That one stings. Every sage and philosopher in the news business will instantly know who he is, of course, and all of us will swell with righteousness. It’s the nit pickers who will have difficulty identifying themselves. You can help them; they’re the ones you see seeking reputations for toughness at televised news conferences by insulting the official at bay. Their toughest questions can be asked civilly, and ought to be.
In pursuit of villains, nit pickers often miss the hero stories. In preoccupation with the press’s vital watchdog role, they neglect its companion, the explanatory journalism that today’s complex issues require. In their zeal to send the sheriff to jail (where some sheriffs do richly deserve to be doing their public service) the nit pickers fail to illuminate such larger stories as the building up to the savings and loan debacle in the 1980s and such under-reported present stories as the waste in agricultural subsidies, the advance of the African-American middle class, the full sweep of market-driven reforms in health care that aren’t waiting for government action, and the fall–yes, fall–in the crime rate.
Which brings us back finally to the election campaign.
Judging from the mendacious din of paid-up commercial television that dominated the campaign and fed on the millions of dollars that indentured many of the candidates, the great issues before the nation were crime, welfare, immigration and illegitimacy. Well? Were they really?
A visitor from Mars might have concluded that America’s unhappiness could be blamed on mendicants, migrants, miscreants and the misbegotten.
The press reported the electorate was angry. Angry over what? The candidates’ insistence on pressing the hot buttons of scapegoating, which happened to encode an unspoken racial tinge, distracted the news media from fully exploring the deeper causes of the general anger. Americans, white collar and blue, saw an economic recovery rewarding mainly the top quarter of the society where they didn’t rank. They felt international competition pressing down on their wages. They saw technology eating away at their jobs. They watched down-sizing lift corporate earnings up while sending jobs down then chute. America’s economy and its schools were supposed to promise their children more than they’d had. They saw instead their children may be downwardly mobile. Against this insecure start to each day, Americans struggled to pay taxes to the government wrestled with the bureaucrats and paperwork of government, and resented government’s open-handedness with people they saw as freeloaders on their struggles. These angry voters searched the media for explanations of what had hold of them. In a place of finding clarity and insight, they too often blinked at a bedlam of talk show babble, witnessed shouting matches between journalists turned television hams, puzzled over shallow printed squibs and, finally, fell victim to those sleazy campaign commercials. Have I got a scapegoat for you! many candidates assured their angry constituents. Blame that fellow behind the tree!
And that’s the real danger here, isn’t it. The election itself may have had a wise result. In its deeper wisdom the electorate may have sensed it was time to shake out the leadership of a Congress the Democrats themselves had helped to gridlock, and to try a change in political philosophies, whether for better or for worse. In the fine tradition of free men and women, voters unhappy with their masters threw the rascals out. The danger lay not in the election’s destination, it lay in the route the bandwagon took. By meanness and mendacity, many anti-crime, anti-immigrant candidates channeled the electorate’s anger toward scapegoats. And when the voters looked to their sources of information for guidance, the media were too often content to dignify the candidates definition of issues.
Such a black authority as Julian Bond discerned in the 1994 elections what he called “an American discontent with some important issues, like crime and immigration, that have a. . . . .racial cast to them.” So does welfare.
Minority leaders are, and need be, speaking to remedies within.
But among whites there should be recollection that the cause of racial justice has called forth the better angels of the American nature heretofore. To change that commitment to our history would jeopardize the constitutional foundation of the republic.
Elijah Lovejoy knew the patient commitment to justice for all would not be an easy one. To banish slavery, that editor gave his life. To that end, his nation went on to decimate a generation in a calamitous civil war in the 19th century. In the 20th, Americans together survived a great economic depression, endured the trauma of global wars, absorbed vast protest movements in the streets and, in acts of historic conscience-cleansing, extended equal protection of the laws to their minority countrymen.
At every step, from Lovejoy’s martyrdom in the 1830s to Ralph McGill’s heroism at The Atlanta Constitution in the 1960s, American journalists spoke clearly and directly to the people’s needs for knowledge in their time, though the truth was often unpopular. Their healthy skepticism of power did not descend into cynicism about the promise of self-government to serve American needs. The press should be the last sap that faith. Its own freedom flows from it. The promise of democracy must remain an article of American faith.
Now on the eve of the 21st century, Americans have seen a collapse abroad of the opposing ideology whose threat had concentrated our energies and unified our aims for a generation. Suddenly the capitalist system stands safe from external challenge. We are free to identify other dangers to stand against, and invited to look within. It is not likely the 1994 election campaign accurately spotted the priority menace when it pointed to the poor, the huddled masses, the illegitimate and the unimprisoned. Surely larger visions than that beckon to us. And larger dangers threaten our freedoms if we yield to our darker tempers.