The Other Media Crisis: Irrelevance

Writing about government ineptitude or corporate corruption can feel like shaking your fist at the cosmos.

Susan J. Douglas

(Photo by: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Why bother, anymore, railing against government ineptitude or exposing corporate corruption? These days, it feels like shaking your fist at the cosmos. 

The only spot of optimism for me is young people. The twentysomethings I know are not discouraged.

There’s been much gnashing of teeth about the crisis in journalism – shrinking news staffs, closing newspapers, the rise of unreliable blogs, etc. But there’s another crisis we should be more worried about: the structural disconnect between the press – often flattered as the fourth estate,” an essential pillar of free societies – and our political system. I mean really, what do you do when one of your two main political parties does not believe in facts?

How New York Times columnist Paul Krugman gets out of bed each morning is beyond me. Here we have a Nobel prizewinner in economics who from the moment President Obama was elected marshaled highly persuasive economic and historical evidence to emphasize over and over the importance of a bold stimulus package. The poor man was beside himself at the lack of vision and hobbling caution that informed Obama’s tepid program. Now, of course, as we slide toward a double-dip recession, he’s been proven right.

And poor Charles Blow, another Times columnist. His métier is the use of statistical information – you know, facts – to document all of the ways in which our country is headed in the wrong direction. In late August he wrote a powerful indictment of our failed public policies for children: increased child poverty rates, nearly 25 percent facing food insecurity,” moronic sex education programs, a soaring prison population. This is insane,” he noted, adding, Now is when we need government to step up and be smart.” Good luck with that one.

Then there’s Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stones crusading political correspondent, who continues to tilt at windmills as he repeatedly exposes the fraud and corruptions of Wall Street with a special emphasis on the heinous Goldman Sachs. Taibbi is fatalistic: Even though, as he reported in The People vs. Goldman Sachs,” Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) released a 650-page report in April titled Wall Street and the Financial Crisis: Anatomy of a Financial Collapse,” documenting how Goldman Sachs defrauded its clients and then misled Congress, the Justice Department has so far done nothing.

Gretchen Morgenson, Pulitzer Prize-winning financial reporter for the New York Times, co-wrote the bestselling book Reckless Endangerment: How Outside Ambition, Greed and Corruption Led to Economic Armageddon, documenting how institutions like Fannie Mae were woefully under-regulated and fudged all kinds of financial rules. Effects of this book and similar damning reporting about Wall Street corruption? None. There were more than 1,100 prosecutions of bank officials in the wake of the Savings and Loan scandal in the late 1980s; you can count prosecutions related to the recent crisis on one hand.

The Roberts court, possibly Bush’s most appalling legacy, also appears immune from scandal. For months, progressive bloggers and activists have been railing against the financial conflicts of interest of Clarence Thomas and his wife; The New York Times even featured a front-page story about the Supreme Court justice’s inappropriate influence peddling. To what end? None.

And finally, of course, columnists everywhere are begging Obama to grow a pair. The latest Pew poll shows massive disappointment in his willingness to lead. But will he and his advisers listen? Unlikely. They seem to think that somewhere out there are independent voters” who prefer a compromising wuss for a president. So when you have a president who refuses to listen to his base and a congressional majority that doesn’t seem to believe in facts, why bother?

Am I discouraged? Yes, as are many people I know. The ball is in Obama’s court. As the president that so many of us worked hard to elect, it is his job to turn our despair into activism. If folks don’t see resistance from him they are going to throw up their hands – and then, in 2012, sit on them. 

The only spot of optimism for me is young people. The twentysomethings I know are not discouraged. They regard the show being put on by Rick Perry, et al., as a surreal circus. If Obama fails to take advantage of the disgust handed to him on a silver platter by the Tea Party, he will prove to be one of the most tone-deaf politicians in recent history.

Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. She is the author of In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead.

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