School children don’t like history. Why should they? It’s a topic that has been so thoroughly and successfully derided from my parents’ generation, when it was dismissed as “the study of dead people,” to mine as “the study of dead white people.” Now, my students refer to it as “the study of dead white males.” So this generations-long resistance toward understanding how our democracy came to be and how it continues to function carries forth into our most fundamental civic role, as voters turn their backs to reason or plunge their heads into the sand.
It is during our election season that any residue of understanding about the historic roots of how we came to be who we are—and why it matters today—gets quashed further in the babble of AM talk radio and dumbed down by political ads and the rarity of critical assessment of their distortions. With the Internet so pervasive in our communication, we find ourselves in the throes of deciphering damage done by disinformation so effortlessly spread on it.
Certainly, disinformation is nothing new, especially involving political campaigns, but it is nonetheless a great relief to be given a restored sense of hope in the form of “Moyers on Democracy,” a wonderful collection of talks veteran journalist Bill Moyers has given in recent years in which he lays out when, where and how we, as Americans, have gone off track. Not surprisingly, the quality of our democracy and the quality of our journalism are deeply entwined. As Moyers told the National Conference for Media Reform in May 2005, as he addressed the Bush administration’s attempts to curtail PBS (including the pressure to cancel his PBS show), “We’re seeing unfold a contemporary example of the age-old ambition of power and ideology to squelch and punish journalists.”
Wall Street is forcing media companies—especially newspapers—to retrench. In the past three years, 85 percent of large dailies and 52 percent of smaller ones have cut staff size, according to a comprehensive survey of editors done by the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ). Where financial markets see fat to be trimmed, editors see loss of the capacity to pursue complex stories that take days, weeks or months to uncover. Too often, the decision—based on expedience and expenditure—to publish what is popular or entertaining trumps what is necessary.
It is in these many pivotal moments of decision making that power goes unchecked. And as Moyers aptly warns, power unchecked threatens democracy.
“There are fewer pages, shorter stories, and notably fewer editors checking copy for errors. Most topics, not just foreign and national news, are getting less space and resources and are considered less important than three years ago. Stand-alone business sections are disappearing. And just five percent of editors surveyed say they are very confident in their ability to envision how their newsroom will operate in five years,” according to PEJ’s report, released in mid-July.
This is hardly the first dire reading of the state of newspaper journalism. It surely won’t be the last. In Moyers’ vision, conveyed to those attending the National Conference for Media Reform in January 2007, the press is losing ground to a “thoroughly networked ‘noise machine,’ to use David Brock’s term, creating a public discourse that has changed how American values are perceived.” He went on to observe that the “egalitarian language of our Declaration of Independence is shredded by sloganeers who speak of the ‘death tax,’ the ‘ownership society,’ the ‘culture of life,’ ‘compassionate conservatism,’ ‘weak on terrorism,’ the ‘end of history,’ the ‘clash of civilizations,’ and ‘no child left behind.’”
By now, campaigns by sound bite (and with attendant demagoguery) are accepted as the norm by young voters. Those old enough to know (and expect) something different have all but retreated to the comfort of misinformation as they’ve become dulled by lack of perspective. A press corps weakened by attrition and under greater pressure to bolster corporate profits than to puncture governmental misdeeds and corporate greed can’t possibly keep stride.
The danger in all of this, Moyers argues, is evidenced in anthropologist Jared Diamond’s book, “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.” Moyers contends that “If elites insulate themselves from the consequences of their decisions,” as Diamond’s book shows has happened before, it’s a “blueprint for failure.” If defense spending is crucial—and it is—then why does a wealthy country like ours smile proudly while folks organize bake sales to support U.S. troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan? Or families buy flak jackets to send to loved ones posted in that region? Where is the public’s outrage when U.S. soldiers are being electrocuted in their barracks showers because of faulty work being done by well-paid private American contractors? Why do so many veterans lack the kind of medical care their wounds—physical and psychological—require to return them to good health and productive lives?
“They’re counting on patriotism to distract you from their plunder,” Moyers said in an October 2001 speech on the impact of money on politics. “They’re counting on you to stand at attention with your hand over your heart, pledging allegiance to the flag, while they pick your pocket!”
On the economic front, Moyers speaks to concentration of wealth—and the gains being made by wealthier people in our nation. Citing Norton Garfinkle, writing in “The American Dream vs. the Gospel of Wealth,” Moyers noted in his 2007 speech to the National Conference for Media Reform that in the past quarter century, the top one percent of households captured more than 50 percent of all gains in financial wealth. He goes on to cite economist Jeffrey Madrick in reminding us that “equitable access to public resources is the lifeblood of democracy.”
It is true, as Moyers points out, that in politics there are no victimless crimes. “The cost of corruption is passed on to you. When the government of the United States falls under the thumb of the powerful and privileged, regular folks get squashed.” Yet the American press is losing ground in its responsibility to keep its watchful eye focused on the process of democracy. And when some do try to check these distortions, they get bullied into silence by charges that they are unpatriotic and un-American.
The landscape is bleak, Moyers acknowledges, but not hopeless. “Organized people have always had to take on organized money,” he said in a February 2006 lecture series called “Money and Politics.” “If they had not, blacks would still be slaves, women wouldn’t have the vote, workers couldn’t organize, and children would still be working in mines. Our democracy is more inclusive than in the days of the founders because time and again, the people have organized themselves to insist that America become a ‘more perfect union.’”
His book is a worthy call to take that fight once again to Washington. There, sensational stories still emerge about scandal and corruption, but only a relative few surface anymore about problems that “ooze,” a term favored by former newspaper editor Gene Roberts, whose investigative reach was legendary. Today, it’s all about “breaking” news, but it’s really all of what oozes undetected that threatens the health of our democracy. It is these stories-in-waiting that seem ever more difficult to report at a time when those who own the news organizations have cut staff and slashed resources.
If the greatest sedition we can commit would be, as Moyers says, to remain silent, then it seems the contemporary economic stranglehold on the press is choking us into that quiet sedition.
Gerald B. Jordan, a 1982 Nieman Fellow, is an associate professor of journalism in the Walter J. Lemke Department of Journalism at the University of Arkansas.