, outrage about injustice and deceit. I confess that I believe intelligent anger, focused on serious problems, anger which provokes indignation and action by people, has a role to play in our world. Please forgive me. I also believe that while we live in this world, another world is possible--a more compassionate one--a world in which it would be easier for people to behave decently-and that the media has a role to play in building that world.
This morning, I come here with more questions than answers. And I hope with a humility that our government has abandoned in its engagement with the world, with its own citizens and with the media.
My central question: How do those of us in the media revitalize the civic powers that are so important to an ethical society? How does a citizen, a journalist living at a time when his or her government lies and deceives its own people search out the truth? How does a journalist feel anger at the daily outrages we witness--and still act as an effective, humane watchdog? To not only expose but also propose our vision of a society that is both plausible and visionary? To be critical-minded but not relentlessly oppositional? To say something about the democracy we are for, not just why today it is gravely imperiled? To create a media that does not make citizens passive, fearful spectators but rather informed and compassionate ones?
At The Nation, we refuse to concede that idealism is irrelevant, and like the abolitionists who founded the magazine in 1865, we believe there is no force so potent in politics as a moral issue. We take seriously the power of ideas, of conviction, of conscience, of fighting for causes lost and found. And we're not alone.
We also value our independence. And as the line between news and entertainment has forever been blurred, at a time when conformism and conglomeratization have led to the marginalization, even the suppression of rebellious, questioning, honest voices, that independence seems ever more important. And while it may not be revolution, we believe that it's a small, beginning step to come forth, as we do, with independent perspectives, constructive ideas and radical rethinking of the assumptions underlying conventional thinking and our media.
Sadly, most of our media-especially in these last few years-has lacked the courage to question authority, to raise tough questions, to perform the basic duties required of a free press in a democracy. It has been too easily intimidated by an Administration that has used fear to make its case for war, to label its critics traitors, to silence dissent, to pervert the meaning of patriotism and compassion, and to push for legislation that would invade our privacy and destroy our dignity.
But as in life and history, I believe there are always alternatives. So I'd like to propose an alterative framework. Media can also mean the "surrounding environment in which something functions and thrives." Scientists, for example, use the term to refer to substances they use to nurture a particular organism. Media in a petri dish might be used to grow penicillin. Or anthrax. I choose those two germs because our media is in some ways just as neutral a transmission belt: it can carry news that enlightens as easily as it carries news that poisons minds. If we understand our media of mass communication as helping to create the environment in which mass society functions, then the question for our time, as it has been ever since the invention of mass communication, is what kind of information is to be disseminated, by whom, and for what purpose?
In the forward to Bruce Shapiro's new book about investigative journalism Shaking the Foundations, New York columnist Pete Hamill describes the reporter as a member of a tribe who is sent to the back of a cave to find out what's there. "The report must be accurate," Hamill writes. "If there's a rabbit hiding in the darkness, it cannot be transformed into a dragon. Bad reporting, after all, could deprive people of warmth and shelter aned survival on an arctic night. But if there is, in fact, a dragon lurking in the dark, it can't be described as a rabbit. The survival of the tribe could depend on that person with the torch."
We Americans are very lucky to have a rich tradition of torch-bearers poking around the dark corners of the caves of the powerful. Men and women who are determined to speak documented truth to power, and who have a fierce belief in the ability of readers, of citizens, to effect change. I'm thinking of Jacob Riis, who told us how the other half lives in his meticulous documenting of the poverty of New York City slums in the 1890s. Of muckrakers like Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell and Upton Sinclair, who rooted out political corruption, corporate greed, and dangerous working conditions, sparking vital movements for reform. Of Ralph Nader, who was first published in The Nation, and who in 1959 wrote an expose for us called The Safe Car You Can't Buy that helped set off the modern consumer movement. Of Michael Harrington's book The Other America, which galvanized a federal commitment to end poverty.
There are many more torchbearers I should mention: Rachel Carson for her pioneering work on the environment; I.F. Stone for revealing that the Tonkin Gulf incident was a lie; Seymour Hersh and Ron Ridenour for unearthing the massacre at My Lai; Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for uncovering Watergate. Allan Nairn for showing the connections between the CIA and Latin American death squads. And the list goes on.
I am glad to see your holiness that in your book you endorse investigative journalism, saying it is appropriate to have journalists, "their noses as long as an elephants trunk, snooping around and exposing wrongdoing where they find it."
Citizens cannot make wise choices--in their lives, at work, in politics--without full information about their leaders, their policies, and the truth or falsehood of their statements. Wrongs cannot be corrected without first being exposed. The powerful will naturally be tempted to exploit their power to its fullest if they do not fear that someone is watching them.
And In order to perform these functions, our media must be free--independent not only of government interference, but also of the more subtle pressures imposed on the one hand by would-be moralists who think they know what is best for the public to read and see, and on the other hand by base considerations of private profit which are causing many news outlets to turn away from hard news and towards what we call infotainment.
As we have been documenting in The Nation's pages for some time, while the quantity of media outlets and formats has grown, the number of owners keeps shrinking. Today, a handful of multinationals rule the media cosmos. A media system that enlightens us, that tells us what we need to know, would be a system dedicated to the public interest. Such a system would not be controlled by a cartel of giant corporations which places unlimited power in the hands of limited minds.
But, as I said before, there are always alternatives. And I refuse to believe this is the media world we are stuck with--not only because I try to be a realistic idealist, but also because I see extraordinary changes which breed hope. The tradition of independent investigative reporting is not dead, and you can find vibrant examples of it in both the alternative media--on Amy Goodman's Democracy Now!--as well as in some corporate outlets. For example, it was careful investigative reporting by two journalists at the Chicago Tribune in 1999 that revealed the systemic problems with the state's capital punishment procedures and ultimately led to the commutation of the sentences of all death-row inmates in Illinois.
At the same time, the new technologies of the Internet and digital video have fostered a new generation of independent journalism that is being created directly by the participants in political movements and campaigns. Instead of being subjects of the mass media, millions of people are talking back to the official journalists in ways that are slowly changing and broadening the definition of news.
And something remarkable is taking place. Perhaps the most promising sign of positive change is the emergence of a real media democracy movement, a democratic revolution against media concentration. After years where government agencies basically were able to do whatever the private media giants wanted them to do, this year the sleeping giant--millions of people---awoke to reclaim the airwaves---telling Congress loud and clear that it did not want to live in informational company towns where one company might own all the media. The backlash hit the FCC like a tidal wave, and so far, for once it seems that the forces of democracy and diversity are winning.
Can the Internet, with its culture of free-wheeling grassroots debate, and the media democracy movement, with its goal of breaking up the giant media monopolies, somehow supplant the top-down, profit-oriented, power-following media conglomerates? I don't know, but I believe it is our best hope. Media that is made by people who are responsive to the real interests of their audience, as opposed to the interests of their owners or their advertisers, is far more likely to be media that brings about a peaceful world, nurtures civic society, looks for solutions to problems, doesn't see the world in black and white but more in terms of its complex interdependence, and holds the powerful to account for their actions.
If there is to be an ethical revival in the media, it won't be because we've somehow changed the human nature of the people who work in the media, it will be because we've changed the structures that they have to work in, so they can be their own better selves.
In the end, as Pete Hamill writes, "the full story will come out--it always does--because someone is heading into the cave with a torch."