No Brass Check Journalists

Studs Terkel

Upton Sinclair self-published a book called The Brass Check in 1919, 13 years after The Jungle. The brass check was the coin used in whorehouses. The customer went up to see the madam and he would pay his two bucks—this was long before inflation—and receive a brass check, which he would give to the girl.

And at the end of the day the girl would cash in all her brass checks and get half a buck apiece. So Upton Sinclair took the brass check, and made it a reference to the press in those days. The journalists were pretty much brass check artists, they were like the girls in the brothel. And how much of that has changed in the past century?

Think about the coverage of George Bush, especially after 9/11, when David Broder, a solid, centrist journalist, compared Bush to Abraham Lincoln. That gives you an idea of the nonsense we have to deal with these days. We’re not talking now about the right-wing pundits, of whom nothing much need be said, we’re talking about journalists like Broder who are considered part of the “liberal media,” which is of course an obscene phrase because of the burlesque nature of it. Another horrendous example of the media and its cravenness was the lack of attention paid to Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.V.) in September 2002. Here we had a conservative Democratic senator making one of the most eloquent addresses attacking the U.S.A. PATRIOT Act and the Bush administration for endangering our civil liberties, and for violating the constitution. It was a fantastic speech. You would have thought it would make headlines. Here was the dean of the Senate speaking about dangers to our fundamental rights. And the fact that it got so little reportage says more than you want to know about the media.

The other aspect of media today is its triviality. Trivia and political thought have become one. We have a new Teflon girl, Oprah Winfrey, who had Arnold Schwarzenegger on as a guest while he was a candidate for governor. It was a kiss-kiss hour. I don’t know how many millions of women watch her program, but it seems that she would at least have his leading opponent, Cruz Bustamante, on. But no one questioned the idea of Oprah having Schwarzenegger on as a guest in the midst of a campaign without any rebuttal. This was a farce that could be designed only by W. C. Fields—a recall election and the leading candidate being a muscle-headed muscle-man actor. It seems to me that trivia and hype and style have taken over debate.

At the same time I am not going to be overwhelmingly pessimistic. There is reason for optimism.

Hope Dies Last (the name of my new book) is a phrase used by Jessie de la Cruz, who worked very closely with Cesar Chavez organizing the farm workers. She said that whenever times were bleak, they had a phrase, “la esperanza muere última—hope dies last.” Because what is the alternative? Despair. And with despair, all that is left is the head in the oven, or about 20 sleeping pills and a couple of martinis—or in my case a dozen martinis.

Hope has always been the hallmark of dissenters. We know something happened on September 11, 2001, but there is another day—February 15, 2003—what I call “almost liberation day,” when 10 million people across the world acting for peace attended protests against Bush’s preemptive strike at Iraq. That hope continues as an undercurrent in the many, many community groups. The issue could be the environment as well as peace, or civil liberties under John Ashcroft. The question is: Can it be made active?

I must make a confession here. I am a fellow alumnus of John Ashcroft; we both attended the University of Chicago Law School. I was there about 30 years before he was, but he is much older than I am. I maintain John Ashcroft is at least 300 years old, because he is simply the reincarnation of the Reverend Samuel Parris we saw in Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible. The subject was witchcraft. We were as afraid of witchcraft then as we are of terrorists today. Reverend Parris came into Salem, as the chief prosecutorial officer, like Ashcroft is now. He pointed to the young hysterical girls and said you are not with me if you challenge me, you are consorting with the devil—with evil.

Fantasy is at work here. Miller’s play is at work here. W.C. Field’s scenario is at work here. And over and above it all is this question: What’s to be done?

One of the things that keeps people from doing what they know they should do for their own good is the national Alzheimer’s disease. There is no memory of the past. There is no yesterday. There was no Depression. There was no New Deal. There is no memory that when the free market, which is our religion, fell on its fanny, the free marketeers—I call them free buccaneers—pleaded with the government, “Please help us out. Please save us.” And of course the New Deal and regulation did. Now the sons and grandsons and daughters and granddaughters of those whose asses were saved by the New Deal, by big government, are the ones who most condemn big government today. And they are getting away with it, because of the media.

The key is not simply to dissent, but to turn the country around. What’s to be done is to act. To act is to do, to do is to cast your ballot, and to do is also to ask: Who is representing what? Which leads to the Democratic primary race.

Of course my candidate, Dennis Kucinich, who I knew as the boy mayor of Cleveland, is the ideal candidate for president. But he has as much chance of being nominated as the Chicago Bears do of winning the Super Bowl. He has no money and he is not known. It comes to hype again. One out of 100 people know his name.

Name recognition is what he needs, so that the Democratic Leadership Council, a toady group that has steadily moved the party to the right, will be forced to give him time on the platform at the Democratic Party Convention; multi-millions would then be aware of his presence and his significance.

I suppose the best of the lot, if it is not Dennis Kucinich, would be Howard Dean, because he is at least challenging the Democratic Leadership Council, which is of course the albatross that is somehow still at the rudder of that sinking ship. Had the Democratic Party true leadership, Kucinich would be the candidate. And, of course, if he were nominated, he would win. In a debate with Bush there would be a knockout in the first round, there would be no competition. And this is the perfect time for that, except for the role of the media.

Fortunately, we have an alternative press. The effect of the alternative press is seemingly minor, but it has a ripple-in-the-water effect. You can tell that by reading the letters to the editor in the Chicago Tribune—my barometer of what the public is thinking. But aside from alternative journals like In These Times and Bill Moyers and humorist Jon Stewart on television, Upton Sinclair’s brass checks are alive and well today.

Now is the time to act, and, thus, become what we were born to be—thinking, active citizens of a democratic society.

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Studs Terkel is the legendary author of Hard Times, Working, Division Street, Hope Dies Last, and many other books. A long-time radio broadcaster, renowned interviewer and In These Times contributor, Terkel died in October 2008.
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